Armchair Analyst: Explaining the two USMNT rosters for January

The US men's national team dropped two rosters on Tuesday afternoon ahead of the annual January camp. One of the rosters is composed solely of players age 24 and older, and the other is -- you've probably already guessed it -- for players 23 and younger.

The message here is clear: the older guys are mostly there because they've shown that they're core players, to one degree or another, for the full national team, and any player who fits that bill can expect to get their ticket punched at least once or twice in 2021, which is likely to be the busiest year in USMNT history. There could be as many as 21 full international games on the schedule this year at last count.

Just as clear is that the younger guys are in camp not for full USMNT reasons, though a few of them are already regulars, but specifically for Olympic reasons. And hence this is being run as two separate and distinct camps -- Gregg Berhalter's in charge of the olds and Jason Kreis is in charge of the youngs -- which is not usually the way.

“This is an important year for our national team programs, and we are looking to maximize every possible opportunity,” Berhalter said is a press release. “For the senior team players, this is an opportunity to continue to develop as a group and build on the foundation of a busy and challenging year. Being alongside our U-23 team gives that group a chance to prepare for Olympic Qualifying while further integrating into our culture and game model.”

A quick run-down for those who are a little bit confused about Olympic stuff (if you're not confused, just skip a bit):

Q: "Why the age cut-off?"

A: Olympic qualifying is for the U-23 age group, which means only players who were born on January 1, 1997 or later are eligible.

Q: "Aren't some of those guys are 24 now, Matt?"

A: You're correct. Very good math on your part. But the Olympics were among the whole raft of things that were postponed last year, and rather than push the age cut-off to January 1, 1998 and keep it as purely U-23, FIFA made the (IMO good) decision) to keep the same age cohort eligible even though they are now, technically, no longer U-23s.

Q: "If that's the age cut-off, then why aren't Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest, Tim Weah, Reggie Cannon, Chris Richards and Josh Sargent here?"

A: You need to relax. This is not a FIFA-sanctioned international window, and there is no way to force or compel teams that have actual games right now to release players for this camp. It has been this way for as long as there has been a January camp.

MLS teams aren't playing games right now, so MLS players are here. There are also a couple of Europe-based guys who've yet to break through to the first team and are in their respective youth teams, and let's tip our hats to Wolfsburg and PSV for being cool and letting those guys head to Florida. 

Q: "What's the point, then?"

A: Well, you know what else those clubs aren't required to release those players for? Olympic qualifying! FIFA does not mandate clubs release players for youth tournaments, and both Olympic qualifying and the Olympics itself are considered to be youth tournaments. And as it stands, other than maybe Richards, there is zero chance any of the young Yanks Abroad making headlines in Europe are going to be released for Olympic qualifying. ZERO. You will not see them, and it's not the USSF's fault or Gregg Berhalter's fault or Jason Kreis's fault. It's just how the rules are.

MLS teams have the right to refuse to release any of their players as well, by the way. But MLS teams have almost always played nice with the USSF over these types of things, and I would expect the vast, vast majority of potential call-ups to have damn near a permanent green light from their clubs.

Q: "So that means..."

A: Yes, you appear to have once again done the math: That means come Olympic qualifying, the bulk of the team is going to come from this group. Pulisic is not walking through that door, and McKennie's not walking through that door, and Sargent's not walking through that door, and Yunus Musah and Owen Otasowie and Johnny Cardoso* aren't walking through that door.

(*) I could maybe see it happening with Johnny, to be fair, but it's a long shot.

So what you're looking at with the U-23s is damn near a complete Olympic qualifying roster, save for one or two spots, and January is likely to serve as a cut-down camp. So let's start there:

GOALKEEPERS: J.T. Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Brady Scott (Austin FC)

As I see it, it's likely a two-man race between Marcinkowski and Ochoa. Marcinkowski was largely very good for San Jose after claiming the starting job mid-season -- though he did struggle in the playoffs -- while Ochoa disappointingly only got one game for RSL this past year, but probably has the higher upside.

Scott beats out Jonathan Klinsmann for the third spot on the depth chart.

LEFT BACKS: Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids), George Bello (Atlanta United), Chris Gloster (Jong PSV)

I have them in this order for a reason. Vines generates an order of magnitude less buzz than he should given his performances for club and country:

Bello, on the other hand, has generated more buzz than his play has warranted, though the delta between "actual buzz" and "deserving buzz" narrowed considerably given his play over the second half of Atlanta United's season, and he is on the radar of almost every big club in Europe. If the improvement curve he showed this autumn is real, he will be sold for many, many millions of dollars within the year.

Gloster got that European move but hasn't been able to make it sing. He's not been a regular contributor for Jong PSV in the Dutch second tier, and chances are the New York Red Bulls academy product will be on his way back to MLS sooner or later.

RIGHT BACKS: Bryan Reynolds (FC Dallas), Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake)

Reynolds is still learning the finer defensive aspects of the game, having only switched to fullback from winger about 18 months ago, but he is an attacking force of the sort that the likes of Juventus and Roma pay attention to (and eventually pay lots of money for). Araujo is the opposite -- a natural defender who's still figuring out how to add value on the overlap and in the final third.

Herrera seems to be there making up the numbers, but don't rule him out: He is probably the best two-way player of the three at the moment, and is the only one of the six fullbacks on the roster who has experience playing both RB and LB. That matters for depth reasons during small-roster, short-rest tournaments.

CENTER BACKS: Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew)

Pineda, a ball-playing converted central midfielder, was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league this past year, though Kessler probably topped him in the "pleasant surprise" category. Both guys walked right into the starting lineups for their teams and added value on both sides of the ball. What separates Kessler a bit is that he did it in the playoffs. This was superb:

Kessler's defensive nous created transition moments for the Revs all year long. The modern game is all about transition moments.

Keita was not a starter for Columbus, but earned a good chunk of playing time and like both Pineda and Kessler, he can ping a pass and open up the game. What makes him stand out is that he does that with his left foot, and is the only left-footer among this bunch.

Robinson took a massive step backwards in 2020 for Atlanta, but was rightfully on the MLS Best XI in 2019 and has the tools to get back there. Unlike the other guys at this camp he's not really a ball-playing center back, but defensively he can be -- has been -- better than any of them.

I am surprised that Justen Glad and Auston Trusty aren't here. And obviously Mark McKenzie would be here if he wasn't about to be sold to Genk.

REGISTAS: Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas)

Okay, so here's where I'm going off course a little bit. Usually I list the central midfield cohort as "defensive midfielders," "central midfielders" and "attacking midfielders," and usually there's a certain amount of delineation amongst the group as to make it sort of intuitive to spell it out like that.

That's not the case here, so I'm just going to list Yueill and Tessmann as what I'll expect them to be: tempo-setting, game-dictating, deep-lying, playmaking midfielders. Their job isn't to press and win the ball back, but to shield the backline and dictate the team's shape on both sides of the ball.

Yueill's done this job well for both club and country. Tessmann, who like Ochoa, Bello, Araujo and Reynolds, is also age-eligible for the 2024 Olympics, was superb at this for Dallas this past year.

Both of these guys can push higher as more traditional No. 8s, and in fact that was Yueill's role for most of the final two months of this past season. But I don't think that's how they'll be used this month.

Am I surprised Aidan Morris isn't here after his outstanding MLS Cup performance? Yes. 

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), Bryang Kayo (VfL Wolfsburg), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Andres Perea (Orlando City)

Williamson was awesome as a two-way No. 8 for the Timbers this year, a revelation who was essential in their switch from "counter a bunch and cross way too much" to "actually use the ball to break teams down." He was fun:

It's a safe bet he would've played a role in last month's thumping of El Salvador had he been healthy.

Kayo is an uber-talented two-way central midfielder who's yet to break into Wolfsburg's first team, and has been released for the January camp for the second straight year. That's good -- it's nice of Wolfsburg to play nice -- but it's also bad, since it shows that he's not really in their immediate plans. Wolfsburg are notoriously slow about progressing kids up the ranks and into the first team, for what it's worth.

Dotson has spent a lot of time playing as a d-mid and a right back, but is probably best understood as a two-way, destroying central midfielder for this camp, as his lack of passing range would prevent him from playing the regista role in the way that Kreis (and hence Berhalter) would want.

It's interesting that Perea, the Tampa-born son of a former Colombia international, is in his second straight US camp. He is not eligible to play until/unless he files a one-time switch. Maybe that's in the works?

As mentioned, there are no real attacking midfielders with this group. Brenden Aaronson's off to Salzburg and Cole Bassett, who was rostered vs. El Salvador but did not play, isn't here (which shocks me, but there are whispers in the wind that he's off to Europe to train). Neither is young Caden Clark, which surprises me at least a little bit (he was originally scheduled to go to Leipzig this month, though that fell through).

WINGERS: Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Djordje Mihailovic (Montreal Impact), Benji Michel (Orlando City), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)

I've been beating the Lewis drum forever, and while he's delivered in spurts and earned himself a new contract, he's yet to earn a starting spot for club or country, at any level. The talent to do so is obvious, and there is no time like the present.

Mihailovic had something of a breakout season for Chicago playing largely as a playmaking, inverted left winger, which is a role I sort of expect to see him in for this camp. That said it wouldn't shock me at all if he's actually used as an attacking midfielder for this camp.

There is no question as to where either Michel or Cowell will play: On the wing, where they can drive forward off the ball and make hard, direct runs at goal. Michel is six years older than Cowell and naturally is more polished, but Cowell -- the youngest player in this camp -- has an attention-grabbing level of fearlessness and flair. I don't expect him to make the final roster, but it wouldn't shock me if he did.

FORWARDS: Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Daryl Dike (Orlando City), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)

I think USMNT fans are more excited about Dike than about Ebobisse, and I get it. Dike's got a combination of touch, soccer IQ and off-the-charts physicality that is unique. There is a reason I made multiple videos about him this year:

I do think, though, that if Ebobisse had been used as a center forward for the past two years in Portland he'd be a regular 20-goal scorer. A big part of it is he's figured out how to get the one-touch goals that any center forward needs, and a big part of it is that, as with Dike, when the ball's on his preferred foot he wallops the crap out of it. Striking the ball clean is a damn good trick!

But the big thing with Ebobisse is that he's dominant in the air in a way, at this point, that Dike is not. Set pieces played an outsized role in determining success at the international level and in tournament play (just go back and watch Portland's MLS is Back Tournament run), and I can't just look past that.

That said, I'm happy with either choice.

I am somewhat surprised to see Jesus Ferreira here given how significant his struggles were for Dallas this past year and how he doesn't really fit a clear role for the way Berhalter's teams play. Yes, he was pretty good last year against Costa Rica as a false 9, but it's not like the US blew the Ticos off the pitch that day.

For those wondering: Ayo Akinola is with Canada. He would have to file a one-time switch to play for them.


And now here's the full roster. As per the USSF press release, "The senior team group, consisting of players aged 24 and older, will train alongside the U-23 USMNT through January 24, at which point several U-23 players will be elevated to the full USMNT roster in advance of a planned match at the end of the month."

GOALKEEPERS: Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

Johnson has been a mainstay for Berhalter and Turner is here for the obvious reasons. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get his first US appearance.

CENTER BACKS: Aaron Long (RBNY), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Tristan Blackmon (LAFC)

Long is probably still the first-choice CB partner for John Brooks, though his grip on that spot is at least somewhat tenuous. Zimmerman has been in the mix since Berhalter's first game in charge, and has obviously kept himself in the mix with a superb 2020 season.

Blackmon is the only surprise inclusion of the over-24 crowd, the only player in this group who's still purely a prospect, and the only field player who's uncapped. He's primarily been a right back for LAFC, but take a look at the current RB depth chart for the USMNT -- Dest, Cannon, DeAndre Yedlin, Reynolds, Araujo, Herrera, etc -- and then tell me if you think Blackmon is here for that spot or for his likely eventual conversion to center back.

And so the fact is there are no actual fullbacks on this roster. Daniel Lovitz had a very good season for Nashville and Chase Gasper was excellent for Minnesota but they are not going to be ahead of Vines or Bello this month. I think Nick Lima's mostly been very good when he's played for the US, but pushing Reynolds, Araujo or Herrera up for the friendly against the as-yet unnamed opponent.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

Lletget's almost certainly going to start this friendly, and is in contention to be a starter for the full national team no matter who's called in. People are going to hate that sentence, but it's true.

Acosta and Roldan are more than just making up the numbers, but as I see it both are more likely to be part of the Gold Cup squad this summer -- which is likely to be a B team -- than the A squad for World Cup qualifiers or grabbing a role as one of the three overage players at the Olympics should the US qualify.

They could, of course, begin to change some minds with standout performances this month.

Note that neither Michael Bradley nor Wil Trapp got the call for this camp. As with Lovitz and Lima, it seems like they've been sorted down the list a bit.

WINGERS: Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Chris Mueller (Orlando City)

Morris and Arriola are proven at the national team level several times over. Mueller is not, though he made quite an impression with two goals and two assists in his first US appearance last month.

"Yeah, but it's only El Salvador!" is not a worthwhile sentiment to me, by the way. Part of being a great team is beating the brakes off of bad teams, which is something the US hadn't done for a long, long time. Then they whupped Panama 6-2 in November and whupped El Salvador 6-0 in December, and Mueller was the Man of the Match in that one. He belongs here, and will have a chance to prove he can compete with or even usurp Morris and Arriola at this camp.

FORWARD: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)

This feels like Jozy's last ride. Berhalter made it clear last year where he stands on the veteran, who is by far the most experienced player at this camp, when he said Jozy's still the most talented forward in the pool (true) but that his constant fitness issues have compromised his position on the depth chart.

In the past you could say "yeah, but..." and point to any number of things, including Jozy's ability to open the game up with his passing, his ability to physically dominate opposing CBs and thus allow for easy outlets when the midfield is overrun, and his ability to put the ball into the net even when injured. But both Ebobisse and Dike do those first two things, and as for the third... an injured Altidore scored in the 2019 MLS Cup. A coming-off-an-injury-and lacking fitness Altidore did this in the 2020 playoffs:

He's just 31, so there's a chance he hasn't hit the end of the road. He's going to have to prove it, though, because I don't think the likes of Dike and Ebobisse are going to be just sitting around, waiting their turn. Nor are Sargent, Nico Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto, none of whom are at this camp but all of whom will, I'm sure, be watching.

There is no Gyasi Zardes this month after the Crew striker underwent a minor medical procedure, according to a US Soccer spokesperson. While he would have been there if fit, at the same time, what more could Berhalter learn from his inclusion? Gyasi knows how to play the center forward role in damn near the exact way Berhalter wants, and just had a very long year in which he logged a lot of hard minutes. Giving him a few more weeks to recover, and then giving game time to either Jozy or one of the kids makes sense.

This is what could've happened had Jozy made that run, by the way:

Let's hope those are dance steps that Ebobisse and Dike show they know as well.


The truth is I really don't care what XI the US end up playing in the friendly, but since I know you all love these graphics...

Gonna be a fun few weeks to see how this evolves.

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