By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 16, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USMNT seeks to take the next steps towards defending its Concacaf Nations League title next week as it returns to full competitive action for the first time since the World Cup. The roster announced by interim coach Anthony Hudson on Wednesday will begin gathering on Sunday in Orlando. The group will train in central Florida before traveling to St George’s, Grenada for Friday’s CNL League A Group D duel with the Spice Boyz on Friday. Then the Yanks return to host El Salvador at Exploria Stadium for the group stage finale on Monday, March 27.
Hudson called up a list of predominantly familiar faces along with a sprinkling of newer arrivals for his second camp in charge. Here’s a few topics to watch as the road to 2026 unfolds.
Holding serve, defending trophies
With both the USMNT general manager and sporting director positions at US Soccer currently vacant, the program’s state of transition continues. That doesn’t significantly alter the expectations for this window.
The team plans to keep hold of the inaugural Nations League trophy it won in June of 2021. Beyond advancement to the knockout phase, finishing tops in League A Group D also carries the prize of automatic qualification for the 2024 Copa America on home soil. Without the Concacaf qualifying process for World Cup 2026, that’s the biggest competition on offer in this cycle for the big event’s three co-hosts.
With a game in hand on group leaders El Salvador, the USMNT can finish first with as little as two draws in this window. Yet, with a strong desire to build on the work accomplished in Qatar, a confident capture of all six points is the target.
“We can now take another step – we can now take another two steps,” defender Tim Ream told USSoccerPlayers.com this week. “Everyone dipped their toe into the water, so to speak, for this last cycle and this last World Cup. … Guys now have an understanding of what it takes. And now it’s time for everyone to raise that bar. It’s time to raise the level.”
Travel, split squad
Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson is the sole domestic-based player called in. That’s both a compliment to his speedy return to form after last spring’s Achilles tear and a reflection of the scheduling and mileage matrix in front of Hudson and his staff. That starts with the trip to Grenada, which sits just 100 miles off the coast of South America and even from Florida requires a flight time of about four hours each way.
After this month, the national team’s next gathering is a brief one around the just-announced Continental Clasico vs Mexico in Arizona on April 19. That midweek friendly falls outside the FIFA international windows. So squad selection will depend on the voluntary release of players by their clubs, which adds up to that roster likely being heavily pulled from MLS.
This give-and-take will continue if and when CNL knockouts pile up against the start of the Gold Cup in June, and the projection that relatively few players will have the bandwidth to do both.
“It’s a balancing act between when we get to the summer, the overseas players are going to need a break. And obviously with some of our domestic players, it’s a slight challenge for those guys, because they potentially are going to be missing league matches with their clubs,” explained Hudson. “So we have decided to select for this camp a predominantly European-based squad. We did this in 2021. It worked very well where we won both tournaments and we more or less did it with two separate squads … also it made sense in terms of trying to work with clubs and not overloading the players.”
A familiar foe in Florida
El Salvador is led by USMNT icon and former USYNTs coach Hugo Perez, and he’s used his familiarity well. Los Cuscatlecos have played the US tough in the three meetings on his watch.
El Salvador held the Yanks to 0-0 and 1-1 draws in San Salvador in World Cup qualifying and CNL play on either side of a tight 1-0 WCQ win in Columbus in January of 2022 delivered by Antonee “Jedi” Robinson’s back-post finish, marked by his memorable hamstring-themed celebration. Back in June, it took an injury-time header from Jordan Morris to snatch a Nations League road point on a very muddy pitch at Estadio Cuscatlan.
Perez has an understanding of how best to blend proactive but selective pressing with stout defensive organization to disrupt possession buildups and attacking patterns of play. This time El Salvador need a win. What might he have planned in Orlando?
With Walker Zimmerman not in this camp and a knee injury ruling out Cameron Carter-Vickers, the USMNT is guaranteed to have a new central defensive partnership from those used at the World Cup. That provides a chance to test out combinations and build understanding.
Mark McKenzie returns to the fold in good rhythm with KRC Genk, having made 11 starts for the Belgian league front runners since the beginning of the year. Auston Trusty has become a mainstay for Birmingham City since arriving on loan from Arsenal at the start of the English Championship season, not only with his defensive work but his four goals and two assists.
Before his injury, Miles Robinson had established himself as a key US contributor during qualifying. Hudson sounded excited to work him back into the mix while keeping cautious about his volume of minutes in order to protect his health less than a year on from the surgical repair of Robinson’s Achilles.
Ream arrives in Florida riding a run of superb performances for Fulham that recently earned him a contract extension. He’s played all but two minutes of the Premier League season as the Cottagers continue to surprise the pundits by climbing into the top half of the table. Ream shared the field with both Robinson and McKenzie in a few matches back in 2021.
Competition and variety on the wings
There are five wide attackers on this roster with regulars Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, and Tim Weah and rising newcomers Taylor Booth and Alejandro Zendejas. Add in the presence of Brenden Aaronson, who’s listed as a midfielder but has played plenty on the wing, and Hudson has ample options on the flanks.
The context around each particular player adds wrinkles and layers. Pulisic is foundational, yet is only just back from a knee issue that sidelined him for two months. Reyna’s minutes have been carefully measured at Borussia Dortmund due to his soft-tissue injury history. Weah has been logging minutes as a fullback with Lille lately.
Booth and Zendejas could be considered hybrid options, with the ability to work centrally as well. Hudson praised that duo in his media availability on Wednesday, pointing to their intensity and aggressive mindsets and suggesting they bring something new to the group.
Then there’s the possibility Hudson tweaks the 4-3-3 formation and corresponding game model he inherited from Gregg Berhalter. The interim boss generally made few big changes to those operating procedures during January camp, and this month’s matches seem like good situations in which to stay with a forward-leaning approach. Still, flipping the midfield triangle and/or shifting the wide men centrally are potential areas for experimentation.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The state of USL in 2023
- The MLS seasons keep intensifying
- FC Cincinnati assistant Dominic Kinnear on “formation, freedom, ability, and then opportunity”
- Daryl Dike: Back on the grind and looking forward
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com