Armchair Analyst: With new roster, USMNT inches toward an A team

It's now been 11 months since the US national team fell headfirst into a pile of sadness and failure down in Trinidad & Tobago. It's been 10 months since the first friendly after that catastrophe, and nearly two months since the end of this summer's World Cup. It's been a month since Earnie Stewart took over as USMNT GM.

The MLS season is ongoing and the vast majority of European seasons are just starting. The 2022 World Cup cycle has really, truly begun.

But not much has changed for the USMNT. Stewart's role is still not 100% clear. Dave Sarachan is still leading the squad as the search for a permanent head coach crawls along at a snail's pace. Whatever the next epoch of the program happens to be, this is all just prologue.

It would be anyway, I suppose. But at some point "taking your time to make sure you get the decision right" veers toward "wasting time, period." Or maybe "paralysis via overanalysis."

Sarachan, for what it's worth, has done a fine job in his year in charge. He's handed out 18 debut caps, and his teams have been the youngest USMNT rosters since 1990, as befitting the start of a new era. There have been credible draws against Portugal last year, and France just before France countered their way to World Cup triumph, and decent enough wins over Paraguay and Bolivia. There's not been much in the way of possession or inventiveness in attack, but there's been more resolute and organized defense than we've been used to seeing for most of this decade, and there's something of a core of young players – who've mostly played pretty well – to look at and admire.

“For these matches against Brazil and Mexico, the theme remains the same in that we are using the opportunity against these high-powered opponents to continue building on the foundation that we’ve laid,” Sarachan said in a press release. “We felt it was right to continue allowing this group to get valuable experience for the big picture that includes competitive matches in the future with the Gold Cup, Olympic qualifying and World Cup qualifying.”

There are so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns with the future of the program that it's difficult to say how much of this foundation will stay in place, or how much of a bearing it'll have upon the future of a program that remains very much in flux. But it's a start.

And it's what the roster for the next two friendlies, on Friday against Brazil in New Jersey and then the following Tuesday against Mexico in Nashville, will be based upon. Let's dive in:

Goalkeepers

Player Club
Alex Bono Toronto FC
Ethan Horvath Club Brugge
Zack Steffen Columbus Crew SC

As it currently stands Steffen is almost certainly the No. 1 'keeper in the pool, and he's certainly the top choice out of this trio, since both Bono (recently) and Horvath (a while back) have deservedly lost their starting jobs. I imagine that calling the both of them up is meant to serve as a confidence boost to two of the more potential-laden young 'keepers in the pool.

If these weren't friendlies – if these games mattered – I'd hope veterans Brad Guzan and Tim Melia were involved instead. Since they are friendlies, this is fine, and I look forward to 180 more minutes of Steffen in red, white & blue.

Defenders

Player Club
John Brooks Wolfsburg
Cameron Carter-Vickers Swansea City
Eric Lichaj Hull City
Aaron Long NY Red Bulls
Matt Miazga Nantes
Shaq Moore Reus Deportiu
Tim Parker NY Red Bulls
Antonee Robinson Wigan Athletic
DeAndre Yedlin Newcastle United

The thing that struck me about criticism of the US after this past cycle's failure was how much of it was directed toward the attack. And while I get that to a degree, here's the simple truth: The US scored more goals in the Hexagonal than any other team, including Mexico and Costa Rica. The attack was mostly good enough.

The defense was a disaster. There are a lot of fingers to point here – the lack of a consistent, coherent tactical plan meant the US was often poor at getting pressure to the ball; too often the central midfield was left to play 1-v-4; Tim Howard was past it, etc. etc. etc. – but to me the biggest one was the lack of a "these guys are our rock!" central defensive pairing.

Beyond anything else, I am excited for a new era in which John Brooks and Matt Miazga are given the chance to be that for the USMNT. Beyond the development of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, or a full cycle of Christian Pulisic, or whatever Josh Sargent and Tim Weah are cooking up... I am excited for the chance to watch two high quality center backs given dozens of reps together and thus the chance to build real chemistry and consistency. I can't wait to watch a US defense that plays like they're not complete strangers, and if Sarachan does nothing else during his time in charge, starting that process off with these games will make me grateful to him.

"Familiarity" and "chemistry" and "cohesion" are why I'm happy to see Long and Parker on this list, together. They've built that chemistry over a very short time at Red Bull Arena, and there's no reason to think it won't continue as they move up a level, together. I hope that when it's time to make subs, Sarachan brings them both on together.

I also hope we get to see a good chunk of Yedlin and Robinson at fullback, as they're the presumptive starters at both spots for the entire cycle, and both are guys who LOVE to get forward:

When one goes, the other has to stay, so they'll have to develop cross-field chemistry. This is basic stuff, and reps help.

Moore hasn't played this year because of a player registration error. It's fine to see him with this group, though I'll be surprised if he stays ahead of the likes of Reggie Cannon and Keegan Rosenberry

Midfielders

Player Club
Kellyn Acosta Colorado Rapids
Tyler Adams NY Red Bulls
Paul Arriola D.C. United
Julian Green Greuther Fürth
Sebastian Lletget LA Galaxy
Weston McKennie Schalke
Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders
Wil Trapp Columbus Crew SC
Tim Weah Paris Saint-Germain

There are a lot of ways you can play this if you're Sarachan, but one constant: McKennie is the centerpiece. He's an every-game starter for Schalke now, and he's already put in Man of the Match performances for the US, and he checks so many boxes. Begin the midfield teamsheet with him, and then build it out from there.

What direction can that be? Well, Adams has been playing as a pure ball-winning No. 6 for the Red Bulls this year, and doing it at an elite level:

He's more mobile than McKennie (the only ding against McKennie is that he lacks quickness, which at times limits him in terms of pure destructive abilities), and could be an ideal partner on the "2" line of a 4-2-3-1.

Or you could play both McKennie and Adams ahead of the field-spreading Trapp, who's having his best pro season on both sides of the ball for Columbus. Acosta, who's experienced a rebirth since his move to Colorado, is somewhere in the mix as well.

I'd imagine that Lletget, Arriola, Green and Roldan are there do battle it out for jobs on the wing, for the time being. Weah, too, though he should really be regarded more as a forward at this point.

Sarachan, by the way, has generally eschewed using a central playmaker over his career as a head coach. So don't expect to see a Lletget cameo in that role (and to be fair, that's probably not his best use at the international level since he's not really a pure chance creator).

Weah is listed as a midfielder here, which means Sarachan probably intends to use him on the wing. I'm good with that even though, long-term, I think he'll probably be a center forward.

Forwards

Player Club
Andrija Novakovich Fotuna Sittard
Bobby Wood Hannover 96
Gyasi Zardes Columbus Crew SC

Zardes has earned his return to US camp with a strong year in Columbus – 15 (and counting) goals in 2400 minutes. Wood had a nightmare season for Hamburg last year, but is still in the Bundesliga playing meaningful minutes (he got 45 with Hannover this weekend) and that's good enough for me.

I'm on the record as a Novakovich skeptic because I think his feet are too slow and his runs are too passive. But he scored his second goal in three Eredivisie games this past weekend, and that has me happy. As long as he's starting and scoring in that league, keep calling him up. And if he can bring some of this to the international game...

...then there will be lots of reasons to be delighted, and I will eat all my words. It's very easy to imagine Weah and Pulisic running onto that kind of service, right?

Doing it in the Eredivisie is different than doing it against the likes of Brazil or Mexico, though. Bear that in mind.

A few other notes:

  • It's not just Pulisic who's injured. Tim Ream, Emmanuel Sabbi and Jonathan Amon are all guys who I think would've been called/considered, but who've been in and out of the lineup for fitness reasons.
  • Kenny Saief's in that group as well. He had a knock all summer, which set him back. But he's now healthy and... isn't making the 18 for Anderlecht.
  • Erik Palmer-Brown has yet to make his debut for NAC Breda, if you're wondering where he is. Remember that Miazga had to fight his way into Vitesse Arnhem's lineup when he went to the Eredivisie on loan from Chelsea a couple years back, so don't sell all your stock yet.
  • Is it a surprise that Romain Gall isn't in this squad? The 23-year-old former Crew SC winger has been tearing up the Allsvenskan, but... it's the Allsvenskan. I wouldn't have been disappointed to see him here, but at the same time it's worth remembering that's a league where Magnus Eriksson was considered a top three player.
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