Projecting Berhalter's First USMNT Squad With the Full Player Pool Available
The U.S. men's national team's winter camp is over, with a pair of clean-sheet wins vs. second-choice Concacaf foes putting a bow on a successful first month under new manager Gregg Berhalter.
The 3-0 win over Panama and 2-0 win over Costa Rica provided the first glimpses into Berhalter's player and tactical preferences, and the matches also gave some players a chance to state their cases for further inclusion. While January camp was limited to MLS-based players, the next time Berhalter gathers the national team together, he'll have the full player pool at his disposal. The MLS season will also be a few weeks old, meaning he'll have a small sample size of games featuring the players he just oversaw to examine, and the manager will also be able to incorporate European-based players for the first time, given camp will take place in a FIFA international window.
The U.S. will take on a pair of South American foes next, with a March 21 date in Orlando vs. Ecuador followed by a March 26 clash with Chile in Houston. Like the U.S., both missed the 2018 World Cup and have a 2019 summer of redemption on their minds, with a continental championship to be contested. Chile, especially, is out to put its disappointment in the rear-view mirror by winning a third straight Copa America. The competition will be a step up from what the U.S. saw in the last two games, but so, too, will the level of players available for selection.
Berhalter has made it very clear that it's not just form that matters when choosing players, but how certain guys fit the culture of the team and the bigger picture of what he's trying to build, both on and off the field. In terms of roster size, that's really up to Berhalter. The last two years featured squads of 24 and 22 players, respectively, but the circumstances were markedly different. One was for a World Cup qualifier, while the other was in the midst of Dave Sarachan's experimenting and introducing new players into the fold. One should expect a squad of around 25-26 players, though, of course, it's at Berhalter's discretion of how wide a net he wants to cast. With it being his first chance to have a number of players in a camp setting–and his only chance to get a look before pre-Gold Cup camp–perhaps he expands to a 28- or even 30-player group.
So who could Berhalter turn to for his next two matches? Here's our best guess:
Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
The Man City-bound Steffen remains the clear-cut No. 1, but Horvath's return to regular playing time at Brugge puts him firmly in the mix to compete. That Johnson both made camp and emerged as the preferred backup for the two matches suggests he's leading the race for the third spot, though 34-year-old veteran Brad Guzan, who was given a rest after winning MLS Cup with Atlanta, and Bill Hamid could have plenty to say about that competition with a strong start to the MLS season. Hamid, for what it's worth, has been adamant that he's the best U.S. goalkeeper of the bunch.
Matt Miazga (Reading), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Greg Garza (FC Cincinnati), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Jorge Villafaña (Portland Timbers), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle)
Long and Zimmerman hardly put a foot wrong against Panama and Costa Rica, with the former's leadership abilities clearly impressing Berhalter and being rewarded with the captain's armband. They'll look to prove that they're the top pairing in the pool facing the likely competition of Miazga and Brooks, who will have to show that they can improve on their most recent U.S. appearances and fit into Berhalter's system.
Lima was a revelation at right back during camp and was arguably the biggest individual winner in terms of someone who wasn't really on the national team radar and vaulted himself into contention for a regular place. Yedlin, given his experience, should be given the opportunity to start, but the right back's responsibilities under Berhalter have proven to be demanding and something that will have to be mastered in a short time. Lima had weeks to settle into the role before a game situation. Yedlin will have a matter of days.
The biggest question, as it always is, is left back. There's no hands-down leader in the clubhouse for a starting role there, especially after Garza had to withdraw from camp with a quad injury. Daniel Lovitz didn't appear to be the answer in his two starts. Could Fulham's left-footed Tim Ream, who has looked a cut below in his most recent U.S. showings, be given a look? He would not represent the push-forward kind of fullback that Berhalter looks for, and the manager also overlooked Villafaña for January camp. If Garza isn't fully ready to go at the end of March, perhaps Villafaña gets another chance. Antonee Robinson, who earned minutes under Sarachan and does push forward well, is just returning to action after an ankle injury and could also find himself in the mix.
Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Jonathan Lewis (NYCFC), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Will Trapp (Columbus Crew), Tim Weah (Celtic)
This is the area where the reinforcements are bound to be most notable. The center of the field is where three of the USA's top prospects roam, with Adams, Pulisic and McKennie all vying for starting roles. Adams has gotten off to a flying start to life in the Bundesliga, and his versatility makes him an interesting piece for Berhalter to use. Pulisic slotting into one of the two No. 10 roles makes sense, while McKennie should have a shout to join Pulisic there, with the two taking up the positions manned by Mihailovic and Roldan, respectively, in the previous friendlies.
Lletget and Lewis both showed their abilities to be difference-makers off the bench, while Arriola enjoyed success in his start on the left wing–an area that could also be manned by Weah, who is off to a great start on loan at Celtic. The Scottish side is using him more as a center forward, which could give Berhalter something to think about in terms of his positioning. Did Trapp do enough to stay in the fold? His second half vs. Costa Rica would suggest yes, but not as a candidate to start with the full pool available.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Christian Ramirez (LAFC), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Presuming Altidore is healthy and has returned to action for TFC, he'll be in camp. A visitor along with Jordan Morris this past month, Altidore could be quite productive in Berhalter's system once he's up to speed. The way Berhalter talks about Zardes, and given the familiarity between the two after a prolific 2018 in Columbus, you get the feeling he'll be around for a while regardless of his production level. Berhalter says he likes his work rate, and he likes that he gets into position to score. At a certain point, he's going to have to put away those chances and have his play lead to goals–much like Ramirez was able to do off the bench wih a goal and an assist in the two games.
The 18-year-old Sargent, meanwhile, is arguably the present in addition to the future, and it should give U.S. fans a thrill to see him integrated into the system. Bobby Wood, meanwhile, will need to find more consistency at relegation-bound Hannover if he's to be called upon.