Daryl Dike and Alejandro Zendejas hadn’t played together before this week, and they’ve still only been in one another’s company for a day or two.
Yet their quickly-developing camaraderie was apparent as they took questions from reporters on Monday afternoon – and for US men’s national team fans, it offered an encouraging glimpse of the vibes around the squad ahead of this month’s Concacaf Nations League matches at Grenada (March 24) and vs. El Salvador (March 27).
"In terms of playing with Alex, today's the first session that I've actually been able to do that and it was nice," said Dike of his new colleague. "In the possession drills, we were on the same team, so things were going well there and I think our team won.
"We did a finishing drill after," continued the West Bromwich Albion striker on a video conference call from the USMNT’s current base in Four Corners, Florida. "He definitely lost the finishing drill, of course – "
"Nahhhh, it was close, it was close!" interjected Zendejas as he sat next to Dike. "They took off some goals off of us, you know that, too."
"Ahh, that’s fair,” conceded Dike with a smile. "But no, it's good. Obviously you can see how good he is, you can see his left foot, little wand there…"
"I forgot to comment about that," responded Zendejas, "but man, you could tell this guy's a tank, bro. All the balls to him, he's going to hold it up, do his little magic – it's fun. It's fun being here, getting to know all these new guys. Obviously, it's our first day, but you can tell, it's good, man."
Granted, everyone tends to keep it positive at the start of an international window, and both players have extra reason to celebrate this call-up, given it represents a hard-earned return. Dike hasn’t been with the national team since the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, due to a frustrating sequence of injuries that slowed his first year at West Brom and prevented him from pushing for a spot on the USMNT’s 2022 World Cup roster.
"In terms of the opportunity, of course I’m not going to take it for granted, because you always want to be the striker, you always want to come and play whenever you got the chance. You always want to be part of the squad," said Dike, who’s also making a homecoming to central Florida after starting his professional career with Orlando City.
"I haven't been at Exploria [Stadium] since I left to go overseas. And I know it's a great place. I love the stadium, I love the fans and the city and everything here. So being able to come back and play in front of everyone is something that's so important to me, and I'm obviously super excited to be able to be in front of everyone."
Zendejas, a Mexican-American dual national, played for the United States at youth national team levels and just committed himself to the Yanks permanently after playing for El Tri in a couple of friendlies in 2021 and 2022 – appearances which later drew punishments from FIFA after it was discovered the Mexican federation had not filed the proper paperwork to change his registration status.
All that, in the context of him having blossomed into a standout winger at Liga MX titans Club América, put him at the center of a media maelstrom in Mexico, with reports he’d sought a guarantee of a spot on El Tri’s World Cup squad in exchange for making a one-time eligibility switch.
"I spoke to my family about it almost every day or every week, because I was getting calls from everywhere," said the El Paso native and FC Dallas academy product. "But in terms of [rumors] about securing a spot, I don't think you, or anyone, can be in the position for someone to secure something to you. We have to work on that daily and prove to people that we deserve the opportunity.
"So I don't know. It was a bunch of chaos that happened over there – people saying stuff that wasn't true, people saying stuff that was true,” added Zendejas, who also noted his past experiences as a member of the US U-17 national team alongside the likes of Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Christian Pulisic and Auston Trusty helped seal his choice. "But at the end of the day, I just tried not to focus on that, tried to focus on my club team, playing well, and then at the end of the day, I spoke to my family and we decided to represent USA."
The Yanks will be overwhelming favorites against Cinderellas Grenada when they visit the Spice Boyz for their penultimate CNL League A Group D match on Friday, at Kirani James Athletic Stadium in St. George’s (8 pm ET | TNT, Universo, Peacock). Even with a tight turnaround on that quick – but not short – trip to the southern edge of the Caribbean, they’ll also be expected to defeat El Salvador in Orlando the following Monday.
Neither match is a must-win, considering two draws will be enough to win the group and advance to the Nations League semifinals. Don’t expect the players to approach it that way, though, considering competition and opportunies abound in this situation, with interim coach Anthony Hudson able to select from the full player pool this month for the first time since the World Cup.
"You always want to be able to help guys and get called up to every camp. For me, throughout that time, it was obviously fuel to get back to where I am today," said Dike. "Coming into this camp, it's just another opportunity for me to go and show what I can do, to play, to help, and that's just all I've been really looking forward to."