Squad selections: Berhalter explains USMNT roster without Weah, Sargent

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Where will Pulisic/Adams play?

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Posted by Major League Soccer (MLS) on Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Since the US men's national team had unimaginably failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, there have been a lot of changes.

Fans, in the absence of competitive matches on the world's biggest stage, have taken to focusing heavily on the nation's panoply of promising young players and the tantalizing hope tethered to potential. 

Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie have been at the forefront of that particular campaign, but not far behind are Tim Weah and Josh Sargent. Predictably, when USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter released his roster for March friendlies, fans were quick to notice two notable exclusions from the squad list: Weah and Sargent. 

“When we looked at players that were U-23 eligible and weren’t necessarily going to be in our starting group, we had to weigh if it’s more beneficial for them to play full international games at a level where they can gain confidence and potentially bring that back to their clubs," Berhalter explained on a media conference call Tuesday.

“I spoke to Josh and Tim specifically," Berhalter added. "They’re young players with a lot of potential. We’re looking at this from the big picture standpoint. The big picture is Tim and Josh have the opportunity to play at the U-23 level and gain experience. I see them very much as part of the group moving forward, this is a way for them to keep playing and get on the field.”

Berhalter has stressed that playing time is paramount. Weah hasn't started for Celtic since February 2 while Sargent has made one start all season with Werder Bremen. 

U.S. Soccer is still sorting out the final details in regards to the Under-23 camp that Berhalter alluded to, including opponents and a head coach, where Weah, Sargent and the Chicago Fire's Djordje Mihailovic are expected to gain valuable minutes. The federation is "deep into the hiring process" for a U-23 head coach and expects that person to be able to start with the March camp, per a U.S. Soccer spokesperson.

As for players that will be with the senior squad this month, the selections of former MLSers Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream took many by surprise. After a year-and-a-half focused heavily on youth and looking toward the 2022 World Cup, Gonzalez (30) and Ream (31) are both the wrong side of 30. 

“One thing we’ve looked at specifically is age based on position: It’s common for center backs, central midfielders, goalkeepers to be older and still be able to perform at high levels," Berhalter said. "I said all along that I value veteran leadership, the culture of what it means to play for the men’s national team and I think it’s important to have players that have been through it. It’s another opportunity for us to evaluate two guys who have been through it before and can share some of their experiences with a young group of players.”

On the other side of the inclusion of Gonzalez and Ream is the omission of Walker Zimmerman, who impressed during the January camp. The LAFC center back played the full 90 minutes in both January matches as the USMNT kept two clean sheets and Zimmerman, to boot, even scored a goal of his own.

“Walker is a guy we’re very comfortable with, he did a great job in January camp," Berhalter said. "If Step Two is evaluating more faces, you look at this roster that has four new center backs. It’s just a case of us wanting to look at other players. I called Walker and I told him that: ‘you’re doing a good job, continue doing a good job, we’re going to always keep you in mind.’”

Behind Weah, Sargent and Zimmerman, Berhalter has "buckets" of players on his radar that weren't included this month to face Ecuador on March 21 and Chile on March 26.

"Jozy Altidore we’d like to have in camp, but he’s just not there yet," Berhalter said. "We think it’s important that he’s able to get back on the field for Toronto first."

On a similar thread, Berhalter said that Greg Garza's return from injury last weekend made it difficult to justify adding to his workload and potentially risking further complications. Ditto for Darlington Nagbe due to a shortened preseason combined with a busy start to the season with Atlanta United. Berhalter also added that he remains in contact with Fabian Johnson and has "left the door open" for his return.

Berhalter makes it a point to explain that his roster decisions for specific camps are selections reflecting "just a slice in time."

With the Gold Cup on the horizon in June, the 24 players selected will hope that the next slice in time looks a lot like this one, while the rest will know their fate is not yet sealed for the USMNT’s first competitive games since the catastrophe in Trinidad in October 2017.