Armchair Analyst: Predicting Berhalter's US Nations League roster

There are three big questions for the US men's national team right now, just over a week from their first-ever participation in the Concacaf Nations League:

  1. Can they cope defensively without a trio of injured and presumably unavailable starters up the spine (Tyler Adams, John Books and, potentially, Matt Miazga)?
  2. Are they actually favorites against Canada – a team that hasn't beaten the US in nearly 35 years?
  3. Will Sergino Dest accept a call-up?

Those first two questions are very intertwined, as the Canucks – who the US will play on October 15, four days after their opener against Cuba – are brimming with high-end attacking talent to the point where it's basically impossible for head coach John Herdman to get all of it onto the field at once. For the US then, whether it's the first-choice XI or a mix of guys fighting to get into/stay in the first-choice XI, they will be tested by what Canada throw at them.

And they will be tested emotionally as well. The game, from the US point of view, is something more than a friendly but less than a qualifier. From Canada's perspective, it is, thanks to the new Hexagonal qualification criteria, basically a result-or-go-home proposition. The results did break kindly for them last round – El Salvador's loss to the Dominican Republic was huge – but Canada are still the region's seventh-placed team in the FIFA rankings, and they will not be gifted a bump into the top six. Heaven helps those who help themselves.

From a US perspective, this is good. This last cycle saw a parade of fixtures in which the US went up against a less-talented opponent who played with an order of magnitude more hunger and clarity of purpose. Well, against Canada the talent gap will not be large while the motivation gap will be close to a chasm. It will be an excellent test of whether this group can not only execute on the principles of positional play that Gregg Berhalter's been installing, but also to see if they can summon the toughness and/or swagger necessary to start sonning folks in the region once again.

Getting Dest into the team on a permanent basis should help on both those counts. The 18-year-old Dutch-American is still a defensive liability, but most young defenders are (just ask LAFC, who saw their 20-year-old Ecuadorian international left-back Diego Palacios break a simple offside line in Sunday's 1-1 draw at Minnesota. Palacios, like Dest, was a star at this spring's U-20 World Cup but also has a full year in the Eredivisie as a starter under his belt. Dest's shortcomings on that side of the ball 1) should improve with reps, which he's getting at Ajax, and 2) are more than worth the trade-off for what he brings in possession and attack.

Even after getting orange coned by Tecatito Corona earlier this month Dest still played with confidence and swagger. He relishes getting on the ball in the toughest spots, and when he pushes forward it's to a purpose. He is a singular attacking talent from either fullback spot for the US.

Potentially, anyway, because Netherlands head coach Ronald Koeman has been pitching Dest on a one-time switch to the Oranje. This thread from Leander Schaerlaeckens spells it out pretty well:

Dest has been a part of US youth national team set-ups since 2016. He has actually turned down calls from the Netherlands' youth set-ups in the past, and they actually didn't call him up this window – either for their full national team or their U21. That, plus the fact that he's almost a surefire starter for the US, is a point in the Red, White & Blue's corner.

The flip side is that he was born and raised in the Netherlands. He is a citizen of both countries, but one is his home. And beyond the fact that travel for a European national side is less intense, and that there aren't a ton of high-level right back prospects in the pipeline for the Dutch, bear in mind the fact that, historically speaking, if you're in the first team at Ajax you're a half-step from that national team.

I think a lot of folks are going to be holding their breath until the roster's announced on Wednesday. If Dest is on it, it means he's committed to the US for good. If he's not, it's time for the USSF to call in Nick Saban, John Calipari and every other top recruiter under the sun, because he would be on the verge of slipping away.

With all that in mind, here's the roster I expect Berhalter to call in:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)

Steffen struggled mightily with his distribution against Mexico both in the Gold Cup final and in the September friendly, and I'd argue he's leaving the door open for a challenge for that No. 1 shirt. I'd also argue that of the known quantities in the pool, no one's really challenging too hard for it right now

Next in line: Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

Ok, Turner's probably not next in line for real, but I'd be happy to see him as the third 'keeper in this camp or the next. But my guess is we'll wait until January.

For those of you wondering where Ethan Horvath is: mostly on the bench. The 24-year-old has lost his starting job for Club Brugge, though he is playing in Belgian Cup games. Given that and his struggles with the ball at his feet, he's going to have to do a lot of work to get back into the picture here.

RIGHT BACKS (2): Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)

Cannon has not been at his best since the Gold Cup, which is not unusual for a young player coming off his first major tournament. We've seen that kind of dip in performance repeatedly over the decades, and it's not limited to the US. It's kind of a natural thing when transitioning from club to country and back again.

But he's been good enough and is promising enough to not lose his spot on the roster.

Yedlin, meanwhile, returned to action this week for Newcastle after a lengthy injury absence. He's played only 16 minutes in the past six months so it'd be perfectly understandable if Berhalter left him with his club to reintegrate. But I'm going to assume DeAndre gets a call for these games and a brief cameo at the end of one or both, since he has to reintegrate with the US as well.

Next in line: Keegan Rosenberry (Colorado Rapids)

I don't actually think Rosenberry has any chance of getting a call, largely because the two left-backs on this roster are both natural right-backs. But he's been better than both Cannon and Nick Lima this year, and his passing matches what Berhalter looks for from this spot:

We'll see him again in January.

CENTER BACKS (4): Tim Ream (Fulham), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)

I've been a Ream skeptic for a while, but he was mistake-free at left-back against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and then played probably his best game for the US in the recent friendly against Uruguay. With Brooks still hurt – and maybe forever hurt – I'd expect Ream to start both games.

Long vs. Robinson is probably 70/30 in Long's favor just because of reps, but Robinson was more daring and dangerous for the US vs. Uruguay, and has had the better all-around season. So I wouldn't be surprised if Berhalter went with him instead.

Zimmerman has played his way from the top of the depth chart to the bottom of it over the past few months. I thought he was the best CB in the league in the first half of the MLS season, but he's been far from that in the second.

Next in line: Omar Gonzalez (Toronto FC), Ventura Alvarado (Necaxa)

It would not be a shock if Omar got the call for this camp as the fourth center back on the depth chart given his long history with Berhalter.

It would be kind of a shock if Alvarado got the call at this point, but he's had a strong 2019 in Liga MX and is currently captaining a Necaxa side that's second in the table and well on their way to a playoff spot. Alvarado's just 27 years old, and while it's fair to say he struggled mightily in his previous call-ups, it's also fair to say that the vast majority of players who came in during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure struggled.

I don't know if Alvarado's on the radar or not, but I wouldn't be at all disappointed if he was a part of this camp.

Bear in mind that if Miazga's available (he returned from injury last week but was then absent again for Reading on Saturday), he'll be on the roster and likely in the starting lineup for one or both of these games, and that by my reckoning Zimmerman would be out.

LEFT BACKS (2): Sergino Dest (Ajax), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)

Dest you know about at this point.

Lima you should know about, as he's been a regular for the US all year long – but exclusively on the right. Given how two-footed he is and how he's primarily a left-back for the Quakes, I'd like to see him start factoring into the depth chart on that side for Berhalter. He has the two-way ability and has shown a level of comfort coming inside to central midfield to form that 3-2-2-3 shape (which at times recently has been more of a 2-3-2-3) that Berhalter likes.

And Lima wins his physical battles. He's shown multiple times now that he doesn't get pushed around at the international level.

Next in line: Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact)

Berhalter has shown Lovitz a lot of trust and given him a lot of reps – 10 caps this year – so maybe I'm wrong here, and maybe he'll be a part of this camp as well. It does make sense to have a naturally left-footed left-back on the roster.

But I just haven't seen enough from Lovitz in his minutes to be confident of his ability in games that matter.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS (2): Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)

I do think and hope that this becomes Adams' spot when he's healthy, but given that he's not, and given that none of the other younger d-mids have really distinguished themselves, I suspect Bradley's about to get 150 minutes (60 vs. Cuba, 90 vs Canada) at d-mid in these two games.

Bradley's lost a step over the past two years – he no longer covers as much ground, and he's regressed a bit in terms of digging the ball out of scrums (which was never his strong suit anyway). But it's clear that in Berhalter's scheme the ability to dictate the game with the ball from that spot is the No. 1 priority, and Bradley is still the best passing d-mid the US have:

Yueill was pretty good against Uruguay, and I suspect that means we'll get to see him again here.

Next in line: Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)

Trapp has been in-and-out of the lineup for Columbus recently and hasn't exactly made a case for more minutes in his US appearances. Until/unless he does so at the club level, it doesn't make sense to keep giving him caps.

I'll go ahead and say that one of my bigger disappointments this year, from a USMNT-centric perspective, is that D.C. United's Russell Canouse didn't get a look for the US at d-mid, and is now actually playing right-back at the club level. Canouse is a physical presence and a ball-winner when he plays in front of the defense, and it worries me that the US still aren't particularly good at either of those things in central midfield. Maybe Hassani Dotson, Edwin Cerrillo or Brandon Servania can show out with the U-23s, push their way into the picture and allay my concerns a little bit.

Back to Adams for a sec: He's returned to training for RB Leipzig after a long injury lay-off, though it's worth considering the workload he had from December 2016, when his U-20 cohort got going, until this past spring when he break:

  • 2016/17: 35 games (~3000 minutes) for his club, 12 games (~850 minutes) for the US U-20s, 1 game (90 mins) for USMNT
  • 2018/19: 50 games (~4200 minutes) for his clubs, 9 games (~750 minutes) for the USMNT

From December of 2016 up until his injury he played almost 9000 minutes in the most physical and physically intensive system in the world, did so across three continents, and the longest break he got at any point during that stretch was between RBNY getting knocked out of last year's playoffs and his Bundesliga debut. Judging by how he looked in that debut, I don't think he used that break for R&R.

He was bound to break at some point. It's actually good luck, from a US perspective, that it came at this point in the cycle and that RB Leipzig have been slow to bring him back. Let's hope they manage his minutes at least a little bit and that by the end of 2019 he's back to 100% fitness. The US need him, but not right now.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD (2): Weston McKennie (Schalke), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

I could very easily be talked into McKennie in the other, more advanced central midfield slot since, from a defensive perspective, he and Bradley just aren't great together. McKennie struggles to read the game and get pressure to the ball when playing as a No. 8 in a mid-block, and like Bradley he struggles to win the ball in 1-v-1 situations. Schalke head coach David Wagner has actually pushed him a little higher upfield into more of a pure attacking role recently, and it's working.

Roldan continues to excel for the Sounders and had some good moments in the last pair of friendlies.

Next in line: Keaton Parks (NYCFC)

Parks has a knock and has yet to be part of a camp under Berhalter, so he's probably not being considered. But he's been excellent for the Pigeons since sliding into their XI back in the late spring, and it's only a matter of time before he begins to factor in for the US.

Of course, Parks is another guy who, like McKennie, Bradley and Yueill, struggles to win the ball out of a scrum. That is the big question mark about him at the international level.

I'd honestly rather have Paxton Pomykal, who is the best non-Adams ball-winner in the entire pool, as the No. 8 and McKennie as the left-sided No. 10, but I don't think Berhalter sees it that way. Yet.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD (3): Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Duane Holmes (Derby County), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)

Lletget has 11 caps for the US and he's played well in every one. His comfort receiving the ball in traffic is what makes him stand out, and he also has the ability and confidence to beat a defender and create a chance:

He should be the starter for these games, though I'd hope we get to see some of both Holmes and Pomykal as well. Holmes has returned from injury with a good start to the Championship season for Derby, and Pomykal's been largely excellent for Dallas all year long.

For what it's worth, it might be wishful thinking on my part to have Pomykal listed as a central midfielder since Berhalter played him on the wing in his debut. It's kind of a bad thing (wing is not his best spot), but also kind of a good thing (all three of Pomykal, Lletget and Holmes can play as the 10, on the wing or deeper as a No. 8).

Next in line: No one, really

Sporting KC's Gianluca Busio just had his best game as a pro, but he'll be with the U17s (as he should be). PSV Eindhoven's Richie Ledezma just had his best game as a pro for Jong PSV, but he should be with the U23s (I'll be angry if he's not a part of this upcoming camp). Chicago's Djordje Mihailovic started the year with promise but has finished it with a whimper.

It's somehow not a huge worry that there's no obvious "up next" answer, because for the first time in program history the US are legitimately three deep at the attacking midfield spot. It's a brave new world.

WINGERS (3): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Paul Arriola (D.C. United)

Can I just say that I'm not really concerned about Pulisic right now? He's already played 441 minutes and has three assists across all competitions. He's got three or four guys ahead of him on the depth chart right now at Stamford Bridge, but... isn't that what we're supposed to want? He'll have to fight for his spot and beat out international caliber wingers from Spain, Brazil and England. If he can do that he'll have come through the crucible ready to become a world-class player.

And if he can't, he'll still probably play 1500 minutes this year, then go on loan next year (maybe back to Dortmund after they sell Jadon Sancho for $125 million). I am absolutely ok with Pulisic playing limited minutes for his club this year, then coming to his national team and taking his rage out on the poor citizens of Concacaf.

Morris is the clear No. 2 in the winger pool right now, and has arguably been the best winger in the league since returning from the Gold Cup. He finally looks completely healthy and also looks something close to completely comfortable out there.

Arriola is the natural third choice given his engine, his defensive chops and his versatility.

Next in line: Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Corey Baird (RSL)

Boyd was poor in the last set of friendlies and has carried that form over to his club. This past weekend he was yanked at the half, and it seems he stands a good chance of dropping down the depth chart in Istanbul.

I would hope to see Jonathan Lewis (Colorado) – who has struggled recently after a promising start to his career in Denver – and Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro) with the U23s.

CENTER FORWARDS (2): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)

I don't think it could be any more clear that these are the top two center forwards in the pool. Even if Berhalter doesn't trust Jozy to go 90 (and it's not clear he does, nor that he should), 70 minutes of Jozy is still a handful for any team in Concacaf.

As for Sargent, he's a full Bundesliga starter now, and a productive one:

Sargent has, at times, been physically beasted against teams like Dortmund, but that hasn't stopped him from making a number of very, very good plays – plays of the type that I think only he and Jozy make from the striker pool.

Give one of them 70 and the other one 20 in each of these two games.

Next in line: Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)

Zardes has had another good year, but we know what he is and what he isn't at the international level. Wood has played just 23 minutes this season and doesn't seem to really factor on the depth chart for either club or country, but I am eager to see him in Berhalter's system at some point (and in Sporting KC's... Peter Vermes should pry him away from Germany).

Guys like Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland), Mason Toye (Minnesota United) and Haji Wright (VVV-Venlo) should be with the U23s.

WHAT I WANT TO SEE:

Have fun in the comments section. Play nice.

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