Armchair Analyst: Who has the most to gain for USMNT vs. Costa Rica

If you have followed the US men's national team even casually for the past five, 10 or 15 years — or even longer — then you probably know the drill with January camp, colloquially nicknamed "Camp Cupcake" amongst the fans because it always ends with a friendly or two against usually overwhelmed, less-than-full-strength opponents.

The reason those teams were/are less than full strength is the same reason the US themselves always are: the entire month of January is not an international date. In fact there are no international dates at all from mid-November until the end of February, which means that clubs are under no obligation to release players (and thus don't). That means January camp has traditionally been the domain of preseason MLS players and a select few based in Scandinavia, with the occasional dash of out-of-contract players (hello, Bryang Kayo!) or European-based youth players (greetings, Uly Llanez!) sprinkled in.

This is all by way of saying that Saturday's friendly against a similarly short-handed Costa Rica is, uh, not exactly a live-or-die affair.

That is not the same thing as saying that Saturday's game has no stakes. Costa Rica are rivals, and by definition every game against a rival has stakes. Beyond that, Concacaf Olympic qualifiers will be held in March, and just as with this camp, teams are not required to release their players for the duration of Olympic qualifiers. That means guys like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, Sergino Dest and Tim Weah, who are all Olympic-eligible, are all massive question marks (to be honest I'd be surprised if we saw a single one of them released for the tournament). That in turn means there are spots up for grabs.

I'm not going to say that the US "absolutely have to qualify for the Olympics." What I'll say is that it'd be a massive failure — the first of Gregg Berhalter's tenure, to be honest — if the US didn't. And while Jason Kreis is the head coach of the U-23s, he's Berhalter's guy and it'd be under Berhalter's watch that it's happening.

To that end, this is not the standard January USMNT roster. Instead this roster skews young, and in fact more than half of the rostered players this weekend (13 of the 22) are age-eligible for Olympic qualifying. Three of them (Kayo, Llanez and LA Galaxy right back Julian Araujo) are actually age-eligible for 2024 Olympic qualifying, which should give you an idea of how deeply Berhalter is looking into the potential depth chart.

So yeah, it's Camp Cupcake. But at the same time this is all very, very big. 

Let's take a look at who's got the most at stake:

Jackson Yueill

It's probably too much to say that Jackson Yueill was the breakout USMNT performer of 2019, but simply saying that he overdelivered on expectations undersells it. Yueill looked the part of a proper, international-caliber regista against Uruguay in a friendly played in third gear back in September, then was a central part of the US team that absolutely dusted Canada in November's Concacaf Nations League game — one that was played at something close to World Cup Qualifier-level intensity. He was very, very good:

With the exception of right back Reggie Cannon, Yueill is the U-23 in this camp who's closest to being a significant part of the full USMNT. He's also someone who might stay in a starting role even if/when Adams and McKennie are available, since you could very easily play those two guys as pressing 8s and Yueill as a regista behind them in a three-man midfield.

Which, taken as a whole, means that Yueill has the most to lose as a bad showing means that guys like Christian Cappis and Brandon Servania, both of whom are in this camp, could close the gap on him. Yueill also arguably has the most to gain, as a commanding performance could cement him as a leader for the Olympic qualifying group no matter who else is/isn't available.

Jonathan Lewis

Pulisic and Weah. Nick Taitague mostly healthy for the first time in forever, and said to be close to the Schalke first team after spending the month with them. Gio Reyna, having debuted for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, and Indy Vassilev, having debuted for Aston Villa in the EPL.

Richie Ledezma, Paxton Pomykal and Brenden Aaronson — guys who I think are central midfielders, but who are often played out wide. Llanez ripping it up with Wolfsburg's kids. Bofo Saucedo starting for UNAM Pumas in Liga MX.

That's the competition for Jonathan Lewis, who has always produced when given a chance but has reached the "put up or shut up" phase of his career when it comes to winning a starting job. He has the ability to do it:

He's also saying all the right things — talking specifically this winter about how he needs to improve upon the defensive side of the ball (he does) and be a two-way impact player.

He certainly has the tools to make it a reality. He could do himself a big favor if he brought that to bear this weekend.

Justen Glad

For each of the past two years RSL have been significantly better with Justen Glad on the field than off of it. He has the size and speed, and as of 2019 seemed finally to add a bunch of the strength necessary to play CB against even the best center forwards in the league (though Zlatan owned him, to be fair).

But for each of the past two years RSL's head coaches – first Mike Petke and then Freddy Juarez – benched Glad in the playoffs.

He's still just 22. For context: He will be younger at this point in the 2026 World Cup cycle than Aaron Long is right now, so there is still plenty of time for Glad to mature into a USMNT starter.

This is his shot to prove he should be an Olympic qualifying starter, though. Cameron Carter-Vickers' career going into a tailspin, Chris Richards failing to break through into anything higher than the German third tier and up-and-down seasons from most of his age-group competition in MLS (including the guy who's next on the list) have this door wide open for Glad.

Mark McKenzie 

That door is wide open for the Union's Mark McKenzie as well. He's two full years younger than Glad, and thus much less experienced — Glad has over 10,000 career minutes across all competitions while McKenzie is shy of 3,000. He's also not, I don't think, as athletic as Glad or Miles Robinson (who's not in this camp — more on that in a second), and his defensive instinct still need polishing.

The difference is that McKenzie's often asked to be a line-breaking passer of the ball for Philly, and he often delivers. He was asked the same by Tab Ramos with the U-20s, and he usually delivered there as well. He is able to see and hit passes that cause real stress on the opposition's shape, and that's the kind of distribution from the back Berhalter seems to want to weaponize.

For what it's worth I would expect Robinson to have one of the starting CB jobs on lock. Though even that's not guaranteed, especially since Atlanta United are under no obligation to release him and probably won't be eager to if they're in the midst of a CCL run.

Sam Vines

Sam Vines snuck under the radar and into Colorado's lineup by the middle of spring last year, and stayed there right through the end of the season by playing no-frills, mistake-free soccer. He is one of two young left backs on this roster, though the other – Minnesota United's Chase Gasper – is too old to be eligible for Olympic qualifying. So in this game, if Vines gets onto the field, he'll be competing against himself and trying to show that he can add value in Berhalter's system.

I have few concerns he'll manage that on the defensive side of the ball. The big questions come in possession, where Berhalter justifiably asks his fullbacks to be more than just "mistake free." In the modern back four the fullbacks have to be, at the very least, competent at meaningful ball progression. If they turn out to be less than that, opponents will see it as an exploitable weakness they can target to starve the midfield and frontline of any sort of service (if you want an example of this, go re-watch Canada's 2-0 home win over the US in the Nations League, and how often and effectively they targeted Daniel Lovitz).

Vines is never going to be a Dest-level possession hub, but it would be a major boost for both the U-23s and potentially for the full USMNT if he could go out there and show that, at the very least, he can work nearly as well on the left as Cannon and Nick Lima did on the right in 2019.

Other things to keep an eye on:

  • Sebastian Lletget: He's literally never played a bad game for the USMNT, and usually plays very, very well. He's also going to have to fight for his life to lock down and hold onto a starting spot given the young midfield talent coming up.
  • Jesus Ferreira: The latest dual-national to commit to the US, Ferreira's maybe a No. 9, maybe a winger, maybe a No. 10, and probably a second forward. Too bad the US don't use a two-man front line. I'm curious to see where and how he plays.
  • Walker Zimmerman: Can he match consistency to his physical gifts? If so he has a chance to solidify his place on the CB depth chart.
  • Matt Turner: His shot-stopping has been otherworldly the past two years in MLS, and there's a good chance this weekend will see him debut. If and when that happens, he will be asked to play with his feet. I am intrigued.
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