It is an annual tradition: 1) The US men's national team head coach calls up a large roster for January camp, and then 2) a couple of players are cut from that camp. And people freak out to one degree or another.
I get it. We're all starved for news in the current US soccerverse, and Gregg Berhalter's first camp was more tight – in terms of information leaks – than we're used to. So here's the news: Berhalter has trimmed four players from the roster, bringing it down to 23. You can decide whether or not to freak out:
Head coach Gregg Berhalter trims his #USMNT roster to 23 as Alex Bono, Tyler Miller, Justen Glad, and Kellyn Acosta are released back to their clubs— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) January 22, 2019
Let's take this one at a time:
Bono has been a potential-filled young 'keeper for a while, and is arguably more accomplished than any of the other 'keepers at this camp. Remember when Toronto FC won the treble in 2017? He was between the pipes for that. Remember when they made it to the Concacaf Champions League final in 2018? Him again.
But Bono was actually fairly error-prone throughout 2018, both domestically and in continental competition, and 2019 is almost certainly about more than stopping shots for him. It's got to be about rebuilding his confidence and being better about commanding the box. It's not a leap to assume that after a few weeks, both Steffen and Johnson were well ahead of him in both categories. And if that's the case, there's no reason not to release Bono back to TFC – especially since he has another CCL date coming up in a month.
Miller was clearly the fourth man on the goalkeeper depth chart for this camp unless he proved otherwise. He obviously did not prove otherwise.
Given how good he is with his feet and his overall skillset it shouldn't shock anyone if he takes a major leap in 2019, which would be just his second season as a starter. And while he doesn't have CCL duties next month, it shouldn't shock anyone if Berhalter (and Bob Bradley) felt like the best place for him now was with LAFC.
Glad, who's been around forever but is still just 21 years old, is actually the second-most experienced CB on the roster in terms of MLS games. He's got 86, which is behind Walker Zimmerman, but ahead of Aaron Long, Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie.
Trusty (20) and McKenzie (19) are Glad's peers, young CBs who've bucked convention by pushing into their respective team's regular starting XI at a young age. If he's behind them in Berhalter's eyes, that should be a wake-up call. If so (and it sure appears so, unless there's an injury we don't know about), it'll be Glad's second wake-up call over the last three months, as he was benched by RSL head coach Mike Petke just before the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
If one coach is sending a message, players can look past it. If two are... better look again.
Lest anyone think this spells the end for Glad: At age 21, Zimmerman started 10 games and was a giant question mark. At age 21, Long was a central midfielder for UC-Riverside.
Glad's progress was linear right up until October of this year. He has now hit a bump in the road. If he wants inspiration as to how to take that bump, all he needs to do is look at the guys who are currently ahead of him on the USMNT depth chart. And lest Trusty and McKennie feel like their spots are secure, all they need to do is look at Glad's recent past for club and for country.
More surprising is the Acosta omission. He's had his moments for the USMNT:
That's pretty damn recent, and a really, really good goal. If you're going to play as a No. 8 in a 4-3-3, those are the types of runs you have to make, and the types of goals you have to sniff out. Look at how early Acosta realizes what is unfolding – that's significant.
What informs that surprise are both Acosta's natural talent and the fact that he's got nearly two-dozen caps and hasn't looked out of his depth against the likes of Colombia, or on the road at the Azteca in a World Cup qualifier. He is relatively proven, especially compared to most of the rest of the roster.
What somewhat tempers my surprise is that Acosta, at age 23, showed the same weaknesses at central midfield that he'd displayed from ages 18 through 22: He doesn't find the game enough.
Acosta's usage rate, both offensively and defensively, is regularly near the bottom of the league for No. 8s. At that position you have to be able to either impose yourself on the game defensively, dictate it offensively, or (ideally) both. Failure to do either is a cardinal sin.
The underlying numbers match the eye test. Acosta, for all his gifts, too often lets the game happen around him. In the system Berhalter used in MLS, as well as the similar-but-slightly-different system I think he'll use for the USMNT, that can't happen. The No. 8 always has to be around the ball and influencing the game. The ability to do that is easily Acosta's biggest weakness as a soccer player at this point.
As with Glad, this should be something of a wake-up call. As with Glad, he's young and has time to fix it. As with Glad, it probably has to happen with his club before he gets a real shot to show it with his country.
Which is as it should be. It's been about 16 months of hard truths for the USMNT. Coaches, administrators, fans and the old guard of players have all had to endure them.
Two of the new guard's brightest lights just had to endure some of their own. How they handle it will go a long way toward determining how much of them we see in red, white & blue in the future.