USMNT opens post-Qatar era with a short camp but a lot to accomplish

The U.S. national team is now assembled in Southern California ahead of its upcoming friendlies against Serbia and Colombia. The game is being played in the backdrop of uncertainty of the team’s future as the federation is conducting a review of the previous cycle under Gregg Berhalter  and the law firm of Alston & Bird is investigating the Reyna-Berhalter controversy that has dominated headlines since the start of 2023.

Until those two separate matters are concluded, the national team remains in a state of uncertainty over who will be in charge. For now, assistant coach Anthony Hudson (photo) is running the January camp and the upcoming friendlies.

On Wednesday, the program released the roster for the games, and it had a bit of everything: experienced players who were part of the recent World Cup team, Olympic and U-20 World Cup hopefuls, players who were on the fringe last cycle but who came up short of the World Cup, and players who are complete newcomers to the team.

There is no single clearcut vision for this roster, but rather the roster is trying to accomplish a lot. Here are some thoughts.

World Cup vets will set the tone

While it might seem unnecessary to bring in several of the players who were recently on the World Cup team, bringing in these players (along with experienced veteran players such as Paul Arriola and Eryk Williamson who were on the Gold Cup team) is important. First, these players provide useful measuring sticks when evaluating new players. Second, they also help to convey to the newcomers the culture and the comradery that were so important in the last cycle.

An entirely experimental roster is unhelpful to evaluate new players because there are too many variables and too many guys who are trying to adjust to the team during the camp. If a player struggles on an entirely new roster, it might just be because everything and everyone around him was also struggling because of the new environment. Having some consistent presence on the team removes some of the variables.

The 13 uncapped players include Julian Gressel, 29, who was born and raised in Germany and recently became a U.S. citizen. Gressel played at Providence College, was the 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year with Atlanta United, and currently plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

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January friendlies:
Wednesday, Jan. 25. USMNT vs Serbia 10 pm ET HBO Max/Universo/Peacock
Saturday, Jan 28. USMNT vs. Colombia 7:30 pm ET TNT/Telemundo/Peacock

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Center mid & left back heavy

“As we were putting this roster together, the focus has been around identifying positions within our team that would benefit from more depth,” Hudson said in a Q&A on U.S. Soccer’s website.

Clearly there was a goal with trying to provide more depth in certain positions. Hudson is aiming to give a look at left back and central midfield. It makes sense, too. The U.S. national team has struggled to find a suitable backup left back behind Antonee Robinson. George Bello and Sam Vines were given extended looks last cycle but neither convinced. In the end, Berhalter settled for right backs Sergino Dest or Joe Scally to be the backup left back in Qatar.

On this roster, Hudson will look at three left backs who play that position with their clubs. DeJuan Jones, who is right footed but plays on the left for the New England Revolution. He brings a similar style to the position as Robinson with speed and strength. There is also John Tolkin, who is the front-runner to be the U.S. Olympic team left back after impressing the last two seasons for the New York Red Bulls, where he is a starter. Then there is Jonathan Gomez, who is more in the mix for the U-20 team since he has not been playing first-team minutes. Gomez along with Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley make up a talented left back tandem for the U-20 team but could be long-term left back options.

Central midfield is also being looked at for depth at this camp. There’s a well-established trio — in front of defensive midfielder Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah. But Musah and McKennie never had established backups. While players like Luca de la Torre and even Djordje Mihaiolvic are still in the mix, Hudson (and whoever will be the coach this cycle) needs more depth.

On this roster, Kellyn Acosta (photo) and U-23 eligible Aidan Morris are the defensive midfielders while U-20 standout Paxten Aaronson is a No. 10 (midfield playmaker), winger, “false No. 9” hybrid (withdrawn center forward). But there are three “No. 8” (box-to-box midfielder) players who will get the chance to audition for that No. 8 backup role behind Musah and McKennie.

Alan Sonora, 24, is a free agent but impressed the last two seasons at Independiente in Argentina. This is his first call-up to U.S. Soccer at any level. Paxton Pomykol, 23, was once one of the top American youth prospects before fighting his way through a bunch of injuries. In 2022, he saw his career get back on track for FC Dallas where he played at a high level. Also, Williamson, 25, impressed at the 2021 Gold Cup before suffering a torn ACL. Toward the summer of 2022, he returned to his prior level but it was too late to make a case for Qatar.

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USMNT Roster:
Goalkeepers (3): Roman Celentano (FC Cincinnati; 0/0), Sean Johnson (Unattached; 10/0), *Gaga Slonina (Chelsea/ENG; 0/0)
Defenders (8): *Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad/ESP; 1/0), Julian Gressel (Vancouver Whitecaps; 0/0), DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution; 0/0), Aaron Long (LAFC; 29/3), *Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy; 0/0), Sam Rogers (Rosenborg/NOR; 0/0), *John Tolkin (NY Red Bulls; 0/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 37/3)
Midfielders: (6): *Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt/GER; 0/0), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC; 55/2), *Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew; 0/0), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas; 1/0), Alan Soñora (Unattached; 0/0), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers; 4/0)
Forwards (7): Paul Arriola (FC Dallas; 48/10), *Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes; 1/0), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas; 16/7), *Matthew Hoppe (Middlesbrough/ENG; 6/1), Emmanuel Sabbi (Odense/DEN; 0/0), Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati; 0/0), Alejandro Zendejas (Club America/MEX; 0/0)
*Eligible for 2024 Olympics as U-23 players.
Note:  In parentheses are caps and goals.

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Olympic view

In 2024, the United States men will return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 after qualifying last summer. Historically, the Olympics has been a crucial tournament in preparing players to make a quick transition to the full national team.

In 2000, the Olympic tournament set up Landon Donovan, John O’Brien and Josh Wolff to take big roles at the 2002 World Cup. In 2008, it was the same for Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley and Stuart Holden who all made the World Cup team two years later.

The U-23 team for 2024 is yet to begin play but by this summer, U.S. Soccer will likely name a U-23 coach and have a plan for camps. But this January camp is probably the first step for that team as eight players on this roster are age-eligible for the U-23 team (and possibly others on this roster could be options for one of the three overage spots).

“It's good to help prepare them and to be around other high-level players, get used to it again, be around the national team set up and help for when they are preparing for the Olympics,” Hudson said. “It’s a really good opportunity for us to see some of those guys.”

On this roster, Matthew Hoppe is in a very difficult period in his club career as he is not playing much for Middlesbrough (which, in granting a release for him to attend this camp, indicated he is not part of the club’s immediate plans), but he along with Ricardo Pepi (photo) are top U-23 forwards.

Gaga Slonina is now at Chelsea after starting most of the past two seasons for Chicago. He is the top goalkeeper at the U-20 and U-23 levels for the U.S. team. The Columbus Crew’s Aidan Morris is also seen as a top defensive midfielder for the Olympic team, and he was allowed to participate in a U-20 camp just to keep him involved last fall.

Other Olympic options in this camp are Tolkin, Gomez, Aaronson, Cade Cowell, and Jalen Neal. The last four are also eligible for the 2023 U-20 World Cup.

Key Players to Watch this camp

Brandon Vazquez: The Cincinnati forward is coming off a 2022 season in which he scored 18 goals and added eight assists to become one of the best center forwards in MLS. At a time when no one has firmly taken hold of the center forward position, Vazquez can use this camp to toss his hat into the ring. It’s a crowded field with other players like Daryl Dike and Jordan Pefok also in the mix in addition to those who made the World Cup team. But if Vazquez wants to start building his case, this camp is critical.

Alejandro Zendejas: The Club America attacker impressed last season and played for Mexico in friendles without ever filing a one-time switch (Mexico’s federation has since been fined as a result). But his return to the U.S. program is welcome news as Zendejas now has an impressive resume. It will be also interesting to see him reunited with Vazquez from that 2015 U-17 team that also contained Christian Pulisic, Haji Wright, Luca de la Torre, and Tyler Adams. Zendejas will only be available for the first friendly due to Club America commitments.

“He's one of the players that's going to play on that day that camp starts but they're going to let him fly in and play against Serbia,” Hudson said. “So, huge appreciation to the club because he was another player we wanted in but didn't think we were going to get. He's an exciting player, a technical player who plays out wide on the right or left, and has a really good final product. We’ve spoken with him and he is just super excited to come in and obviously has history with the youth national teams. He's a really, really good guy and we're looking forward to working with him.”

Sam Rogers: While the central defense pool is deep and many players who did not make the World Cup team in November are doing well (Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, Erik Palmer-Brown and Auston Trusty) or soon will be returning (Miles Robinson) but Rogers had a genuine breakthrough in 2022. He transferred to Rosenborg in February and was a consistent starter. He also was important offensively to Rosenborg adding six goals.

Alan Sonora: Now a free agent, Sonora was an effective central midfielder for Independiente in Argentina the past two seasons. He has always wanted a call-up and now, at age 24, he will get his chance. He should provide skill and playmaking to this midfield. He is considering offers in MLS, Argentina, and elsewhere but wants to decide after this camp. Solid performances at this camp could open doors not just with the U.S. team, but also likely increase his offers from prospective clubs.

Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos

2 comments about "USMNT opens post-Qatar era with a short camp but a lot to accomplish".
  1. John Polis, January 22, 2023 at 12:24 p.m.

    Thanks for the very thorough update on these young players coming up. With so many players currently in Europe, and most of the serious national team candidates playing on a public stage, I'm not sure exactly what can be accomplished with a short camp and a couple of meaningless games. Perhaps we are getting beyond that. But I would also point out that even though the writer says we are deep at certain positions, we are not deep anywhere in quality. Arguably we still don't have even one high quality shut-down defender on the U.S. roster. 

  2. frank schoon replied, January 23, 2023 at 11:35 a.m.

    John ,we won't be seeing that as long as soccer defense has become mostly zonal in nature and therefore good man to man defending is not up to par....The Italian defender from Juventus who came to the MLS had mentioned a couple of seasons ago in Italy, lamenting about  the lack of good man to man defenders...A good example of this was the first goal scored by Arsenal against Man.Utd. yesterday.  Just look how poor the defense was....Check the video clip in the SA article....

    And if we finally get a decent defender ,what is his ability with the ball after he gets it....that's another problem....There is a lot more that meets the eye than just talking having a better defenders....

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