Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Four big questions about the USMNT's Nations League roster

The US men’s national team player pool is just about at the point where I would probably like the roster no matter who Gregg Berhalter called in. There has been an explosion in quality players coming available over the past few years, a product of both the DA (now MLS NEXT) pipeline in the US really starting to churn out good, polished young players — and MLS teams being more willing to play them big minutes at younger ages — as well as some Saban-like recruiting from Berhalter, Brian McBride, Earnie Stewart and the rest of the USMNT infrastructure.

It is good. And so I was not surprised that the USMNT roster for the upcoming Nations League games against Honduras and, presumably, Mexico was, in fact, good.

Let’s get it out of the way up at the top and plop down the 23-man roster Berhalter has called in:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge/BEL; 4/0), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake; 0/0), Zack Steffen (Manchester City/ENG; 21/0)

DEFENDERS (8): John Brooks (Wolfsburg/GER; 40/3), Reggie Cannon (Boavista/POR; 14/0), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona/ESP; 7/1), Mark McKenzie (Genk/BEL; 2/0), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht/BEL; 21/1), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 42/1), Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG; 10/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray/TUR; 62/0)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids; 27/2), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 12/1), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy; 20/6), Weston McKennie (Juventus/ITA; 21/6), Yunus Musah (Valencia/ESP; 4/0), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes; 9/0)

FORWARDS: (6): Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg/AUT; 4/2), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 15/9), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 4/2), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen/GER; 13/5), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys/SUI; 2/0), Tim Weah (Lille/FRA; 10/1)

That is just about what I’d consider to be the first-choice team, though with three caveats:

  • Chris Richards is out with a short-term injury.
  • Aaron Long and Jordan Morris are out with long-term injuries.
  • A bunch of MLS guys are in the mix — Matt Turner, Sam Vines, Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes a few others — are no doubt being saved for heavy minutes during the Gold Cup. If they’re going to actually push into the US XI, or push themselves into big-money moves to Europe, it serves them better to start every game this summer than to ride the pine this spring.

Bear in mind Berhalter has said he’s not going to be calling guys into both the Nations League and the Gold Cup, and that it’s just easier (and smarter) to call the Europe-based players in for the Nations League given that the Gold Cup overlaps with Euro preseason.

Bear in mind also Berhalter can make changes to this roster up to 24 hours before the first match, which is relevant given that Tyler Adams, Antonee Robinson and John Brooks both have been nursing injuries.

Here are the four things I’m keeping an eye on:

The center back depth chart

Brooks is understandably written in pen whenever he’s fit and available, and Long has been Berhalter’s first choice as a partner. This is for the obvious reason that Long has mostly played very well, and also that Long’s strength — his mobility and overall athleticism — pairs nicely with Brooks’ relative lack of the same.

The hope among many, myself included, was that we’d get to see Richards partnering Brooks for this game. He’s not quite as physical or athletic as Long, Walker Zimmerman or Miles Robinson, but he’s close and he’s damn near Brooks-tier as a distributor of the ball and held up very well during the second half of the season for Hoffenheim.

Injuries, though. Alas.

So now the door is open for one of Matt Miazga or Mark McKenzie to make a case they’re the right partner for Brooks in these two games, which at the same time makes a case that they should be in consideration for heavy rotation minutes.

It is a real opportunity for both guys. I will state straight up my worry is that any Brooks/McKenzie or Brooks/Miazga combination at center back lacks the ability to put out fires in the open field.

The best possible thing that could come out of these games from a center back perspective is them showing they can do that.

Tyler and then who?

I’m mildly surprised Adams, who has been dealing with a back injury, is in the roster. It is a very good thing if he’s fit enough to go, obviously, as Adams is a singular defensive force in the middle of the field. Nobody else in the pool replicates what he can do in terms of stopping transition moments, winning the ball back and springing the press to turn defense into offense.

That includes Jackson Yueill and Kellyn Acosta, the other two “defensive midfielders” on this roster. Yueill plays the position very differently from Adams, spending more time as a pure backline shield and regista rather than a roving ball-winner/destroyer. He has been effective in this role and the US, overall, has been effective when he’s been in this role.

But there are very legitimate questions as to whether this approach can translate up a level. I am a big Yueill fan, but I would be concerned if he was the starting d-mid in a must-win match against, to pick two Concacaf opponents completely at random, Honduras or Mexico.

The same is true of Acosta, who plays much more of a box-to-box role for the Rapids than he does a defensive midfield role. The fact that he was thrust into the job as a No. 6 for the USMNT back in March against Jamaica and Northern Ireland and acquitted himself fairly well is a useful data point, if far from definitive.

Right now, though, it’s Adams then those two in some uncertain order.

To be entirely clear, I want to see Adams completely fit and able to go 180 minutes in these games. But I would not hate it if Yueill or Acosta got onto the field in games that matter — and these games definitely matter — and showed that they’re capable of handling the job.

And yes, Eryk Williamson appears to be lurking.

Where’s Daryl Dike?

There are two answers to this. The first is “behind Josh Sargent and Jordan Siebatcheu on the depth chart.” The second is “heading back to Orlando and presumably prepping for a Gold Cup call-up.”

Dike had a spectacular rookie year and an even better loan to Barnsley in the Championship. I will not be at all surprised if some EPL team come in and makes an eight-figure bid for him this summer, nor would I have been disappointed if he was in this roster.

But Barnsley do not play soccer. He’s going to need deprogramming after five months of this:

I am absolutely fine with him going back to Oscar Pareja for a few months and playing actual soccer. I’m sure Berhalter is too, especially since — whether Dike gets sold in the next window or not — this opens the door to him starting basically every Gold Cup match.

I’d rather see him on the field for 90 five times this summer than riding pine this spring.

So Josh Sargent is the starter?

I think this is his chance to prove that he is, yeah. Sargent is a divisive player because he is so obviously skilled in so many areas, but he is just not as productive as a No. 9 should be.

There are two schools of thought on that:

  • Sargent is not as productive as he should be because he makes bad runs and doesn’t do the “find space!” stuff that every good No. 9 has to do.
  • Sargent is not as productive as he should be because Werder Bremen are bad, and they frequently used him out of position.

I fall into that second camp. Werder Bremen were terrible for the past couple of years, and I’m pretty convinced Sargent, playing as a No. 9 in a coherent system, will look very good.

But also, he did actually get several thousand minutes as a No. 9 for Bremen over the past couple of years and he did nothing to prove me (or anyone else in that second camp) correct. And we’re approaching what most rational people would consider to be a preponderance of evidence that, in fact, it’s the folks in the first camp who are right.


For posterity, here is what I hope ends up being the obvious first-choice XI for the final against Mexico (assuming the US get past Honduras, which might be hella dumb to assume):

Doyle XI for Nations League