Armchair Analyst: Picking through the USMNT roster for Nations League

About half of my lede from yesterday's column, in which I predicted the US men's national team roster for this upcoming international date in which the US face Cuba and Canada in the inaugural version of the Concacaf Nations League, focused in on Sergiño Dest. The 18-year-old Dutch-American fullback is a singular attacking talent from that spot in the US pool, and has won a starting job with Ajax – still one of the world's great clubs.

He is raw in certain ways and very, very advanced in others, and has been a star for the US youth national teams over the past several years. The hope was that he'd be a star for the US, too.

And, well, now that might not come to pass. Dest's meteoric rise over the past 12 months put him on the radar of the Netherlands fed (who'd never really paid him much mind) to the extent that the head coach of their national team, Ronald Koeman, has been personally recruiting Dest. The youngster is not on the Dutch roster for any of their teams at any level for this upcoming date, but he's not on the US roster either despite starting both friendlies last month, and despite starting and starring for the US U-20s at this spring's U-20 World Cup.

Anyone who follows college sports knows this feeling: Your favorite team has been recruiting a key player for years, and then Duke or Kentucky (or Alabama or Clemson if you're more of a football fan) show up, and suddenly it's a tug-of-war.

Bear in mind, though, that Gregg Berhalter is recruiting Dest as well.

“I understand there is going to be a lot of attention surrounding the availability of Sergiño in this next camp. I’ve had conversations with Sergiño, the conversations were positive, and the content of these conversations is going to remain private,” is what the US head coach said in a statement along with the roster announcement.

The US have not officially lost yet. As I wrote above, Dest isn't on any Dutch roster coming up, and there's been no report of him filing a one-time switch. But from a Red, White & Blue perspective, it doesn't look great.

Let's take a look at the players who actually will be in camp for these games:

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

As expected.

FULLBACKS (4): DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact)

Yedlin's return to action for Newcastle this past weekend was brief – he's played just 16 minutes in the past six months. There were 26 players total called up for the US, which means that three of them will not participate in these games, so it feels like there's a good chance that Yedlin's inclusion here is something close to "ceremonial." It makes sense to call him and get him reintegrated into the group, but also to make sure he's sent back to his club team with no extra, unnecessary wear-and-tear.

It sounds at least a little bit like that's Berhalter's plan, though I may be reading too much into the following quote:

“The health and status of our players is something we’re continually monitoring. We have some key players that have been out, but it’s nice to get them back into the fold," he said. "DeAndre’s last camp with us was in March, so it’ll be nice to see him again."

Given Dest's absence and the relative strength of the right back position relative to left back for the US, I think the No. 1 thing I want to see from this group is if Lima can play as a sort of inverted left back at the international level. Berhalter has been a little bit dismissive of that idea in the past and Lima personally prefers right back, but he's played a ton of left back for the Quakes this year.

CENTER BACKS (4): Tim Ream (Fulham), Matt Miazga (Reading), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)

I have Ream listed here after his performance against Uruguay, and given the make-up of the roster my guess is he's mostly a center back from now on. Berhalter clearly wants a left-footed distributor in the center of defense, and with John Brooks (still) hurt (again), Ream's the guy for that role:

Man am I nervous about the prospect of him trying to contain Jonathan David and the rest of that Canadian attack, though.

How fit will Miazga be 10 days from now? That answer probably determines where he and Long are on the depth chart, with Zimmerman – who's struggled in the second half of the season with LAFC – pretty clearly fourth.

The slight surprise here is that Miles Robinson, who performed well against Uruguay and has been a rock for Atlanta United all year, isn't with this group. But he's clearly the best Olympic-eligible CB in the pool, so giving him time with the U-23s makes sense.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS (3): Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)

No surprises here, though my guess is only two of these guys will make the final, 23-man roster. Bradley is a lock to be one of them, while Yueill will probably have to drastically out-perform Trapp in the first day of camp to permanently pass him.

Tyler Adams is expected to return to the field for RB Leipzig in the next several weeks. I hope to see him at defensive midfield in next month's Nations League games, and not at fullback.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS (2): Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

As expected. McKennie's playing actual soccer now for Schalke under David Wagner, and has had a relatively strong start to the year in multiple spots. But he's still being used all over the place and I think it's fair to be concerned that he's never going to have the requisite instinct for game management necessary to be a pure, top-level No. 8.

But I don't blame Berhalter in the slightest for going back to the well here. McKennie should start both games.

ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS (3): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union)

Other than the omission of Dest, my biggest disappointment in this roster is that Pulisic is listed as a midfielder rather than as a forward (a designation that always includes the wingers in USSF roster releases). Pulisic has had good performances for the US in the past as a central player, but that's not his spot, and shouldn't be his spot. I would argue that over the course of this year, Lletget has out-performed him as a No. 10 for the US.

I would much rather see Lletget as the No. 10 with Pulisic in his natural spot on the wing. Maybe we will get to see that, but from reading the tea leaves, it seems like not.

Another disappointment from this spot: Neither FC Dallas's Paxton Pomykal nor Derby County's Duane Holmes got the call. Pomykal is – perhaps like Robinson – so central to the U-23s while not quite being central to the full USMNT yet that there is a clear rationale in having him at that camp. Holmes had a long injury lay-off and has only recently worked his way back onto the field for his club team.

"Duane's on our radar he's progressed nicely back from his injury... we're more comfortable at this stage with these other options" at attacking midfield, Berhalter said on a call with the media on Wednesday after the release. He also said the lack of a call-up "doesn't mean it's cemented" that he won't be in the next camp.

Holmes has looked very good at times over the past year, and I'd hoped to see him here, but for what it's worth: He has 3g/5a in 58 career games in the Championship and is about to turn 25.

Aaronson, the 18-year-old attacker for Philadelphia, is the only shock inclusion for these games, as Tom Bogert broke yesterday. So far this year he has:

  • Been good and versatile for the Union at two spots
  • Bounced back after a midseason slump and benching
  • Beaten out a full Mexican international (Marco Fabian) for playing time
  • Showed out with the U-23s last month

I don't there there are a lot of players in the US pool at any age who make that play on the ball and then hit that through ball with their off foot.

“There are two things that standout about Brenden. The first thing is that he’s getting regular minutes, and the second is that he’s playing for a team that’s doing really well," Berhalter said. "We always look for that combination. He’s a very agile player, very aware between the lines, able to give solutions offensively and very secure on the ball. He’s another case of getting a younger guy into the program, getting our eyes on him and also letting him understand what it means to be in with the full men’s national team."

From that it certainly sounds like Aaronson's just here for a taste – he's getting a reward for his strong season, while at the same time Berhalter is showing the other U-23s that there's a pretty clear path into the first team if you perform well at that level and for your club (Yueill and Robinson have made the same leap this year).

Even with all of that I'm still kind of surprised Aaronson's already gotten the call-up. He's been good, but maybe not "full international" good, so this feels like it's more about top-down integration of the entire US program than it is about any one particular player.

WINGERS (4): Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas)

Morris has been one of the best wingers in MLS since his return from the Gold Cup and scored last month against Uruguay. All-in-all he looks much, much more comfortable on the wing now than he ever has previously in his career.

I would love to see a 4-3-3 with Pulisic on one wing and Morris on the other.

Arriola is in good form for D.C., but as a central midfielder (nominally a No. 10, but one who does so in a "press and create turnovers" fashion rather than a "pull strings as a playmaker" fashion). He is an attritional soccer player.

"What comes to mind when I think of Paul is his relentless attacking. He just goes and goes and goes, and that has a cumulative effect on the opponent," Berhalter said. "We think with him being able to repeat his high-speed running puts us in positions to create goal scoring opportunities."

Baird is the same way, and has bounced back recently after a miserable start to his RSL season. And remember: he's got a little bit of sauce:

Baird is an open-field player, though, and I'm not sure how useful he'll be against a pair of teams that will most likely sit and counter.

Boyd should be a solution for that, but he has struggled for both club and country. He has yet to score or assist for Besiktas this year, hasn't gone the full 90 since Matchday 1, was benched two weeks ago and has been yanked at halftime in two of his last four appearances.

It has been a struggle.

CENTER FORWARDS (3): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)

It should really be a two-man depth chart for these games, and I fully expect Altidore to start that second game against Canada at BMO Field. Sargent should start the first game, and Zardes should be there for moral support.

I'm looking forward to seeing if Sargent, who's now a starter in the Bundesliga, starts to replicate the form he showed for the US last year against Peru:


Have fun in the comments section. Play nice.

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