Armchair Analyst: Berhalter mixes-and-matches on USMNT roster

A few notes on the US men's national team roster – Gregg Berhalter's second as head coach, and first during a FIFA break, which means the first with the potential full list of players available – for the upcoming friendlies against Ecuador on March 21 and Chile on March 26:

• After skewing very young in January's camp, this roster is filled almost entirely players in their prime, as 19 of the 24 players are aged 23-through-31. The only youngsters are Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams from the Bundesliga, as well as MLS-based wingers Corey Baird and Jonathan Lewis.

I'm good with this. Pulisic, McKennie and Adams are obviously "write their names onto the teamsheet in permanent marker"-level players, while Baird and Lewis earned their returns with strong January showings (I'm much higher on Baird's performance than some of you).

Unlike last cycle, which was caught in between generations, this speaks to what I think is a good, strong, in-their-prime core.

• Yeah, there are two obvious omissions here: Josh Sargent and Tim Weah, as well as the less obvious omission of Denmark-based winger Jonathan Amon (who was both good and fun in his one US appearance). On talent these guys are all part of the US's best 23, but none of them has made a case recently.

  • Amon fell off after a hot start in Denmark and has been little-used in recent months
  • Weah's played only about half-an-hour for Celtic in the past month
  • Sargent had an opportunity to seize more minutes for Werder Bremen, but was ineffective in his last six appearances

This is fine. They're all still teenagers, and progress is rarely linear or rapid. And guess what? There's a U-23 camp going on at the same time, and...

The above speaks to an increased emphasis on getting results at the youth levels – the US have missed three of the last four Olympics, and that is not good. Given the depth and quality of talent from our U-23s, there is no excuse to do so again, and, well, there it is. (I wonder about Lewis's inclusion on the full squad and not the U-23s, for what it's worth. And also about the status of Portland center forward Jeremy Ebobisse).

I do wonder what it means for the three guys I mentioned with regard to the upcoming U-20 World Cup. If they're still U-20 players by the time it comes around in May, the US have a legitimate chance of winning the damn thing! The group would be, on paper, better than the Venezuela team that were runners-up in 2017 and better than the Serbia team that won it in 2015.

Win that – or at least put in a third-straight strong showing – and spin forward into the Olympics? Yes please.

• The only players over 30 on this roster are Michael Bradley and Tim Ream. Both guys are specialists – Bradley in that back-point, distributing No. 6 role that he played in January, and Ream seems like the ideal fit for the left back/left center back role Daniel Lovitz (who's back, and deserves to be) played.

Berhalter's quote sums up why those guys are around:

“Our goal is to keep making progress. Building on the themes of last camp, building on the style of play of last camp, but also now evaluating a new group of players,” Berhalter said in a statement sent out by U.S. Soccer. “We made progress in the first camp and it’s now asking if we can take it to another level. When we are done with this camp, it’s important that we have a good idea of our strongest group of players heading into the Gold Cup.”

Emphasis mine.

Berhalter's made a point of building toward 2022, but he's clearly not interested in skipping out on this summer's Gold Cup (nor should he be). Given the way the US played in January, Bradley and Ream have specific roles to fill and they may in fact do so better than the younger options.

• I am heartbroken on behalf of Tim Melia, who's been the best goalkeeper in MLS since 2015 and whose increased comfort with the ball at his feet has bumped up another level based upon his early-season play. That said, I entirely get why Sean Johnson's there:

That remains one of the more outrageous passes I've ever seen a US player, at any position, hit. He deserves another 5 years of call-ups just for pulling it off (but if I had to pick one 'keeper in the US pool to stick in the net right now in a big game, it wouldn't be Johnson or Ethan Horvath or presumed No. 1 Zack Steffen... it'd be Melia).

• I have big questions over how both Pulisic and Adams will be used, and am looking forward to what Berhalter does with them.

Pulisic is conceivably the best No. 10 on the roster, and the best left winger and the best right winger. He plays mostly right wing for Borussia Dortmund, but given the system Berhalter ran in January, that's the least influential of the three spots. I think I prefer him as an inverted left winger who gets to dribble at backpedaling defenders and combine with, say, Sebastian Lletget at the No. 10 a dozen times per game while either Gyasi Zardes or Christian Ramirez ghost to the back post.

There's goals in that combination. But there's also goals in having Lewis out left and Pulisic at the 10 and nobody on God's green earth able to keep up with the two of them in transition.

EDIT:  Here's Berhalter's quote on Pulisic in Tuesday's presser: "In this camp we're going to look at him as the No. 10, slanted to the left – we played with two No. 10s last camp, we're going to do that again."

We're definitely going to see Adams at the 6 in one of these games, and perhaps as a No. 8 (where Cristian Roldan played) as well. And if you know me, you know I want to see him in that inverted right back role that Nick Lima owned over the winter.

Fingers crossed!

• Two other Euro-based players not called in: Bobby Wood and Duane Holmes. Wood's club struggles have been prolonged, and it seems at this point that he's not a Bundesliga-caliber player. I'd argue that he's been a better USMNT player than Zardes, but Berhalter's got his system and his guys. Every new coach is entitled to both.

Holmes is a more interesting case in both the short- and long-term. The 24-year-old has been a jack-of-all-trades for Derby County all year, and has looked competent-to-excellent at every spot from right back to left wing to playmaker. But with Roldan and Paul Arriola on the roster and integrated, it's hard to see Holmes breaking in unless he starts producing more tangibly in the Championship.

• Welcome back, Jordan Morris! He seems tailor made for that right winger spot his college buddy Baird occupied in January, and my guess is we see him mostly there. But I do hope we see a bit of him as the No. 9.

• A reminder of how the US lined up in the two wins over Panama and Costa Rica:

When building from the back it was a pretty standard 4-3-3, though the No. 6 didn't drop deep between the two CBs very often (which had been a staple of Berhalter's Crew teams).

When pushing into the attacking half, the right back wouldn't overlap, but would tuck inside next to the 6, while the No. 8 would push up next to the No. 10 and the wingers would stay wide. It was essentially the old "WM", one of the first distinct formations in soccer history – which came to the forefront about 100 years ago.

When pressing it was more of a 4-2-3-1, with the No. 10 free to push up as needed.

When defending out of a middle block it was a standard 4-4-2, or as Berhalter called it, a "4-2-2-2."

Here's the roster:

Pos. Player Club
GK Ethan Horvath Club Brugge
GK Sean Johnson NYCFC
GK Zack Steffen Columbus Crew SC
D John Brooks Wolfsburg
D Omar Gonzalez Atlas
D Nick Lima San Jose Earthquakes
D Aaron Long NY Red Bulls
D Daniel Lovitz Montreal Impact
D Matt Miazga Reading
D Tim Ream Fulham
D DeAndre Yedlin Newcastle United
M Tyler Adams RB Leipzig
M Michael Bradley Toronto FC
M Sebastian Lletget LA Galaxy
M Weston McKennie Schalke
M Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund
M Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders
M Wil Trapp Columbus Crew SC
F Paul Arriola D.C. United
F Corey Baird Real Salt Lake
F Jonathan Lewis NYCFC
F Jordan Morris Seattle Sounders
F Christian Ramirez LAFC
F Gyasi Zardes Columbus Crew SC
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