Every US national team roster, Gregg Berhalter says, reflects the pool at a certain slice of time. Context is everything.
It comes down to form, fitness and opportunity when selecting the squad. The FIFA international window comes as MLS clubs are fighting to get/stay above the playoff line as well as seeding. It's a slow MLS match week, but you'd figure Berhalter — the former Columbus Crew head coach and understanding international manager intent on forming relationships with clubs, not just in MLS but all over the world — will show leniency. The cool dad. These are friendlies, after all.
Berhalter has also talked frequently about continuity, reminding us yet again ahead of this very camp:
🗣 | As club matches in Europe are about to get underway, #USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter gives a view towards what his roster for September’s matches against 🇲🇽 and 🇺🇾 will look like when it’s released on Wednesday. 🇺🇸 ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/80WOOIbv7U— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) August 24, 2019
"We want to continue to build with this group. Having said that, we know there's going to be some consistency in the roster and we want to mix in some players who haven't been involved as well."
On the field, context is everything, too. Roles are defined, but Berhalter values positional fluidity. Players like Tyler Adams, Sebastian Lletget and Duane Holmes who can cover multiple spots.
Before the Concacaf Gold Cup, Berhalter tested out another system — not to be confused with The System™ — an experimental 3-4-2-1. Is that going to make a return, does he have another formation to try or will he be monogamous to The System™? Will we see the hybrid right back/center mid role again? Is Berhalter going to continue with Christian Pulisic as a No. 10 or shift him back to the wing? Which youngsters will get sprinkled in?
GOALKEEPERS (3): Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas)
Steffen's return to the Bundesliga has gotten off to a dream start and that's the most important development for USMNT goalkeepers, full stop. The development of the unquestioned No. 1 is what matters most at the position, but it's not so straightforward behind Steffen.
Horvath found form last season, winning the starting gig back with Club Brugge. Progression back on track for the 24-year-old, it appeared. Except Brugge signed Simon Mignolet from Liverpool this month, placing Horvath firmly back on the bench. Still, he's a no-brainer for the squad though his grip on the USMNT's backup keeper shirt will loosen the longer he's on the bench for Brugge.
With a handful of MLS games this weekend, the usual names likely won't be called in. It could spell a return for Brad Guzan, but what's the point? Continuity isn't there, he hasn't been involved in a Berhalter camp yet. The soon-to-be 35-year-old would be placeholding a squad spot, likely to be relinquished the next time Tyler Miller or Sean Johnson are available.
Gonzalez has not been in great form in MLS, but circumstances could give him a chance to impress Berhalter's staff and get back in contention for regular call-ups.
With NYCFC and LAFC in action this week, Johnson and Miller are likely to stay with their squads.
Admittedly, three right backs on a national squad for two games looks weird.
Lima and Cannon each impressed at the Gold Cup, while the US can't not call-up Dest, right? The Dutch dual-national wasn't approached by the Netherlands for their U-21 squad and has broken into the Ajax first team after an impressive U-20 World Cup. These friendlies won't cap-tie him, but October's Nations League would, if the 18-year-old is called up and plays in one of those matches.
He's earned a look with the senior national team while Lima and Cannon haven't done anything to lose their place in the squad. Lima's ability to play on either side of defense will work in his favor.
Next in line: DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle), Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy)
Right back is suddenly a deep position for the USMNT. Yedlin already has 59 caps by the age of 26, is a Premier League regular but is still hurt. Araujo enjoyed an ascent from LA Galaxy II to a valued member of the first team then a call-up to the US U-20 side. He turned 18 earlier this month and has made 14 appearances for the Galaxy.
It's also an interesting group moving forward. If Berhalter continues to play Adams at right back, then he's one of the first names on the team sheet. If Adams returns to the midfield (please) but Berhalter sticks with the hybrid role at right back, then there's no place for Yedlin. If it's a traditional, overlapping fullback, then Lima falls on the depth chart.
Robinson has taken The Leap for Atlanta in 2019, vital to their defensive improvements and new system. ATLUTD now play more aggressive with wingbacks who are naturally attacking players, thus leaving the central defenders isolated; Robinson has been one of the best center backs in the league at defending 1v1 in space. It's reminiscent of Long's Defender of the Year season in 2018. Let's see what he can do on the international stage.
Speaking of Long, a return to the national team (and close of the European transfer window) may be the elixir to cure his recent poor run of form with the Red Bulls. With Miazga, Zimmerman and Gonzalez all likely not picked, Carter-Vickers has a chance to be the fourth center back on the roster.
Miazga picked up a hamstring injury in his last match for Reading and, while his manager said he doesn't think it's serious, hamstrings are not to be trifled with. LAFC took out Carlos Vela in a tied El Trafico against his will because of hamstring fears.
Zimmerman and Gonzalez each have games, while Glad has rebounded well after being cut from the January camp. He's back on the fringes of the national team picture — there'll always be room for center backs who can defend in space.
It's too early for Richards to be involved at the senior level, with just two 3. Liga appearances under his belt with Bayern Munich II, but he is absolutely on the radar.
LEFT BACKS (2): Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Wigan)
You know how right back is a deep position? Left back very much is not at the moment.
After the Gold Cup, Ream remains the best option at the position. A strong passer of the ball, Ream is good for one fatal misstep a game — an ill-advised back-pass, a soul-taking nutmeg, whatever it is. It's the kind of thing to be expected with a natural central defender playing fullback.
Robinson has his imperfections, too. His defensive qualities are still developing, which is a bit of a pickle for a "defender". Another issue is the style of Berhalter's left back. Robinson is an overlapping fullback, The System™ dictates the left back to tuck in as a psuedo-third center back in possession. Ream, obviously, is much better suited for this gig.
Yet still, Robinson is young and has started each of Wigan's five Championship matches. It's a crucial year for the 22-year-old. If it were World Cup qualifying rather than a pair of friendlies, though, Long and Lima might be better options to start at left back.
Next in line: Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Chris Gloster (PSV)
All of the above mean it's pivotal that one of the country's young left backs pan out, whether it's Robinson, Gloster, George Bello or Kobe Hernandez-Foster.
Gloster impressed at the U-20 World Cup and is just settling at PSV after joining the Dutch side this summer.
As pontificated under the right back section, this all comes down to where Berhalter sees Adams' best fit. If Adams returns to his natural, field-dominating defensive midfield role sooner rather than later, it's his position and everything behind him — when he's fit — is moot.
For now, though, he's still not fit. Close, but not yet. Trapp, a constant under Berhalter for club an country and the face of his oft-discussed continuity, will be back.
Servania, one of a handful of U-20 breakouts in line for a senior call-up, benefits from the fact Toronto have a game and Adams' injury. Since returning from the World Cup, Servania has played in all of Dallas' 13 MLS matches (nine starts). The 20-year-old would reap the rewards from a few days with the senior side.
Bradley, too, would figure to be on this roster if not for Toronto's game at FC Cincinnati . Yueill may well get the nod over Servania, building on his summer call-up. A Bundesliga regular, Morales is back in the picture. It would be no surprise if the 29-year-old is one of the "new faces" Berhalter hopes to see.
Former US international David Wagner took over at Schalke this summer, lending fresh hope McKennie would get an extended run at center mid rather than playing — no joke — a total of seven (!) different roles in his early Schalke career. So far, so good: Two starts in two Bundesliga games at CM. His development is crucial for the USMNT midfield. As the Gold Cup showed, at times, there'll be growing pains. It's okay. It's his age-21 season. That's normal.
Behind him, is it (finally) time for Nagbe to return? He hasn't been involved with the national team under Berhalter yet, but sterling form at club level warrants a call-up. Plus, his possessional excellence would be perfect for the duties Berhalter wants on the ball. Can he do the defensive work required on the international stage against Mexico and Uruguay?
With Holmes recovering from an injury, don't be surprised if he too is left with his club. If called, perhaps Lletget plays the first game and is sent back to LA, as the Galaxy have an MLS match the day after USA face Uruguay.
Next in line: Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
With Seattle's match against the Rapids that weekend, Roldan is likely out. He's the only name here because between DM, CM and AM, there are 15 names mentioned and players like Pomykal, Servania, Yueill and Mihailovic can play as a No. 8 as well.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS (2): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)
Berhalter's Christian Pulisic question remains: Where is he best used on the national team? He's a natural winger, but can he be more effective for the USMNT at No. 10? The Gold Cup offered mixed returns. Some games he dominated moments, others the moments were much too fleeting. His tendency to drift wide created overloads, but left the team without a creative presence through the center.
I'd put him back wide and let him do his thing, particularly without game-changing wingers at the moment, but I get Berhalter's experiment. There isn't an obvious game-changing No. 10 in the pool (yet), either.
Doyle agrees: "For the love of God let’s please play Pulisic wide. He’s a winger, not a No. 10." I'm sure he'll elaborate when he breaks down the squad after it's released with an eye on which position Pulisic is grouped.
Perhaps the squad's No. 10 will be Pomykal in the near future, though he may also be best used as an all-action No. 8. His development will have a domino effect on the attack, particularly where Pulisic plays and maybe McKennie.
Next in line: Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Julian Green (Greuther Fürth)
Mihailovic hasn't taken as much of a step forward by way of goal contributions in 2019, with 3g/1a in 1,364 minutes for the Fire this season. With a number of intriguing talents coming through the pipes — like Pomykal, Alex Mendez and Richie Ledezma — it could soon be a crowded group.
WINGERS (3): Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro)
Breaking onto the USMNT scene this summer, Boyd impressed at the Gold Cup. He aims to lock down a starting spot under Berhalter. Arriola, another constant under this new regime, brings more continuity.
Sabbi, just as Boyd was this summer, is an unknown to the casual USMNT fan. With Weah injured and friendlies on the schedule, perhaps it's a good time to give him a runout.
Also: Three wingers is light, but the likes of Pulisic, Pomykal, Lletget and Holmes can all fill minutes wide if need be.
Next in line: Tim Weah (Lille), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Jonathan Amon (FC Nordsjælland), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)
Weah just picked up a knock, delaying his return to the senior side after dropping down to play at the U-20 World Cup this summer. The new Lille attacker appeared in both of the club's first two Ligue 1 games before the injury and has as bright a future as any American not named Pulisic.
Though they're not in the playoff chase, the Rapids have a game during the FIFA window. Perhaps the lack of stakes could persuade Berhalter to call in Lewis.
EDIT: Jordan Morris' name was lost in translation somewhere around here. Just as Roldan's case, he's likely to be left in Seattle as the Sounders jockey for playoff seeding with a match against the Rapids during the break.
CENTER FORWARDS (2): Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)
Is this the international window that Sargent begins to pass Zardes, or will we continue to pound the table with "potential"? To be clear: He's 19-years-old. There's no rush and it's not a huge indictment.
Sargent was left off the Gold Cup roster in favor of the Crew talisman, much to the general uproar of USMNT Twitter circles. He remains on the fringes of the Werder Bremen team, though, looking to earn regular playing time. He has a total of eight minutes after Bremen's first two Bundesliga games in 2019.
Zardes continues to hang onto his place in the national team and, despite a few missed chances here or there, his club form gives Berhalter plenty of reason for his name to be a regular on the squads. Plus, if Altidore isn't called, Zardes is the starting striker.
Altidore would be on the squad, perhaps Ebobisse too, given the injuries to attackers plus MLS matches. But both have MLS games.
Sebastian Soto's breakout U-20 World Cup put him on the radar, but more regular playing time is required before he makes the jump to the senior side.