Armchair Analyst: Predicting the US men's national team rosters for a very busy summer 2021

The Gold Cup draw was held on Monday night. The US were drawn into Group B with Canada, Martinique and a team to be named later (it's gonna be Haiti). It is a tough draw, relatively speaking, but tough is good.

It is also part of a busy, COVID-inflected next summer of soccer. The Gold Cup (July 10-August 1) and the U-20 World Cup (May 20-June 12) were already scheduled for every-other summer in the odd years; to those have now been added the Olympics (July 22-August 7) and the inaugural Concacaf Nations Cup (exact dates still TBD, but likely in June). There is going to be a lot of soccer for US men's national team fans to watch.

And there are also going to be a lot of roster choices for Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart to make. Let's game this out:

  • Many of the best players in the pool (Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, to name three) are Olympic-eligible
  • One (Gio Reyna) is still U-20 eligible.
  • No club team can be compelled, as per FIFA statutes, to release players for Youth tournaments (which both the Olympics and the U-20s officially are). Schalke, for example, flipped the USSF the bird when Tab Ramos asked them to release McKennie for the 2017 U-20 World Cup. The Rapids were set to deny Sam Vines a U-23 call-up this March.
  • Any club team can be compelled to release players for full national team tournaments (which both the Nations League and Gold Cup are).
  • No club team* would take kindly to releasing players for two separate tournaments in the same summer.

(*) The exception here might be FC Dallas — I could see them releasing Ricardo Pepi for both the U-20s and the Olympics, though he'd have to make a massive jump early next year to move into serious contention for an Olympic roster slot.

You see what I'm getting at, right? There will be four tournaments next summer — provided the US qualify for both the Olympics and U-20 World Cup — with, quite likely, four entirely different rosters. We will see a lot of faces in Red, White & Blue.

Underpinning all of this: Concacaf World Cup qualifying begins for the US next June and it is more important than the rest of the competitions combined. World Cup qualifying is now scheduled to run from June 2021 to March 2022, and everything that Berhalter, Stewart et al do has to be aimed at making sure the best players are healthy, available and fully integrated into their role with the team.

Part of that is playing nice with their clubs. The Gold Cup, for example, is likely to run into Chelsea's preseason. Berhalter could compel Chelsea to release Pulisic for the duration, but ... why? The Gold Cup matters, of course, but it doesn't matter like that.

The Nations League doesn't matter like that, either. But given where it is in the schedule — likely preceding the first group of qualifiers, and at the end of most of the respective European seasons — and given that it's just two games, it's an easier and more sensible ask.

The Olympics? In my mind, they do matter like that, and if things were normal and there'd been no COVID and the Olympics had been this past summer as previously scheduled, I'd have demanded that Berhalter, Stewart and Brian McBride go to West London, Leipzig, Amsterdam (now Barcelona), Wolfsburg and Turin, get down on hands and knees and simply beg for the release of all the great Zoomers that look like they'll comprise a golden generation.

But not in the summer of 2021. It's not worth risking alienating the clubs when those players are busy trying to lock down starting jobs or meaningful roles. It's not worth potentially overworking them when they should be easing back into preseason and attempting to get and stay fresh for the long haul.

For context, Pulisic's injury this summer happened in early August. It is now October and he's yet to return to action. The same knock next year could potentially deprive the US of his services for four World Cup qualifiers, while at the same time knocking him down Chelsea's depth chart.

It is not worth it. Not for Pulisic, McKennie, Adams, or any of our core players.

Am I bummed? Yes, of course. I genuinely think we had a chance to medal if the Olympics were this past summer. But Olympic medals don't mean crap if you don't qualify for the World Cup. Nothing does. So everything that happens next summer has to be in service of that goal, so that means...

  • Using one tournament to get the core players together in order to build chemistry
  • Making sure the core players get enough rest between club seasons
  • Playing nice with the clubs overall
  • Using the other tournaments to build depth and give other players a chance to push through and become core players

And so here are the four rosters. The following is a combination of what I'd do, what I'm hoping for in terms of player development and injury luck, and what I think Berhalter will do. For example, you know I prefer Matt Turner to Zack Steffen; I know, just as well, that unless Steffen's hurt, Berhalter prefers Zack Steffen to Matt Turner. The lineups will reflect that.

We will start with the core group:

Nations League 

Bench: Sean Johnson, Brad Guzan; Reggie Cannon, Chris Richards, Tim Ream, Nick Lima; Jackson Yueill, Alfredo Morales, Sebastian Lletget; Paul Arriola, Jozy Altidore, Tim Weah

It's a full 23-man roster with three 'keepers. You'll notice Turner isn't one of them. Stay tuned.

You'll also probably notice that I have Antonee Robinson at left back and Sergino Dest at right back, which could be fairly termed as "insanely attacking." I am not as concerned about that as I maybe should be in large part because of Adams' role adjustment in Leipzig (he's playing as the deepest-lying defensive midfielder and actually dropping into the back line at times), and in large part because if Jordan Morris is my right wing then I need a right fullback who will both overlap and be comfortable pushing into the half spaces as a playmaker.

Dest does that with aplomb, and McKennie is comfortable filling gaps defensively, which is his main job for Juventus at the moment.

As thrilled as I am that Richards is getting minutes with Bayern, I'm not about to bet my life that Berhalter starts a 21-year-old center back. I also had to make the unkind cut of Gyasi Zardes from this group despite his exceptional 2020, but the guy's just not quite as talented as Josh Sargent or Altidore*, and with Weah playing a bunch at forward now as well, this roster goes three deep at this spot. There is no room for Gyasi with the core group if that's the case.

(*) Watching the first half of Sunday's win over the Crew I thought to myself "there's no way Jozy makes it to the end of this season, let alone next summer or the 2022 World Cup." Watching the second half of that game I thought to myself "he is still clearly the best striker in the pool."

What he is not is a 90-minute player. He will have to embrace the role of a super-sub for the USMNT if he's to get one last chance at a World Cup roster. I am honestly betting against him still being viable two years from now, but I do think he'll be crucial in qualifying.

There is room for Paul Arriola even though there are other, younger wingers who I think (hope?) will be higher-level international players next summer. But for all intents and purposes this is the fourth winger on the depth chart for these games, and the (potential) difference between Arriola and Jonathan Lewis or Uly Llanez at that spot is not going to be the difference between winning and losing.

From a tactical standpoint, consider that Morris ... doesn't actually fit what Berhalter had his wingers do the last time the US took the field, which was pull inside and knock the ball around in the half-spaces. That is basically the opposite of his skill set. If that's on the menu as Plan A for this tournament and subsequent outings, then Gio Reyna is a natural fit, which would then open up a central midfield role for Lletget — who's been superb every time he's taken the field for the US.

Also consider that Morris, in the game before that, absolutely dominated a must-win encounter against a very good Canada team while the US took a different tactical set-up. I feel like folks read way too much into a Camp Cupcake friendly vs. Costa Rica and not enough into that Nations League win over a desperate Canada team that had just smacked the hell out of the US four weeks previous.

The other very real possibility is that Weah finally stays healthy and lives up to his potential. For the sake of this exercise I have him on the way to doing that, to the point where he's an obvious inclusion on the roster. But I don't want to tempt fate and start assuming he'll displace the guys in that front three.

I almost sent Yueill to the Olympics, but he's needed here. You can fudge it a little bit with your fourth-string winger or fourth-string fullback (Lima, here because he's played well for the US in the past and can play both RB and LB) but not with your back-up d-mid.

U-20 World Cup

Bench: Damian Las, Chituru Odunze; Julian Araujo, Hayden Sargis, Kobe Hernandez-Foster; Johnny Cardoso, Sebastian Berhalter, Bryang Kayo; Cade Cowell, Indiana Vassilev, Kevin Paredes

It's a 21-man roster for this tournament. And lest you forget, the US have to qualify. That can sometimes be tricky, but they are strong favorites with this group.

And this is an odd group. They are super deep and talented at a bunch of spots, none more so than the wings. Konrad De La Fuente and Uly Llanez both played at the last U-20 World Cup, and De La Fuente might be well past this point if he actually does break through with Barcelona. Llanez, meanwhile, is on loan at Heerenveen for a year, which should be a wonderful platform that could potentially rocket him into Wolfsburg's first team upon his return.

But don't count on it. Wolfsburg slow-play their youth prospects unlike most German teams, so for both of these guys, I'm counting on progress in 2020-21, but not so much that they'll have made the jump past the U-20 level.

I gave Paredes and Cowell the nods over Griffin Yow and Cameron Harper, though obviously much can change. Cowell's ability to be an off-the-shoulder No. 9 is a differentiating factor here.

Center forward picks itself, as Pepi — who is an '03 and thus eligible for the next U-20 tournament as well — is the only one in this pool getting first-team minutes at a good level. Vassilev did get a few minutes in the EPL last year, but just as a chaser and is now dropping down a couple of levels on loan. That is fine (and he's not really an actual center forward anyway; this group is thin at that spot).

They are not thin in central midfield, where Cardoso could easily claim a starting spot over Busio or Tessmann, while Kayo could end up being the star of this team. There's not even room for guys like Moses Nyeman, Tyler Wolff, Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio, all of whom have played real MLS minutes, nor highly rated USL prospect Jose Gallegos or quad-national Matko Miljevic, who plays down in Argentina. This group is simply stacked at central midfield.

The other place they're loaded are at both fullback slots. Bryan Reynolds gets the nod over Araujo, who is an MLS starter and a veteran of the 2019 U-20 World Cup squad. They both get the nod over Joe Scally, who's already been sold for multiple millions of dollars to a Bundesliga side, and Tayvon Gray, who I absolutely love (but who isn't getting playing time in 2020).

Left back is just as deep. George Bello has been the one bright spot for Atlanta this year, and looks like a high-level prospect again. Hernandez-Foster is with the Wolfsburg U-19s playing defensive midfield, but in this instance his versatility (d-mid, LB, LCB) is a good thing even if I question his upside for physicality reasons. They both get the nod over RBNY's John Tolkin (roughly the same scouting report as Hernandez-Foster) and Louisville City's FC Dallas Academy product Jonathan Gomez.

Center back, meanwhile, is thin. Sargis, from the Sacramento Republic, should probably be in the XI over George Campbell from Atlanta United. Owen Otasowie is a lock if Wolves release him, though who knows how happy he'll be about playing CB instead of DM.

RSL's David Ochoa is another veteran of the 2019 U-20 World Cup, and is the obvious first choice here.

Is there a good argument to move De La Fuente and Llanez to the Olympic team? Sure. I'm not against it. But unless one of them makes a major leap this year — and again, bear in mind both that it's possible and that I refuse to count on it — I'm entirely happy with the idea of them running out for this side, which has a chance to make it to the quarterfinals (or beyond) of the U-20 World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Anyway, most of these guys have the talent to push into the full USMNT picture at some point. Llanez is obviously the closest.

Olympic Team

Bench: J.T. Marcinkowski; Justen Glad, Mauricio Pineda, Aaron Herrera; Hassani Dotson, Richie Ledezma; Daryl Dike

You only have an 18-person roster for the Olympics, with three overage players. As with the U-20s, the US still have to qualify. Unlike with the U-20s, we've been historically awful in Olympic qualifying this century, making it just once in four tries since coming just short of the bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Given the way I value the Olympics, bringing Turner, Ike Opara (the best available CB provided he is healthy) and DeAndre Yedlin (a blooded veteran and a weapon at right back) as my overage trio is a fairly easy call. I don't think Berhalter will do this — I think we're much more likely to see Michael Bradley in a regista role, and Opara has never seemed to figure for Berhalter — but I'm the guy with the keyboard here.

I love registas, and Sands is not one. But I still have plenty of time for a good, old-fashioned destroyer, and Sands gives me that. Williamson, meanwhile, has been one of the best surprises of the MLS season playing as either a No. 8 or a No. 10, while Pomykal ... if he was healthy, he'd be with the first team in the starting lineup. But the timeline is too tight — he's not expected to be back until mid-March, and then probably won't get on the field for full 90s until the end of spring. It would be foolish to plan on having him for the full national team.

But he's worth waiting on for the U23s. He's that level of a talent. Put him, Sands and Williamson in the same central midfield and I dare you to try to build through the middle against us.

Vines and McKenzie are easy choices at this point, as are Lewis and Aaronson. I like Aaronson more as a winger than a central midfielder, remember. Plus I want him to pinch inside and operate in the half-spaces, which has the added effect of inviting Yedlin forward on the overlap.

There are a ton of forwards to pick from, but Ebobisse gets the nod here for two reasons. First is that he's consistently risen to the occasion for club and country, including the US Open Cup, the MLS is Back Tournament and the U-20 World Cup, where it was him — not Sargent — who gave the Venezuelans hell in the 2017 quarterfinals.

Second is that with him and Opara, I intend to dominate on set pieces. They have outsized importance in these tournaments.

So, too, does roster flexibility. Herrera can play both RB and LB and has, for both club and country. Glad can play either RCB or LCB and a little bit of RB; Pineda can play both CB and DM; Dotson can play CM, DM and RB; Ledezma is both a No. 10 and a winger. Dike is the only specialist off the bench.

Any of these guys can make a push to be in the full USMNT instead (other than Opara), and there are a couple on this roster who I think are better than the alternatives I just sent to the Nations League.

Also remember that I'm assuming MLS teams will play nice with releasing players while European teams mostly won't. The fact that the US will have this kind of depth anyway ... the talent pool has gotten both broader and deeper. It's fantastic.

Gold Cup

Bench: Ethan Horvath, Tim Melia; Brandon Bye, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Eric Palmer-Brown, Chris Gloster; Frankie Amaya, Keaton Parks, Memo Rodriguez; Djordje Mihailovic, Ayo Akinola, Benji Michel

A full 23-man roster for this one again. 

I am throwing Horvath a lifeline. I am assuming that, sometime between now and next summer, he will be a soccer player again. It's been too long.

It's also been too long for both Frei and Melia to get their looks. As with Opara, Berhalter just hasn't had any interest in them. As with Opara, both are still (when healthy) among the very best in the pool at their position, and should have been capped long ago. And who knows, maybe one or the other will be such a great locker room presence, or put together such an incredible performance that they push their way into the picture. Each has done so before on the club level.

Zimmerman, Miazga, Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown: Four guys who were, at one point or another, on the verge of becoming core players. Four guys who are still young enough to become so. That's exactly what this particular Gold Cup should be used for.

Gasper and Shaq Moore are both slightly too old for the Olympics (they're '96s) and have earned looks with their play. Same for Bye, who nobody outside of Foxborough is paying attention to but is actually excellent. Gloster is a talented youngster who, frankly, isn't going to make it at PSV, but could end up being useful.

Durkin has settled in in Belgium and is a regista in the mold that Berhalter likes, while both Roldan and Holmes have been parts of the USMNT over the past two years to one degree or another. Amaya — unless El Tri steal him, and yes, they're sniffing around — Parks and Rodriguez are all good-to-very-good starters who are all just entering their respective primes (or in Amaya's case, still a couple years away). No disrespect to Bradley or Wil Trapp, but I would rather see the next generation here.

Zardes is the obvious starter and let's hope that Akinola — who I nearly had ahead of Dike for the Olympic roster — is just an obvious inclusion. I think his goalscoring is sustainable because his movement is so clever, but if it's not, maybe there's room for Christian Ramirez or Khiry Shelton? Maybe there's a Bobby Wood renaissance? Those first two guys have been very good in MLS this year; the third was very good for the USMNT in the not-too-distant past, and is still on the right side of 30.

I'm not sure Tyler Boyd has earned this with his play, but at this point he's the best 1v1 winger left in the pool and oh by the way he's on Besiktas which means he'll get to play in some of the world's fiercest derbies as well as a few Europa League games every year. He's obviously worth a return trip. Mueller has earned it with his play, as have Mihailovic (who presents a very different type of playmaking winger look for this group) and Michel. I'm going to assume they keep on the same trajectory.

I would like to believe that Nick Taitague will get healthy or that Folarin Balogun will pick the US or that Alex Mendez will become a more well-rounded player. Any of that can happen. As with the above, however, I am not going to count on it.


Ok this was an insanely fun exercise that 1) took me much longer than I expected, and 2) is unlikely to have much relevance next year given how much things change with player trajectories and injuries and the rest of it. Maybe Berhalter actually will talk Andrea Pirlo into letting McKennie play in World Cup qualifiers and the Olympics, after all; maybe Pulisic will be hurt again; maybe Nick DePuy becomes the next Long, and maybe Richards breaks through with Bayern. Maybe Ronald Koeman convinces Dest to file a one-time switch to the Netherlands (he still can!).

All of that is still on the table, and if there's one thing all US soccer fans should've learned over the past decade, it's to hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Next summer is Berhalter's chance to start changing that.

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