And here we finally are, more than 18 months past the last US men's national team game that truly mattered. It has been a long and bleak wander through the wilderness.
The 2019 Gold Cup is just about here, and that means US head coach Gregg Berhalter is about to name his roster for his first official competition. It will be a roster that has eyes upon — and is primarily built for — this new era, but also has tendrils reaching back to the old one. This is only natural; neither Italy nor the Netherlands nor Chile nor Ghana entirely exiled their old guard after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and it was always naive (and a silly strain of wished-for self-sabotage) to assume the US would do the same.
So this will be a mix of young and old. My guess, however, is that on balance it'll be more of that first thing than of that second thing.
Also: Please remember that Berhalter's teams demand context. His system is complex and his roles are specific (as is the norm at the highest levels of the modern game), and that means it's hard to imagine many new players will be called in for official competition. You can, absolutely, play your way into the US squad via club form or raw talent or both – but you'll almost certainly have to earn your first few caps in friendlies.
Here is how I have started thinking of the roles in Berhalter's system. It is helpful to remember these roles before assigning names to them. pic.twitter.com/Y9vJEnEDtG— Susaeta (@_Susaeta) March 12, 2019
“It’s a challenge for all of us, especially for guys that are just hearing about it and learning and looking at the drawing board and seeing movements and fluidity and creativity,” LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said to the LA Times a while back. “You can’t just switch off when you walk off the field. You’ve got to keep thinking about it and keep talking to your teammates and figure how can we make this work?”
Christian Pulisic, who I guess I'll now refer to as a Chelsea player, echoed those sentiments.
"[Berhalter's] very focused on all the details of the game. I've been amazed the first few days with just how much information he's got across, and how he wants every guy to be on the same page and have a perfect understanding of how we want to go into the game," Pulisic said to ESPN.com in March, in the midst of his first camp.
"I think that's all I'd say about what's impressed me the most, how much he's taken pride in really making sure every single guy understands the system and we feel 100 percent ready."
Bear in mind as well that the system is not the only thing. When the US had to adjust in the middle of what eventually became a 1-1 draw against Chile in March, they handled the switch (to a 3-4-3 from the 4-3-3) with aplomb.
There are, in other words, advantages to having a group of guys building trust and operating on the same page even when they're not necessarily executing out of the same formation every single time out.
So with that, here's the 23 I expect to see trying to retain the Gold Cup crown for the USMNT next month:
Steffen is injured once again, but so far it doesn't seem like the type of knock that will keep him out for more than another week or so. The 24-year-old needs the caps this summer – caps in official competitions are the only ones that count toward a UK work permit, which he's got to get if he's going to join up with Manchester City then presumably go on loan elsewhere in England for a year – in order to take the next planned step in his career, and my guess is that Berhalter's on board with that plan. As long as Steffen's healthy, he'll probably be between the pipes in every single game.
When he is actually healthy, that makes sense. Steffen was remarkable over the first few weeks of the MLS season, but then he picked up a knock (he missed the US games vs. Ecuador and Chile) and hasn't quite been the same guy since.
On form, Horvath is probably the better 'keeper right now, and is coming off a really wonderful year in Belgium. He fought his way into the XI by October and stayed there thanks to some great performances both in the league and in the Champions League. His feet and distribution are nowhere near as good as Steffen's, but he's become an elite shot-stopper and has just about entirely cut out the catastrophic errors that defined so much of his earlier career.
Johnson, who's regarded as one of the best locker room guys in the league and who has been mostly very good for NYCFC this year (save for one really, really bad touch), gets the nod for the third spot:
Ederson or Sean Johnson? pic.twitter.com/hqgV38J1y2— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) January 28, 2019
Next in line: Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas)
Gonzalez has been pretty good for FCD this year, though like Horvath he needs to continue to improve with his feet if he's going to challenge Steffen over the next decade.
My heart kind of breaks for Tim Melia (Sporting KC) and Stefan Frei (Seattle Sounders), for what it's worth. Both guys are and have been good enough to at least be in the mix, but Berhalter's understandably going with the younger cadre of players (Melia and Frei are both 33 years old). Maybe there's another part of the multi-verse where Melia gets discovered in 2012 instead of 2015 and has three-dozen caps to his name by now, or where Frei gets his citizenship a year or two earlier.
For what it's worth, it also looks like the book is closed on Brad Guzan's (Atlanta United) international career, so I'll say it one last time: If he'd been in net against Trinidad & Tobago, the US would've gone to the World Cup.
First things first: both Brooks and Long are varying levels of "injured." From what little has been reported in each case it doesn't look like they're the type of injuries that should/will keep them out into June, but it's at least a little something to keep an eye on. Brooks, despite his struggles in Concacaf, is a surefire starter, and Long, based upon his club play in 2018 and his US form in 2019, has a strong starting XI argument as well.
So too do Miazga and Zimmerman, though. Zimmerman's probably been the Defender of the Year in MLS so far, while Miazga's impact at Reading is reflected in the numbers:
- 5-15-8, -12 GD. 43 goals allowed 28 games (1.54 ga/90) without Miazga
- 5-4-9, -5 GD. 23 goals allowed in 18 games (1.28 ga/90) with Miazga
There were other factors for Reading's midseason turnaround, but Miazga walked into the XI of that club and helped save them from relegation, and they're now trying to get him back for 2019-20. Which obviously makes sense.
Next in line: Omar Gonzalez (Atlas), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City)
I'm over Omar, but he and Berhalter go back a decade and he's been a reliable club performer at a good level for a long time. If Brooks or Long can't go, my guess is he gets the call.
Robinson's arguably been the breakout player of the 2019 MLS season and Berhalter has specifically name-checked him as a guy who's on the radar. He and Carter-Vickers – who had a very good season on loan in Wales – were the preferred CB pairing for the US Under-23s in a pair of March friendlies, which saw one bad performance and then a very, very good performance.
I count that U23 camp as a "knows the system" camp since U-23 head coach Jason Kreis was basically hand-picked by Berhalter and Earnie Stewart for the job, and ran a scaled-down version of what Berhalter runs with the full US team.
LEFT BACKS (2): Tim Ream (Fulham), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact)
I don't feel super comfortable making either of these calls. Lovitz was pretty solid defensively in his three US caps so far, and has continued that form into the MLS season, where he's also been effective on the overlap. But he struggled to hit his marks in distribution and I'll go ahead and admit that I worry about his ability to contain the likes of Rodolfo Pizarro or Roberto Alvarado in isolation.
That last part goes for Ream, who should be tailor-made for the left back spot as Berhalter wants it played. His passing has been a weapon in his two caps this year:
But he also makes one inexplicable error per game, usually from just playing the ball blindly back to the 'keeper without checking his shoulder. It's such a bizarre thing for a 31-year-old veteran of the EPL, Championship, MLS and World Cup qualifying to do, but at this point you can't expect him to shake it.
Next in line: Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic), Greg Garza (FC Cincinnati)
Robinson — who was part of that U23 camp in March — might in fact pip Lovitz for the back-up spot. It's hard to forget how badly he got shredded for the US against Brazil and Colombia, but... it was against Brazil and Colombia in his very first caps while playing as part of a makeshift backline in a makeshift team for an interim head coach. Remember too that he got forward to good effect in those games and against Mexico. He also had a pretty solid Championship season.
Of course, in Berhalter's system the left back doesn't really push forward all that much in possession, and instead functions more as a third center back. That's not Robinson's wheelhouse.
If Garza could stay healthy he'd probably be No. 1 on the depth chart. It's just such a huge "if" at this point that I can't imagine him being called in for a summer tournament. Too much of a liability.
RIGHT BACKS (2): Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)
I have laid out, time and again, why I think Adams will begin his US time under Berhalter as a right back – which is where he played against Ecuador in the hybrid RB/DM system Berhalter uses. He led the team in touches on the night while playing that spot, and had more freedom to push up into the final third than he would've while playing the pure No. 6, conductor role.
Here, though, is the argument to change the system, or at least to change the personnel within it:
That pass from Tyler Adams— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) February 16, 2019
The 20-year-old USMNT midfielder picked up his first Bundesliga assist today for RB Leipzig pic.twitter.com/uKLUKcMmSm
Adams was remarkable for RB Leipzig when he arrived this winter, and was instantly one of the best defensive midfielders in the Bundesliga. He will be, at age 20, a full-time starter for a Champions League team this coming year.
But while he can hit those line-breaking passes, and his counterpress is N'golo Kante-esque, he doesn't yet/hasn't yet been asked to hit the type of into-the-pockets, third-line, tempo-setting passes Berhalter needs to know his No. 6 can hit. (This is the same reason Kante plays more advanced than Jorginho for Chelsea).
Long-term I suspect Adams will eventually claim that No. 6 spot, and Berhalter has even said "if the system we're trying doesn't work, we'll scrap it." He's already showed a willingness to do so when necessary. Maybe we get to that point this summer, but I kind of doubt it.
Adams is healthy, by the way. He'd missed about the past month with a muscle injury.
DeAndre Yedlin, meanwhile, is not. He had groin surgery last week and I'm going to assume that means he'll be out for the Gold Cup, which opens up the spot for Lima. Lima was very good in January and he's had to fight his way into the XI for Matias Almeyda with the Quakes, though 1) he's actually been at LB, not RB, and 2) he may lose his spot after last weekend's performance.
Still, he's an easy call here.
Cannon's quietly been very good for FCD this season, though he's much more of a linear, north-south right back. It's hard to see him pinching in effectively in the way Berhalter wants, and Cannon even said after January camp that he'd never played the position in that way, which was something of a struggle for him.
Araujo's probably too young for this group but... honest to God, I'd consider bringing him in if I was Berhalter. He was great for the U23s, and has mostly been excellent for the Galaxy.
I'm still stunned he didn't make the U20s.
Another fantastic pass from Michael Bradley. He combined well with Ream to get out of pressure, drove forward on the dribble, and then hit a perfect diagonal ball to Baird at the far post. Should've ended in a goal.#USAvCHI #USMNT #TheGeneral pic.twitter.com/cSkCFqL3v6— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) March 27, 2019
Nobody else in the pool makes that play. Period.
Now, there are still issues with both of these guys if they're isolated defensively, and even sometimes when playing in the 4-2-2-2 block defensive shape that Berhalter prefers. Bradley struggled mightily against Chile before the shape shifted to a 3-4-3 — with Trapp inserted next to him — which cut off service to the half-spaces.
Right now, though, this is the beginning and end of the discussion. Maybe it'll evolve during the Gold Cup, and it'll sure as hell evolve afterward. But for the next eight weeks get used to this.
Next in line: Russell Canouse (D.C. United)
Truth is that Adams is probably the next in line should one of the above guys get hurt. Canouse is, at this point, Adams-Lite in that he does a great job of covering ground and breaking up plays, can get out of jams with his footwork and hits the occasional defense-splitting pass, but doesn't do much to set or maintain tempo.
You could argue in that sense that Canouse's understudy in D.C., Chris Durkin, is actually closer to the USMNT roster than Canouse is. Truth is I hope that, long-term, there's room for both of them to become regulars. Same probably goes for the Canouse-like Edwin Cerrillo of FC Dallas.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD No. 8 (2): Weston McKennie (Schalke), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
McKennie STRUGGLED playing this role in his 65 minutes against Ecuador, and once he got healthy after the injury he picked up in that game, he came back into Schalke's XI as an RCB in a back five.
And therein lies the problem with McKennie at this point in his career: Nobody for his club seems to know which position is his best, but he's such a good soldier, high-IQ player and versatile soccer athlete that he can slot in almost anywhere. He's played center back, fullback, wide midfield, wingback, central midfield, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and as a second forward this year. It's madness.
Let's hope that new Schalke head coach (and former US international) David Wagner plugs him in as the No. 8 from the start in 2019-20. I expect that's what Berhalter will do for the Gold Cup.
Roldan keeps improving for the Sounders, both with his ridiculous finishing and field coverage. I still want to see him get better on the half-turn before I'm convinced that this is his spot, for what it's worth.
Also: You could argue me into either of these guys in the RB/DM hybrid role and Adams in this role.
Nagbe has been quietly outstanding for Atlanta over the past month, and is built to destroy teams from the half-spaces. The issue with him is that he usually doesn't destroy teams in the half-spaces, and instead settles for simple passes and lay-offs. If his game wasn't infected with such passivity he would be, like Pulisic, McKennie and Adams, a starter (or at least high-level contributor) for a Champions League club in one of the biggest leagues in the world.
Has his turn toward headier, more aggressive play been a blip? Is it just a run of good form against a series of subpar opponents? I honestly hope not — an aggressive, "drive the game forward" Nagbe changes a lot about how the US can be constructed. But I don't trust it yet.
Other than Miles Robinson I'm not sure any young-ish MLS player has helped themselves more than Yueill this season (defense, defense, defense). My colleague Bobby Warshaw sees him as a No. 6, but I think he's perfect for this role.
Like the Robinsons and Carter-Vickers, Yueill was part of that March U-23 camp, so he's familiar with the system. But I don't think he's going to push ahead of McKennie, Roldan or Nagbe just yet.
Corona is savvy and plays mistake-free soccer. I think you need more than that in this spot.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD No. 10 (2): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
$70 million for a reason, folks:
If Dortmund had had even average goalkeeping down the stretch that would go down as one of the all-time great club goals by any US player, both in terms of aesthetics and significance. As it is, this only checks the first box.
Pulisic has, like McKennie, battled injuries all season long. But he's put up 7g/5a in about 1,600 minutes across all competitions for the second-best team in the Bundesliga, which is a remarkable haul for a 20-year-old. The fact that some folks look at it as a disappointment tells you what you should know about Pulisic's talent level.
All that said: I don't love him as the No. 10 here. I think Berhalter's system has proved to be very good at getting both wingers into spots where they can annihilate backpedaling defenders 1v1, and I'd rather have Pulisic doing that than battling in the muck and the mire of central midfield.
But for now, for this tournament, I think he's the No. 10.
Lletget has not been great or even good for the Galaxy, but he was somewhere in between those for the US in his appearances under Berhalter so far, and nobody has jumped into the mix to displace him.
One thing to note: Lletget is not an instinctive, game-breaking passer. He doesn't have that touch of invention, that flair for the creative that we all want to see in our No. 10s. But he's so comfortable receiving the ball between the lines and Berhalter's system is so scripted that it almost doesn't matter. You already know where the next pass is, so "creativity" is not necessarily a thing you need in the spot.
(Bobby has a whole rant on how "creativity" isn't even a thing at the highest levels, and any team that relies upon it is setting themselves up for failure. I don't entirely buy it, but it's a good rant).
Mihailovic is smart and active, and mostly got into the right spots for the US in January's games. And he's had a nice start to his season so far in Chicago, but I don't think he's there yet. At times he's just not influential.
Pomykal always is, and on both sides of the ball. You could easily make an argument for him to be on this roster, but given that he's going to be with the U20s instead (and is currently recovering from an injury) I'm going to rule him out for the Gold Cup. But there's no question he's been better in MLS this year than Lletget.
All three of these guys bring energy. Arriola has the most experience and two-way bite, and is probably best at taking defenders 1v1 to create room enough for a pullback or a shot. Morris has the most speed and has scored the biggest goals – remember who got the tournament winner in the 2017 Gold Cup at just 22 years old? Yeah, that was him. Baird's got the most sauce, and is probably the most instinctive set-up man of the three, but struggled to finish plays off for the US in his caps earlier this year.
Given the volume of high-level wingers suddenly coming through the pipeline, all of these guys need to make a big statement in this tournament.
If I were the coach I'd probably pick Lewis over one of the three guys listed above because of his acceleration and ability to finish off plays, as well as his efficacy as a late-game sub. At the moment I actually think it's a coin flip between him and Baird, with Baird getting the edge because of his production and confidence the past few weeks.
Weah would be on this roster if he weren't going to the U-20 World Cup. That team actually didn't need any help on the wing, but he was dying to play in the tournament, so that's that.
Saief has the talent but hasn't produced in a year, and was awful against Colombia. Amon, on the other hand, looked good in his single cap against Peru, and I'm genuinely shocked he's not on the U-20 team.
Holmes had a good all-around season in the Championship and his versatility means we'll probably see him in a future camp or two, though his upside doesn't match that of the kids (and his productivity is lacking).
EDIT: I'm also going to mention Tyler Boyd, a New Zealand-American dual international who's been excellent on the wing on loan in Turkey. He played for New Zealand at the youth levels but has never been officially capped (friendlies only) at the full international level, which means he can file a one-time switch to the US.
Boyd's 24 years old and I've never seen him play. I don't know where or if he factors into the long-term equation, but I imagine he's on Berhalter and Earnie Stewart's radar.
More than anything else, I am dying to see what Jozy can do in this system. I think he's going to be dominant.
Zardes is not that, but he was very, very effective against Chile:
Rewatch those highlights. The guy was all over the place for the full 90 minutes, and while his goalscoring has dropped off for Columbus, his hold-up play has actually improved. He's not a long-term solution, but he's earned this call-up.
Sargent really has't with his (lack of) club play. He had a chance to get real minutes after the winter break, and came into the rotation with two very quick goals, but by March he'd fallen out of the XI and then pretty much out of the 18. He's played seven total minutes since February 22.
That's really disappointing, and I think he should be with the U-20s (he'd help that team a lot) and Weah should be with the full USMNT for the Gold Cup, but instead my guess is it's going to be reversed.
To be clear: I don't think there's any question that Sargent is talented enough to get the job done at this level, and I wouldn't be shocked if he was the clear No. 2 on the depth chart by the end of the tournament. He's already Altidore's clear heir apparent, and getting two goals in 205 Bundesliga minutes as a teenager is a victory. But for about the last 130 of those minutes he looked sluggish, unfit, and unsure of himself, which is why he fell out of favor.
I'm betting on his talent to shine through in the long run. I think Berhalter will bet on it in the short run, and I'm fine with that.
Ramirez and Ebobisse have both been capped under Berhalter, and both have functioned well enough in MLS this year to stay on the radar. Neither has finished well enough to push higher up the depth chart, though. The same goes for Novakovich, who hasn't been capped and didn't manage to reach double-digit goals in the high-scoring Eredivisie this season.
Wood hasn't scored since November, has been hurt for months, and is definitely not staying at Hannover after their relegation (he'll return to Hamburg). His immediate future is very much in limbo, and his immediate past isn't enough to get him a call-up this summer even if he's healthy.
Wooten's interesting – 17 goals in 30 2. Bundesliga games is no joke. But he's a 29-year-old journeyman who's never produced at that level before despite plenty of reps. For context he is lower-regarded by folks in Germany than Terrence Boyd was, and Terrence Boyd scored zero goals in 14 US caps. So Wooten's a hard pass from me, and I suspect that'll be the same from Berhalter as well.
The official roster announcement comes next week. We'll have reactions and analysis – video, written and otherwise – all over MLSsoccer.com. See you all then!