After more than nine months shrouded in pandemic fog, the United States men’s national team will play only its second game of 2020 in a friendly against Wales on Thursday. It will be the first time in very nearly a year that manager Gregg Berhalter has his European-based players at his disposal.
The pool of players he got to pick from for both the match in Swansea and another against Panama in Austria next Monday changed unrecognizably in that time. Quite suddenly — or so it might feel to anyone not paying attention to every last American prospect about to poke his head above the surface at a European club — Berhalter’s choices have ballooned from a handful of prodigies and some solid veterans to a wealth of young talent. More talent than can fit into one team. Possibly more talent than you can fit on, dare we dream, a World Cup roster.
This is unusual. This is new, in fact.
Even without calling up any Major League Soccer players other than Sebastian Lletget, on account of the impending playoffs, Berhalter has myriad good options in several positions. And that’s without Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent, who had to go into quarantine. That’s without defenders DeAndre Yedlin or Erik Palmer-Brown, or forwards Aron Johannsson and Julian Green, none of whom merited a place in the team.
Instead, Berhalter called up a squad of 24 players with an average age of just under 22. Unlike a year ago, his side is studded with players active at prestige clubs — Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente at Barcelona; Weston McKennie at Juventus; Christian Pulisic at Chelsea; Zack Steffen at Manchester City; Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund; Chris Richards at Bayern Munich; Tyler Adams at Champions League semifinalists RB Leipzig.
Never before have so many Americans represented such a who’s who of European mega-clubs. It’s not even been close. Certainly, a great many of these players are unproven, and fully 10 of them have yet to make their national team debuts. Only Pulisic, Fulham’s Tim Ream and Wolfsburg’s John Brooks have 20 caps or more.
Now that Richards, de la Fuente and Valencia’s 17-year-old debutant Yunus Musah have joined the senior national team, the USMNT has two viable options in almost every position. Two players who are either already established or have the potential to grow into an elite caliber. That will give Berhalter, and his eventual successors, choices. It will give them the option to pick players who are in the best form, who are playing regularly for their teams or who simply fit his system best.
That’s a luxury American coaches have never really had before. Instead, they would have a handful of core players who genuinely belonged at the international level and then backfilled their rosters with whatever stray pieces from smaller European clubs or MLS they might jerry-rig into the remainder of the lineup.
When forwards like Pulisic — who is doubtful for the games after injuring his hamstring during Chelsea warmups on Halloween — Tim Weah, de la Fuente and Sargent all healthy, and perhaps with a veteran like Jozy Altidore involved as well, not all could fit into the lineup. In the midfield, likewise, there can’t be room for Adams, McKennie, Reyna and Musah all at once.
This assumes, of course, that they all keep developing the way they have early on in this new season, but just the idea of these kinds of choices is tantalizing.
Berhalter, for his part, cautions against just that: assuming that all of these players will pan out. “I think, in theory, choices are getting harder to make,” he said in a pregame media conference. “But now it’s about doing it on the field. Now it’s about young players taking advantage of this opportunity. That’s what’s most important to me about this.”
And he isn’t ready to abandon some long-serving players who add experience and maintain the program’s culture. Still, the realization that an established national teamer will no longer be written into the lineup in permanent marker for years at a time, regardless of his form or fitness, as was long the case, is dawning on this young generation.
“As soon as the quality within the team starts to rise, there’s always going to be that internal competition to push each other for our position on the field and I think that’s so, so important within the national team,” Adams said. “I wouldn’t say that in the past there was not such competition, but now when you’re competing with a fellow player in your team that’s also playing in the Champions League, that’s super, super important.”
Adams sees a broader momentum building among American players that forces a new ambition at the risk of being left behind.
“We’ve all raised the bar individually to reach our own goals, and when we can do that as a collective and see one another playing for Barca, playing for Juve, playing for Chelsea, that sets your goals even higher and you want to achieve great things,” Adams said. “So when you come with the national team, bringing those qualities together, competing for spots, the vibe of the camp is excellent with all of these players coming from amazing environments. That really sets the bar high.”
A bar higher than it has ever been before for the national team, even with a lot left to prove.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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