A U.S. Men’s National Team squad that was already very young to start with was made even younger and the team’s first match of 2020 has become a clear step toward Olympic qualifying.
Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the February 1 match against Costa Rica won’t have Jordan Morris or Cristian Roldan, who were released back to the Seattle Sounders ahead of Seattle’s Concacaf Champions League preparations, and while that much was clearly something planned in advance, the squad it leaves to face Costa Rica is one that will now look that much more like the group that will try to end the USMNT program’s Olympic drought.
In other news from the weekend, Tyler Adams worked on the right wing in RB Leipzig’s starting lineup, with its 2-0 loss to Timmy Chandler and Eintracht Frankfurt causing the Bundesliga leaders lead atop the standings to be chopped by three points. Adams’ deployment on the right side of Leipzig’s midfield, in a hybrid right back/right wing role is something that definitely bears watching.
The weekend also saw Weston McKennie return to action, Josh Sargent make his way into Werder Bremen’s starting lineup, and Sebastian Saucedo earn his third straight Liga MX start for surprising league leader Pumas.
Here is a closer look at some of the weekend’s key storylines across American soccer:
Berhalter’s Olympic focus
If you weren’t quite sure before this past week just how seriously Berhalter was planning to take the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, his words and actions this week provided a good glimpse into what he has in store.
In a recent interview with SiriusXM, Berhalter revealed his intention to have USMNT regulars Reggie Cannon and Jackson Yueill take part in the Olympic qualifying tournament rather than the March USMNT friendlies in Europe, and his move to release Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan ahead of the February 1 friendly against Costa Rica was another nod to emphasizing Olympic qualifying preparations.
Morris and Roldan would have been expected to start against Costa Rica as two of Berhalter’s preferred options among the January camp personnel, but with both leaving camp, it should create opportunities for some more U-23 prospects to impress both Berhalter and Under-23 coach Jason Kreis.
“I would expect there to be young players in the lineup (against Costa Rica), and that’s perfectly okay,” Berhalter said in a conference call on Monday. “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,” Berhalter said. “The theme for the whole camp was guys staking their claim and looking to improve their situation and get a firm grasp of where they fit in the player pool so I think the game is going to give us an opportunity to evaluate that.”
The match should provide an opportunity for the 14 players on the 22-man roster for the Costa Rica match who are also eligible for Olympic qualifying. That includes Ulysses Llanez, Julian Araujo, Brendan Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Justen Glad to name a few.
For USMNT regulars Reggie Cannon and Jackson Yueill, the Costa Rica friendly should provide an opportunity for them to take on leadership roles, which they should take on as part of Jason Kreis’ Under-23 national team when it plays in the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament in March.
Berhalter could, in theory, deploy a starting lineup with 10 Olympic-eligible players —none of the group’s current goalkeepers are Olympic-eligible — but with veterans such as Aaron Long, Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget still in the squad, Berhalter should deploy a starting lineup against Costa Rica that has a good mix of veterans and U-23 options.
Adams working on the wing again
Tyler Adams worked on the right side of RB Leipzig’s midfield in its recent loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, and spent his time almost exclusively working in a wide role. The deployment may have seemed surprising considering there was a belief that the recent departure of Diego Demme would mean more central midfield time for Adams.
Seeing Adams working on the right side of the field brought to mind his deployment as a right back by Gregg Berhalter in the only match Adams has played with the USMNT under Berhalter, and may have led to more concerns about Berhalter continuing with that experiment when Adams returns to the national team fold in March.
Asked by SBI on Monday where he sees Adams fitting positionally with the USMNT, Berhalter made it clear Adams’ future is in the middle of the field.
“We’ve played him at right back before. I think he’s a good fit there because of his speed, his dynamic, his ability to process the ball and move forward with the ball and attack with speed,” Berhalter said. “We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder, but we know that when we need to be flexible he can play that position as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth and he’ll be most suited in our system in central midfield.”
Adams has long been considered a future starter in the USMNT defensive midfield role, and the March friendlies should provide him an opportunity to start there. With Michael Bradley sidelined by ankle surgery, and Jackson Yueill expected to feature in Olympic qualifying, Berhalter’s defensive midfield options are limited, though it could also be an opportunity to see someone like Cristian Roldan or Weston McKennie in a deeper-lying role.
Sargent starting, but Bremen keeps struggling
Gregg Berhalter has a camp full of players to work with this month, but that isn’t stopping him from continuing to communicate with other players in the USMNT player pool, and he revealed on Monday that he spoke at length with Josh Sargent this weekend.
Sargent earned a starter for Werder Bremen over the weekend, but the club’s 3-0 loss to Hoffenheim dropped Bremen into the Bundesliga relegation zone. The match marked Sargent’s second straight start since the club returned from the winter break, but he is still searching for his first Bundesliga goal since October 19.
“We reviewed his game on the weekend and the team is going through a dip in form,” Berhalter said. “They’re in the relegation zone right now. This is what happens in pro sports, this is what happens at a high level.
“With Josh in particular, I see it as some of the team function, and how they’re creating chances, and how they’re looking to make the most of their players I think has been difficult at times. They haven’t been creating a lot of chances, and that’s difficult for a striker at times.
“For him it’s hanging in there, continuing to do the things that got him to that level,” Berhalter said. “Continuing to think about his movement off the ball, how he’s moving in the penalty box, and when he gets opportunities making the most of them.”
The good news for Sargent is that he has returned from his December injury in good enough form to grab a starting role for Werder Bremen in recent weeks. It will be up to the young American forward to snap his own goal drought if he is going to keep hold of that starting role, and boost his chances of becoming Berhalter’s preferred starting striker when the full USMNT plays Netherlands and Wales in March.
McKennie returns for Schalke
One of the biggest bright spots of the weekend for American soccer fans was the return of Weston McKennie from the scary shoulder injury that threatened to keep him out for an extended period of time.
McKennie had little to do in his 10-minute cameo in Schalke’s 5-0 loss to Bayern Munich, but simply returning to action was big step for the USMNT star, who had missed a total of three Bundesliga matches after injuring his shoulder in a large fall in a December match against Eintracht Frankfurt.
McKennie shifted to right back in his cameo, and it remains to be seen where he will fit in once he is fully match fit. McKennie was seeing time in central defense when he went down with his injury, but the recent return from injury of veteran Matija Nastasic along with the recent acquisition of French defender Jean-Clair Todibo should allow McKennie to see more time in central midfield.