The US men’s national team will have to navigate past Trinidad & Tobago without linchpins Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah this month, an opportunity for less established players to prove their worth as the Yanks seek to reach the final phase of the 2023-24 Concacaf Nations League in a two-legged aggregate quarterfinal vs. the Soca Warriors in the upcoming international window.
“Both of them, it's not too serious,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter of the hamstring injuries that have ruled out his star wing duo as his roster was released on Thursday. “But unfortunately, they aren’t going to be able to participate in this camp. We see them on track to get back to play soon. But it's too short of a deadline, so they won't be involved. And for us, we're used to this type of thing.
“ … Think about World Cup qualifying and all the adjustments we've had to make as guys drop off, particularly this time of year as the pitches get heavy, as the game schedule is getting loaded, the players are always at risk. So we’ll adapt, we’ll put guys in the field that are prepared and know what we're doing on the field and will make a good impact.”
Berhalter has both tactical and personnel options for patching those gaps.
He noted his technical staff hopes playmaker Gio Reyna is ready to leg heavier minutes than he did in the October window. The aforementioned absences could also open doors to two young products of MLS academies now climbing the ranks in the Bundesliga: Philadelphia Union alum Paxten Aaronson, now at Eintracht Frankfurt, and D.C. United product Kevin Paredes, who has recently become a regular out wide at VfL Wolfsburg.
“When two guys go down, an opportunity opens up for another player,” said the coach of the younger Aaronson brother, whose older sibling Brenden is also on this roster and could push for minutes. “We see [Paxten] as a winger similar to Christian, in the fact that he gets in the penalty box and he's dangerous in front of goal, and that’s what we focus on with our wingers. We know goals are a premium, and he's a young player that has shown that he has a knack for scoring goals, and the starting point is arriving in the penalty box, which he does really well.
“He's got an interesting profile with his quickness and his ability to get out of trouble, we think he's good at pressing. He's got a lot of things that show us he’s going to be an excellent player in the future and now's the time to give him an opportunity.”
Berhalter mentioned he originally expected Paredes to push for a fullback role when the Virginia native first made a name in MLS, though he’s presently seen as equal parts an attacking option.
“When I first saw him at D.C., I immediately thought, this is the left back of the future, a guy that can really step into that role,” he said. “We've been watching his work in Wolfsburg, impressed with what he was able to do last game as a wingback, and think that he's versatile. So we like that versatility, especially as we have needs in the winger position. We think he's a guy that can slot in nicely.
“He played in the Oman game [in September], did a good job. He came in in the Germany game [last month] as a winger, did a good job. So he's just continued to make progress and we're excited to be working with him.”
The USMNT will gather in Austin, Texas next week ahead of a first-leg fixture at Austin FC’s Q2 Stadium on Nov. 16, then jet south to Port of Spain for the second leg on Nov. 20. The US will be favored, and any slips could be disastrous considering how these games are not just part of the Yanks’ Nations League title defense but also a qualifying step to participate in next summer’s Copa América on US soil.
After producing a mixed bag of performances in four friendlies over the past two windows, “now it’s time to move on into competition mode,” said Berhalter.
Miles Robinson is the sole domestic-based representative and Berhalter framed the center back as a leading contender to start one or both matches. He even confessed he’s hoping Atlanta United make a deep Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run to keep Robinson sharp, noting stiff competition from the likes of Philadelphia academy products Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty.
“Miles is a guy that we really believe in. We've seen his growth over the last couple of years and it's been really fun to see,” said the coach. “Unfortunately, last World Cup he had to miss out because of an Achilles injury, but he's back and he's playing at a good level now. And we hope that his team continues on in the playoffs and he can get tested in those games also.
“Regarding the center back position, this was a really difficult sector to make decisions in. Mark McKenzie's playing really well. I got to see him at Genk, he's playing well with his team. Auston Trusty’s broken in, playing in the Premier League and he's a guy that we see on the rise, potentially coming up. John Brooks is playing in Hoffenheim every week. So there's some tough decisions to make in that group. We went with guys that have been here in the last camp, that we feel will get the job done in this camp.”