By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 20, 2020) US Soccer Players - Reggie Cannon hasn't been in Europe for very long. The FC Dallas product arrived at Boavista just two months before the USMNT gathered in Wales at the start of the November international window.
Cannon's already found his feet as a regular starter there, finding it dramatically different from his MLS experience. The fullback kept it real when the topic was broached in a media availability in the lead-up to the 6-2 thrashing of Panama in Austria, where he went the full 90 minutes and notched an assist.
"The competition I face in the Portuguese league is some of the hardest competition I've faced since God knows when. And that's no slight to MLS, the level is just so much higher," Cannon said. "I know it's outside of the top five leagues, but playing in that league has challenged me so much, and it's exactly what I wanted from this move. It's forcing me to be better, to become a better player, to find new ways to adapt, to raise my game. And that's ultimately what I want as a footballer, to become the best I can be."
The context wasn't just the general matter of his career. It was also the environment of a young USMNT player pool suddenly brimming with confidence and ambition. At age 22, Cannon is already older than many and feeling a sense of urgency. Moving up is not a desire so much as an unspoken mandate, perhaps, even if many obstacles to such moves still persist.
"The European lifestyle is so much different," Cannon added. "All these young players playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world, it's got an inner sense of competition now. You're fighting for bigger things. You're not just fighting for a spot, you're fighting for the guy next to you and against the guy next to you. There's a lot of inner-circle battles going on right now. And that's ultimately what is making this team great in the process."
Developed at an MLS academy, Cannon emphasized that he wasn't trying to diminish the domestic league so much as underline how dramatic a change he had experienced upon crossing the Atlantic. In the past, such honesty might have sparked controversy, dredging up the perennial debate about playing at home vs. heading overseas that once put Don Garber and Jurgen Klinsmann at odds. The hope is that Gregg Berhalter's pragmatism and track record can help navigate the issue more smoothly this time around.
Berhalter split his own playing career between MLS and Europe and has coached in both environments too. He has worked to cultivate positive relationships on both sides, calling up players from both home and abroad. He maintains that he wants each of his players to make the best choices for their individual circumstances. Despite some second-guessing of the eminently logical decision to focus on European-based call-ups in November, so far he seems to have found a balance.
"I honestly believe that there is no one right answer. And when you want the player to do is, you want him to be challenged at the level that he's at," said Berhalter when announcing this month's roster. "And that's your determination of when you can move levels. So for example, Tyler Adams, when you watched him in his last year at Red Bull [New York], he was outgrowing Red Bull, right? He started dominating games. You can see this guy needs another challenge. And then he gets his other challenge. And that happened when he was 18 years old. Every person, there's a different time for doing that."
Berhalter also pushed back, if gently, against the idea that a bigger, faster overseas exodus needs to happen. He cautioned that "there's a lot of guys that go there [Europe] and you never hear of them again," while repeatedly stating that he considers the number of UEFA Champions League participants a key barometer of any national team's talent pool.
The looming reality is that the enormous disruptions wreaked by COVID-19 mean the USMNT will have to rely on MLS every bit as much as its foreign legion for the foreseeable future.
After the Panama game, Berhalter confirmed that he and Olympic coach Jason Kreis will effectively have to build three separate rosters for 2021's action, with limited overlap between them and likely a number of dependable reinforcements above and beyond. It's worth emphasizing that the two years between now and World Cup 2022 could be the busiest 24 months in program history.
The Concacaf Nations League semifinals and final are in June. The Gold Cup starts almost immediately after. World Cup qualifying will kick off in September. Then sprinkle in Olympic qualifying and hopefully a summer trip to Tokyo for the event itself.
"I think it's an either/or, it's not both, for Nations League or Gold Cup," said Berhalter in regards to call-ups for that period. "I really don't think that it's reasonable to expect a player to play a whole-year season in Europe, play Nations League, take two weeks off, play the Gold Cup for another 30 days. I just don't see that happening. I don't think the clubs are going to accept it. There's going to be a lot of give and take."
This underlines what a false debate "Europe vs. MLS" really is, especially right now. Each side of the player pool will be called upon, because each will offer specific benefits at certain moments.
November's games gave us a bright display of the rich vein of young talent in Europe, many of them competing at big clubs. It was both fun and practical to focus on them here, to give them a stage while also limiting overall travel at a time when a frightening number of international players around the globe are contracting the coronavirus on international duty.
Meanwhile, MLS is still home to plenty of important USMNT contributors. Its teams are generally, if not universally, more open to granting releases to players when they're not explicitly required to by FIFA rules. The logistics of travel across the Concacaf region and beyond will make it faster and more feasible to jet to some matches from the US or Canada than from the other side of the ocean. The pandemic's persistence means that we're likely to see limitations and complications on such movement for the foreseeable future.
We won't know specifically what the multiple rosters of 2021 will look like for some time to come. Even the best-laid plans will probably encounter a need for some scrambling in real time. The job of Berhalter and Kreis is to build platforms that can set up every call-up for success at any given moment. So far, so good.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Pressing, flair, positivity as USMNT make long-awaited return
- MLS makes things even more interesting with points per game
- Barcelona, Bartomeu, and the membership model in America
- The National Soccer Hall of Fame tries something new
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com