Armchair Analyst: Latest USMNT roster has an Olympic flair

The US men's national team announced the roster for the upcoming friendly against El Salvador, and as expected it is both highly experimental and almost entirely composed of MLS players. So let's go ahead and explain why that is before we get into the guts of this thing and pull apart who's here, and why:

1) All but one player on the roster come from MLS because this is not a FIFA international date, meaning nobody's actually compelled to release players for this one. MLS teams that are out of season, however, have no real reason to hold players out.

So this means you won't see the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. It also means you won't see the likes of Matt Turner, Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris (though if Seattle lose to FC Dallas on Tuesday night, I could very easily see Morris and Cristian Roldan being late additions, while if Seattle win there are as many as five Dallas players I could see sneaking onto the final roster).

2) It is highly experimental even beyond the "MLS only!" nature of the roster because Gregg Berhalter & Co. are planning for a very busy 2021, which includes not just World Cup qualifying, but the Nations League, the Gold Cup, U-20 World Cup qualifying and then the tournament itself (hopefully), as well as Olympic qualifying and the tournament itself (hopefully).

To my eye, this group looks geared toward the Olympics, as 15 of the 22 players called in were born on January 1, 1997, or later — the age cut-off for Olympic qualifying eligibility — while most of the older guys have been mainstays (or something close to it) under Berhalter.

Those veterans are there presumably to show the kids the ropes. It's easier to make experimentation worthwhile if you have a control group.

As for the Olympics: both Olympic qualifying and the tournament itself are classed as "youth tournaments" as per FIFA. That means nobody anywhere is compelled to release their players, so even though the likes of Pulisic, Adams, McKennie and a bunch of the other brightest US stars shining in Europe are age-eligible do not expect to see them next summer in Japan. European teams do not play nice with those kinds of call-ups.

MLS teams, historically speaking, mostly have. It's a good bet that everything about the Olympics for the US will be a mostly MLS affair.

3) There are four players on the roster who are age-eligible for the 2021 U-20s. I don't think it's a coincidence that three of those four are dual-national Mexican-Americans, a group that includes El Tri youth national team mainstay Efra Alvarez.

Tata Martino has spoken openly and often glowingly about many of the Mexican-Americans coming through the youth national team ranks via MLS academies, and it is not even an open secret that he's recruiting many of them to play for El Tri. It's just a fact.

I don't think Alvarez, Julian Araujo or David Ochoa will make their final decisions based on one camp, but I don't see how this will hurt the US's chances of getting them on board for good. At all.

Who's not there?

Some MLS players who saw their seasons end and thus, I figured, would be at this one:

  • Jackson Yueill (SJ): Genuinely shocked he's not there given how central he became over the second half of 2019 for Berhalter, and how well he played down the stretch for San Jose. Most likely just getting a rest.
  • J.T. Marcinkowski (SJ): The only U-23 goalkeeper who's currently starting. Marcinkowski wasn't perfect for the Quakes, but he bounced back from his one truly poor outing and was mostly good for a team that badly needed a goalkeeper upgrade mid-season, and found one from within.
  • Caden Clark (RBNY): The kid made his presence felt after signing with the Red Bulls in mid-season, but he's a 2003 and this is much more of a camp for the '97s through '00s. He'll get his turn.
  • Jonathan Lewis (COL): He's had full USMNT caps before and been productive, but this is yet another year in which he wasn't able to outright win a starting job in MLS.
  • Jeremy Ebobisse (POR): It's entirely possible that Portland didn't release him given he'd only just recovered from a concussion. It's also entirely possible that Berhalter doesn't really rate him as a center forward — which would be a massive miscalculation in my book. Nonetheless, in his one US cap, Ebobisse played on the left wing, and for the Timbers he's usually been deployed wide on the right.
  • Eryk Williamson (POR): My guess is this is injury-related, as Williamson had to be helped off the field against Dallas last week. He had a breakout year, though, and if healthy should be a big part of the Olympic qualifying team.

Keaton Parks, Miles Robinson and George Bello could all be there as well, except NYCFC and Atlanta both have Concacaf Champions League games coming up in mid-December. So I would completely understand not wanting to release starters ahead of that.

Who's Actually There

Ok so let's dig in:

GOALKEEPERS: Bill Hamid (D.C. United), David Ochoa (RSL), CJ Dos Santos (Benfica)

Hamid has been on the fringes of the US pool for almost a decade now, and this is one more "one more chance" for him to push his way into the main group, perhaps. I do have to admit some level of surprise that he's here and NYCFC's Sean Johnson — who had a stellar season and has been a regular for Berhalter — is not, but that just adds to the experimental flavor of these proceedings.

I'm not surprised to see Ochoa, who I think has a world of talent, and who shockingly played just 90 minutes last year for RSL. It would not surprise me at all if he nailed down the starting spot from game No. 1 next year, while at the same time foregoing the U-20s and winning the Olympic job for the US.

Dos Santos is the one non-MLS-based player in this camp. The 20-year-old Union academy product headed to Benfica a couple of years ago and just has not been able to break through, even with their U23s. I'm wondering if his presence at this camp is a prelude to a move back to MLS.

FULLBACKS: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids), Marco Farfan (Portland Timbers)

Even though Araujo struggled this past year — everybody on the Galaxy struggled, to be fair — including him here is a no-brainer. He has significant, Reggie Cannon-esque two-way potential.

Duncan has less of that. He still struggles defensively when on the back foot, but can be a devastating attacking threat, especially going north-south off the dribble. He brings a very different look than Araujo.

Vines had to fight through a hamstring injury to get on the field in the playoffs, but once he was fit he was an easy inclusion:

Vines was mostly a defensive specialist in 2019. In 2020 he got his first USMNT cap and looked good, then became more of an attacking threat as the year went on.

Farfan actually is something of a surprise given his struggles to get on the field and stay healthy for the Timbers. But when he's been fit he's been pretty good for the past couple of years, and true left backs don't grow on trees. So bring him.

CENTER BACKS: Aaron Long (RBNY), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire)

Long and Zimmerman are two of the overage players, and are there for the obvious reason: They are probably first and third on the right center back depth chart. Long wasn't great in MLS this year but was consistently very good for the USMNT over the past several years, while Zimmerman absolutely earned it with his play in the league.

McKenzie earned it with his play in the league as well. The 21-year-old is probably the best distributor out of this group, played basically the entire season at left center back and was absolutely worth his spot in the best XI. I suspect the Union will grab themselves a close-to-eight-figures transfer fee for him, and that he has many future Champions League appearances ahead of him.

The reason I said that McKenzie is only probably the best distributor is because of the presence of Pineda. The 23-year-old Homegrown flew under the radar for Chicago this year, but was a whole lot of fun:

It is fair to wonder if he'll hit the physical benchmarks necessary to become a full-fledged international. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if he became a large part of the Olympic team.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)

You know why Aaronson is here, and you know why Lletget is here. One way or the other Berhalter wants to get his team into a 2-3-2-3 (or maybe a 3-2-2-3) shape when on the ball, in possession in attack. Aaronson largely played in that role for the Union this year, and was a Best XI player doing it, while Lletget has basically always been good for the USMNT, whether playing as part of the deeper midfield or in that attacking midfield spot. He was also fine as a false 9 last month, though I personally never want to see him there again.

Acosta was one of the original cuts from Berhalter's original camp, and he said afterward something to the effect of "the door's not closed on Kellyn." And so after Acosta put in a pretty good year for the Rapids, Berhalter's good to his word. This looks like his chance to work his way into the pool as one of those deeper-lying midfielders.

Bassett is the one U-20-eligible player on this roster who isn't a dual national which is, perhaps, telling. More relevant, I think, is that he's devastating with those late-arriving, goalscoring runs from central midfield (watch the Vines clip above). None of the attacking midfielders in the pool, at any age, time those runs as well as Bassett does. He is an unusual and potentially game-changing weapon for the US.

My favorite part of the whole roster might be Amaya's inclusion:

I really, really hope we get to see him play d-mid with this team. Cincy have been so brutally bad over their first two seasons that it's largely overshadowed just how good Amaya's been, and how much potential he has as a No. 6.

WINGERS: Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Chris Mueller (Orlando City), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Efra Alvarez (LA Galaxy)

There's a good balance here. Arriola and Mihailovic have USMNT experience, while Mueller and Alvarez do not. Arriola and Mueller are rugged, two-way workhorses, while Alvarez and Mihailovic are more wing playmakers. Arriola and Mueller are over the Olympic cut-off, while Mihailovic is age-eligible, and Alvarez is actually U-20 eligible (I still think he'll be playing for Mexico, but I do like that he's here).

It is good to see Arriola back after he missed almost all of 2020 following an ACL tear, and it is good to see Mueller awarded for an excellent season. Mihailovic was quietly very good as well, and really seemed to find a home on the left wing as the season wore on for Chicago.

As for Efra, the talent is there even if the consistency and off-field discipline have been questionable thus far in his young career. Still, the kid has had some moments:

There is much about him and his game that suggests "The next Freddy Adu," for both good and for bad.

Bear in mind that Efra can't play for the US -- even in a friendly -- until/unless he files a one-time switch, and that he will not file a one-time switch between now and next Wednesday. So you won't see him in this game.

But I'll say it again: I do like that he's here.

CENTER FORWARDS: Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Daryl Dike (Orlando City) 

Akinola is mostly an off-the-back-shoulder center forward who's become very savvy about setting up defenders — especially in transition — to find space. He will almost never wow you on the ball, but the best forwards do the vast majority of their work off the ball.

The ability to make good use of the space your teammates create is a foundational skill, and makes it a hell of a lot of fun to watch Akinola play in the same side as Alejandro Pozuelo. It would also work, in theory, with the likes of Pulisic and Reyna, or Lletget and Aaronson.

Dike isn't as good as Akinola at finding that type of space as of yet. He is, instead, perhaps the platonic ideal of a target forward:

It's kind of insane that these guys are both born in 2000, as were Josh Sargent, Nico Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto. There are suddenly five 20-year-old No. 9s who look like they have legit, long-term USMNT futures.


My XI

Based upon the available squad as of now:

If, after Tuesday night's Western Conference Semifinal, Berhalter adds a couple of players from the losing team, then the above could change. Should Seattle lose, you can probably put Morris in at LW. If Seattle win, then I'd probably rather see Bryan Reynolds over Araujo at RB, and maybe some room for Tanner Tessmann somewhere out there in midfield.

Anyway, it's a weird game to end a very weird year. But it is once again nice to see the sheer volume of young talent pushing its way through the ranks.

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