By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 30, 2020) US Soccer Players - Another January camp is nearly in the books. On Saturday, Gregg Berhalter's youngish squad gets to cap their month's body of work with an audition against hostile opposition. The USMNT hosts Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park (4pm ET - ESPNews).
"The theme of the whole camp was guys staking their claim, guys looking to improve their situation, and get a firm grasp of where they fit in the player pool," Berhalter told reporters on Monday. "So, I think the game is going to give us the opportunity to evaluate that."
There's a bit more in play here than the usual January toil, as beneficial as that can be for participants. With 12 of the 22 players on this week's travel roster uncapped, we're going to see at least a couple of new faces debut this weekend. With 13 of them age-eligible for the Under-23 side that will fight for Olympic qualification in March, it's two evaluation processes unfolding in parallel.
"I would expect there to be young players in the lineup, and that's perfectly OK," said Berhalter. "They've worked hard all month so far, and it'll be nice to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd in a real international game. This also gives us the opportunity to evaluate some players for the Olympic pool and see if they can make it for qualifying. Everyone has the opportunity, based on their performance, to say they're ready for a higher level," he later added. "And we're always looking at that."
The coach expressed general satisfaction with the observations he and his staff have gathered on their personnel options over their first year in charge.
"Looking back at a year's work, one thing's for sure," he noted. "We have a very good understanding of the player pool, and looking at the strengths of the player pool, understanding the group. We've looked at a lot of players over this last year, we've gotten to see a lot of them in camp. And it's been a great process. We feel like the group has made strides. We feel like the group is more mature now. And when we integrate younger players into it, it's a seamless transition because the culture of the team is strong."
With the knockout stage of the Concacaf Nations League approaching and just seven months to go until 2022 World Cup qualifying kicks off, that's key. Many of those who've already proved themselves worthy of the full national team are also young enough to join Jason Kreis's U-23 squad. Berhalter also sounded optimistic about fielding a strong team in the Tokyo Summer Games, should the US break their 12-year qualification drought.
With those overlapping pools and the wrinkle that clubs don't have to release their players for Olympic matches, things can start to get complicated. The United States could put together a solid roster for that this summer, yet the path to get there looks tough.
"We're taking it one step at a time," said Berhalter. "It's going to be a difficult qualifying process. The roster 17 is players plus three goalkeepers, there's a lot of games in a short amount of time. A couple of the games are outside the FIFA window. We're going to need a lot of cooperation from Major League Soccer, and I know that's difficult given the early stage of their season. But as far as we're concerned, it's a concerted effort of a strong team for [World Cup] qualifying, and to qualify for the Olympics. If and when we do that, it will be a different set of conversations, and we're just trying to balance what makes sense for the clubs, for the players, and for both parties."
Goalkeeper Matt Turner hopes to debut at international level. His competitors, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, are familiar faces seeking to ascend to trusted regulars.
The fullback corps may be the youngest area of this roster. The likes of Julian Araujo, Sam Vines, and Chase Gasper are seeking their USMNT debuts. 21-year-old Reggie Cannon, cited by Berhalter as a budding leader, is a relative veteran with ten caps. At center back, familiar options Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman compete with former youth national team standouts Justen Glad and Mark McKenzie.
In central midfield, Jackson Yueill has the most recent experience despite still having just six USMNT appearances to his name. Meanwhile, the talented Sebastian Lletget is eager to show that he can stay healthy enough to be a core contributor. Uncapped youngsters Brenden Aaronson, Christian Cappis, Bryang Kayo, and Brandon Servania are blue-chip prospects seeking to prove themselves pillars for the coming years.
Up top, veterans Paul Arriola and Gyasi Zardes bring continuity amid a crop of dynamic newcomers. Recently granted full US citizenship, versatile FC Dallas Homegrown Jesus Ferreira hopes to have his paperwork done in time to take the field vs Costa Rica. Uly Llanez is one of the nation's most hotly-anticipated attacking talents, a potential game-breaker if he can put it all together. Winger Jonathan Lewis aims to make the breakthrough from intriguing super-sub to everyday starter for both club and country in 2020.
Traveling to California with a mix of domestic and MLS-based players, Costa Rica is in a similar spot to the US at this juncture. They're also in contention for Nations League honors and aim to mount a run at an Olympics place. They should provide a more-than-worthy test as the USMNT try to show tangible progress in year two of the Berhalter era.
"It feels like we've progressed so much more with how we started this January than last January," Zimmerman said in the lead up to this game. "Just with people understanding the concepts and ideas that we're trying to build, again, the culture of being a collective team and a family. So I think this year guys are progressing a little bit faster, picking up on concepts a little bit faster, and that's helped us."
More from Charles Boehm:
- Notes from the 2020 United Soccer Coaches Convention
- Alums McBride, Stewart begin to sketch out their vision for USMNT
- Process, perception, and US Soccer’s latest batch of hires
- What we learned about American soccer in 2019
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com