By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 5, 2018) US Soccer Players - The USMNT’s evolution process resumes on Sunday when the squad gathers in Tampa, Florida to prepare for this month’s friendlies against Colombia and Peru. Much of the reaction to the roster announced by head coach Dave Sarachan on Monday centered around the return of veterans Michael Bradley and Brad Guzan after a year’s worth of introducing young new talent. That’s understandable. Both are prominent figures in the program's history, and prominently, albeit often unfairly, associated with the difficulties of 2017.
Strikingly, however, the USMNT actually got younger this month, at least before Friday's roster adjustments. Sarachan’s latest group has an average age of 23 years and 168 days, with 15 players aged 23 and under. The list of those called to face Brazil and Mexico last month was 23 years and 241 days on average, with one less player 23 or under.
Talented youngsters like Tim Weah, Weston McKennie and Cameron Carter-Vickers (ages 18, 20 and 20, respectively) remain at the heart of the squad. Josh Sargent, 18, has returned after staying in Germany to bed in at Werder Bremen during the last window. Thirty-somethings Bradley and Guzan are the only participants older than 27.
So the benefits and drawbacks that come with heavily emphasizing youth are not likely to evaporate. What we can say with more confidence is that this group carries a broad range of backgrounds and experiences into these two matches. They'll face highly skillful South American sides with 2018 World Cup pedigrees.
Aaron Long, 25, carries over from September’s side and has become something of a prototype for the player development model MLS and the USL have built. He migrated across three MLS clubs as a young midfielder before finding his way as an elite center back. Learning the new role in the New York Red Bulls’ USL team allowed him to hit the ground running in the top flight, and his rise continues with this call-up.
Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath seems to have been around longer than his 23 years of age would suggest. That’s probably because he’s been in the youth national team system since Under-14 level. He made his senior international debut a full two years ago, in the final days of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. Horvath has been in Europe for half a decade and has experienced a gamut of achievements and hardships, first in Norway at Molde and more recently at Belgium’s Club Brugge.
Kenny Saief is another intriguing face to watch this month. Perhaps no member of the USMNT pool suffers from a bigger gap between his abilities and his visibility to the fanbase. The Florida-born, Israel-raised wide man is a technical, creative player competing for minutes in a high-level environment at Anderlecht. He's been lively in his two U.S. appearances to date. The bad timing of several injury troubles has limited his availability, though, and rendered him something of a forgotten man relative to his potential impact on the pitch.
First-timer Jonathan Amon, 19, has trodden a fascinating path from Charleston, South Carolina to Denmark’s first division. The pacey winger moved overseas before he was old enough to get his driver’s license and was literally hidden for long stretches by his club, Nordsjælland, to keep him under wraps before he turned 18, as ussoccer.com’s Jeff Crandall explained this week.
Perhaps the perfect example is left back Ben Sweat. At 27, he’s not your typical USMNT rookie. He may not pass the "how old will you be in 2022" litmus test that some observers seem insistent on imposing on the program. As Jason Davis explored for USSoccerPlayers.com earlier this week, his career trajectory alone should give such voices pause, however. Much less the quality he’s shown at one of MLS’ most possession-oriented sides in NYCFC.
Sweat wound his way from NCAA to PDL to MLS draft pick, to USL to NASL and last year finally back to MLS. He proved himself to then-City coach and World Cup winner Patrick Vieira ahead of blue-chip international competition for a starting role. That is a story that coaches and colleagues tend to respect enormously.
“There are a lot of players like me that get stuck or lost in the system,” Sweat told ProSoccerUSA.com earlier this year, “quality players who can play at the next level. It’s being patient and grinding through it.”
It reflects well on Sarachan that he’s paid enough attention to include a player like this. In doing so, he recognizes this key reality of American soccer. It's the recurring tale of the late bloomer.
Given all this, it’s worth wondering if Bradley and Guzan might find that just as much has changed as stayed the same since they were last in USMNT colors. The schedule and daily grind of camp will be recognizable. The pride and responsibility of wearing the crest is a hard-wired feature of the experience. The landscape under the team’s feet at this juncture is different, however.
Which brings us to the most pressing on-field priority of this window: Goals.
Sarachan has done some creditable work in his awkward role as a long-term caretaker. He’s shifted the program’s outlook and rotated in a long list of new, mostly young faces. He’s kept a steady hand on the till in a period of unprecedented upheaval. What he hasn’t done is oversee prolific attacking displays.
The USMNT under Sarachan has scored a total of eight times in eight friendly matches. They've been on the wrong side of two shutouts and have posted just one multi-goal outing. That should help explain some of the selections on this latest roster, and should drive a sense of urgency about the attack for the next two weeks. It’s especially pressing with Christian Pulisic forced to miss out on these games due to a calf injury.
“Defensively, I think for the most part we have established during the last year a team that’s been hard to break down,” said Sarachan in a ussoccer.com Q&A. “Clearly the areas of improvement and where we can move ourselves along are in the attacking third of the field.”
That poses a challenge and an opportunity to everyone in camp in Tampa, not least the newer arrivals. Is Amon ready to put his individual skills to use at this level? Will Saief get the chance to put it all together in a playmaking role? Can Sweat or his right-sided counterpart Reggie Cannon provide a spark as attack-minded fullbacks? Could Bradley’s passing vision set the front line up for success?
It all sets up an interesting fall swing through Florida and Connecticut.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The problems playing for the US Open Cup
- Campeones Cup, cross-border rivalries, and the MLS-Liga MX partnership
- Notes and lessons from the USMNT’s September friendlies
- Young USMNT wade into deeper water against Brazil and Mexico
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com