23MLS_USMNT_JAN_Camp_spotlight

January camp: It’s most interesting when it’s weird.

The 2023 edition of the US men’s national team’s annual domestic winter gathering arrives at a strange moment for the program. The head coaching position is unsettled (assistant Anthony Hudson will oversee proceedings on an interim basis while U.S. Soccer conducts a post-World Cup review) and the MLS preseason it was designed to supplement now starts several weeks earlier than in past decades, creating an overlap with those club sessions and thus a shorter USMNT camp than usual.

Thankfully, Hudson and his staff gave us some fun decisions to chew on with Wednesday’s 24-player roster drop.

A record seven call-ups arrive from overseas clubs across seven different nations, including recently-sold MLS homegrown exports Paxten Aaronson (ex-Philadelphia) and Gaga Slonina (ex-Chicago). There’s a 29-year-old newbie who plays for a Canadian club and only recently became US-eligible despite being an established MLS standout, as well as a teenage prospect who hasn’t even made his MLS first-team debut yet. Two members of the squad aren’t currently attached to a club employer at all.

Here are five names we found particularly intriguing.

Jonathan Gómez, Real Sociedad (Defender) 

One of the most prominent Mexican-American dual nationals whose allegiance remains undecided, JoGo’s latest USMNT stint will be keenly watched. The young North Texan has spent time with both national teams, and at multiple age levels, as he and his family mull his big decision. It’s not hard to see why this potential heir to Antonee “Jedi” Robinson is being so heavily courted.

A product of FC Dallas’ fertile academy, Gómez won two USL League One trophies with North Texas SC, the club’s second team, in 2019 before decamping for USL Championship side Louisville City the following year, where he earned All-USL first team and USLC Young Player of the Year honors. A leap to LaLiga followed, and he’s been steadily working his way up the ranks in the Basque Country amid fierce competition at Real Sociedad – all before he turns 20 later this year.

Julian Gressel, Vancouver Whitecaps FC (Defender)

Nearly six years after he burst onto the scene as a surprise 2017 MLS Rookie of the Year in Atlanta United’s inaugural season, Gresselmania has finally reached the USMNT, thanks to the naturalized German’s completion of the US citizenship process, a process sped along by his marriage to his college sweetheart Casey. This first call-up is an honor well-earned by consistent productivity with ATL, D.C. United and now the Vancouver Whitecaps.

As mentioned above, Gressel just turned 29, and it’s not immediately clear where his winger/wingback tweener skill set will be best deployed at the international level. But he can ping a delivery – or a set piece – like few in MLS, and it will be fascinating to see how he steps up to this opportunity.

Sam Rogers, Rosenborg (Defender)

The Seattle Sounders academy alum took the scenic route to this juncture, and for that he deserves credit. Rogers, 23, didn’t advance to an MLS homegrown deal despite extended USL Championship minutes with Seattle’s second team, now known as Tacoma Defiance. The former Under-20 national teamer moved on to Oklahoma City Energy and eventually made his way to Norway, where he helped HamKam gain promotion to the top flight and earned a reported $1 million transfer to bigger fish Rosenborg a year ago.

A commanding center back with an eye for goal, he tallied an impressive six times as Rosenborg finished third in the Eliteserien last season, earning a UEFA Europa Conference League qualifying berth. Scandinavia offered many Yanks and Canadians an attainable path into Europe in past years, and Rogers could soon find his way to bigger leagues on his current trajectory.

Paxton Pomykal, FC Dallas (Midfielder)

The box-to-box FC Dallas homegrown and 2019 U-20 World Cup regular earned his first senior cap vs. Uruguay in 2019 – and at the time you certainly wouldn’t have predicted the now-23-year-old would have to wait more than three years for his next opportunity.

That’s what recurring injuries can inflict on a rising career, alas. And with a diverse toolkit well-suited to the dual No. 8 roles at the heart of both Gregg Berhalter’s and his former assistant Nico Estevez’s preferred 4-3-3 formations, perhaps there’s a parallel universe out there where Pomykal stayed healthy and surged into a meaningful contributor on the USMNT’s 2021-22 squad. Hopefully this month marks the start of a new timeline for Pomykal.

Alejandro Zendejas, Club América (Forward)

Older heads may remember him as Alex Zendejas, one of the teen phenoms who put the FCD academy on the map under now-Orlando City SC manager Oscar Pareja. The dual-national winger and USYNTer – yet another of the talent-rich 1998-born crop – was just 17 when he and four other FCD HGPs set a new record for most homegrowns in an MLS starting XI in a visit to the Columbus Crew during an international window in September 2015. Their 3-0 road win was a noteworthy signpost of the #PlayYourKids movement’s rise into the mainstream.

The following year Zendejas would make a half-million-dollar transfer to Chivas Guadalajara, a move that required him to spurn future US call-ups out of respect for the Goats’ Mexicans-only policy. Born in Ciudad Juarez and raised in El Paso, he eventually carved out a prosperous Liga MX career as an incisive attacker at Necaxa, then Club América, and even played for Mexico in a couple of friendlies – though it turned out he’d never actually completed the paperwork necessary to make a one-time switch from the US. 

That triggered an ongoing FIFA investigation about whether its policies had been violated, and according to a Mexican media report last year, Zendejas was pressured by El Tri staff to sign away his USMNT eligibility, which he resisted. Now he’s venturing north of the border again to showcase how he’s matured, with América releasing him despite their Clausura campaign already being well underway. 

“They're going to let him fly in and play against Serbia,” explained Hudson in a Q&A posted on U.S. Soccer’s website. “So, huge appreciation to the club because he was another player we wanted in but didn't think we were going to get.”