National Writer: Charles Boehm

"There really is no ceiling": Zimmerman, Yedlin on state of USMNT


“It's... it's an interesting time.”

Walker Zimmerman’s words about the current environment around the US men’s national team, delivered during a one-on-one conversation with at MLS media day in San Jose earlier this month, were a study in understatement.

Jaw-dropping off-field controversies. Uncertainty on the head coaching position. A blend of optimism and ruefulness about the performance at the World Cup in Qatar. Keen anticipation around the next one unfolding on home soil in 2026. A paucity of information about the path that will guide the program towards that historic opportunity.

All of it adds up to a uniquely strange moment for the USMNT as the first match of 2023, a January camp friendly vs. Serbia in Los Angeles, looms on Wednesday night (10 pm ET | HBO Max, Peacock, Universo, Telemundo).

“Any time you come off of a World Cup, there's always a little bit of a lull,” noted Nashville SC's Zimmerman, one of five veterans of Qatar '22 in the current camp. “But then you couple that with the fact that we won't have qualifiers in this cycle because of being a host nation, it makes for a really interesting next couple of years, where you probably don't have as many ‘important’ important games – they're all important – but yeah, it provides a tricky schedule.

“We'll hopefully – we'll see what happens with Copa América or bigger tournaments like that,” he added in reference to reports that the United States, Canada, Mexico and other Concacaf nations may participate in an enlarged edition of South America’s championship tournament next year, as in 2016.

“But yeah, it's a little bit of a transition period of figuring out. OK, it's time that you invite new players into the pool, check out the youth, see what they have: Do they have what it takes to be a part of this team? All of those are questions that are going to be answered in the next year or two, as we build on the depth of our player pool, which, in my opinion, is probably the deepest it's ever been because of how the sport is growing in America.”

As is usual in January, the current squad working under the guidance of interim boss Anthony Hudson is mostly comprised of newcomers and less-established figures in the player pool. The full-strength group won’t gather until at least the March international window, when whoever is the coach at that point can call up European-based regulars for two Concacaf Nations League matches.

Compartmentalizing the drama

By the March window, perhaps the drama of the World Cup pressure cooker and subsequent developments, particularly around star wunderkind Gio Reyna, can be processed more collectively. Program veterans like Zimmerman, Tim Ream and fullback DeAndre Yedlin have described this as a straightforward element of life at the game’s highest levels.

“On the inside it wasn't as bad as the media's making it out to be,” Inter Miami's Yedlin told at media day in reference to the controversy around Reyna’s reported lack of effort during World Cup training sessions after being told by coach Gregg Berhalter that his role at the tournament would be limited.

“I know a lot of people that may be writing about us or whatever haven't played on a team before, or on a high-level team. But it happens all the time where sometimes they'll have a player, or players, that for whatever reason aren’t on it, and people talk to them, and then move on.

“Like, that's what happened. There was literally no bad blood, nothing. It was fine. We just moved on with it, and that was it, that was the end of it. And so it was, I think, blown up a lot bigger than it actually was.”

Speaking to ESPN’s Futbol Americas at media day, midfielder Cristian Roldan noted that a key frustration from the players’ point of view was the public airing of internal team matters they’d prefer to deal with behind closed doors. In addition to the team WhatsApp groups set up for communication – and some keenly competitive fantasy football pools – at each USMNT camp, Zimmerman said conversations about the events of the past several weeks have taken place via text messages among smaller groups of players.

When it’s time to work, though, they're hard-wired to compartmentalize their focus on the tasks at hand.

“It's part of our job as players that we aren't involved in a lot of things that are outside of us playing the game. And so I think it's important for us to just focus on exactly that,” said Zimmerman.

“How can I continue to put myself into the national team picture? Whether it's Gregg, whether it's someone else, what can I do to impress the national team coaches, staff, and put myself in a position to keep earning caps? That's what I'm going to try and I know a lot of guys are thinking the same. It's just about going out having a strong start to 2023 and getting after it.”

Thinking big for 2026

That goes doubly so for the newer arrivals, who, even with Berhalter’s status in limbo, benefit from the established culture and game model he and his staff built over the previous cycle.

“For us, it’s the same style of play regardless of who's in right now,” said newcomer Brandon Vazquez on Monday. “We're trying to push ourselves to be the best team possible, and the vibe in the locker room is great. It's a great group of guys and everybody gets along really well. So every time we step on the field you can see that, and the team chemistry is really there. Even though we have a lot of new faces, it's just like, everybody that has been watching the US national team knows exactly their style of play, and we're stepping in and doing exactly that.”

It remains to be seen whether that tactical identity will continue along its current path under the next regime, or evolve in a different direction. Given the high stakes of the hire and relative lack of crucial competitions over the next few months – the Yanks should win their CNL group regardless of who’s in the technical area – the federation’s decision about the next coach could even stretch out over a longer timeframe than usual, depending on available candidates and their particular schedules.

Everyone around the program is quick to note the enormous promise that crystallized with this highly talented and youthful roster core over the past two years. It’s now a question of charting the best path forward to maximize it.

“It's great that such a large core of what we think will be the 2026 group got their World Cup experience, and even a knockout round game,” said Yedlin, the only member of the ‘22 squad who had prior experience of the tournament. “So now there's no excuse about, ‘Oh, you know, the players are young, inexperienced.’

“So going into 2026 World Cup, there should be no surprises. But I think there really is no ceiling that you can put on this group,” he continued. “And I've said this before, I said it before the World Cup, I think the potential that this group has is incredible. But again, potential is just potential. Action has to be put to that to actually live that out. So we'll see. We'll see what happens with the group. But I think this group has the potential to be incredible.”