Six USMNT players to watch against El Salvador
December 07, 2020
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team is set to take on El Salvador on Wednesday night in Ft. Lauderdale in a rare December game. After a long layoff due to COVID-19 and very busy 2021 year ahead, Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer are taking advantage to evaluate players and where they fit, or if the even do fit, into the plans for the national team and youth national teams.
In 2021, the United States could take part in the U-20 World Cup qualifying, the U-20 World Cup, U-23 Olympic qualifying, the Olympics, the CONCACAF Nations League, the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying, and friendlies at every level along the way. It is possible that each of the these tournaments could see over 80 American players on various roster.
The current 24 -player camp in Ft. Lauderdale is mostly domestic (22 players coming from MLS) and is mostly youth oriented with 16 players eligible for the 2021 U-23 Olympic team and three are eligible for the U.S. U-20 team in 2021 (not including the injured David Ochoa).
All the players on the roster have something to prove, especially the newcomers, but here are the players I am most curious to watch – and why
Daryl Dike, 20, is not the finished product yet and it is still too early to determine if he will be a successful professional, let alone a U.S. national team caliber player. Young players new to the professional game can always go either way.
But Dike is interesting on another given that if he does pan out, it gives the U.S. team a different way to play. His size (6’2” and 220 pounds), strength, and ability to move well with his big frame make him very difficult to defend. If the U.S. has a top striker option in Josh Sargent, being able to mix it up with either Dike coming off the bench, or possibly playing with Sargent at the same time, gives the United States team a different look in how it attacks.
“In terms of Daryl, we would most likely use the forward position in a different way if he was on the field because he is such a physical presence,” Berhalter said. “He's a guy you need to get the ball to. You saw what he did in the game against New England. He made it very hard for the centerbacks to play. He was very physical and very aggressive against them. I felt they just needed to get him the ball in the box more. I can imagine that when he's on the field, we would look to get him the ball in the penalty box more - either back to goal or on the crosses to draw in defenders and perhaps lay off or take them on himself.”
Against El Salvador, Dike needs to start building a case that he can fit into the U.S. team well to start this process – and perhaps with the U.S. U-23 team where he could be a difference maker against younger and inexperienced CONCACAF defenders.
Dike is still a project, but the upsides along are intriguing.
Moving from being a prospect to a reliable player is tough, and most players do not make that transition. Aaronson is probably a little further along than a prospect, but he’s not reliable yet at the U.S. national team level.
Aaronson, 20, is coming off a season where he helped guide Philadelphia to a Supporters Shield title, was named to the league’s best XI, and secured a multimillion transfer to Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. To this date, however, Aaronson’s only cap with the U.S. national team was in the past January camp in a 1-0 win over Costa Rica. Prior to that, he was cut from the U.S. U-20 World Cup team in 2019 and was slated to be part of the U-23 team in March for Olympic qualifying before the tournament was cancelled.
“We're excited to see Brenden take the next step in his career,” Berhalter said.”I think he's done a great job this year in terms of performing. When I think back to January until now, he's had a fantastic season in improving his performances almost weekly. What we are looking for now is for him to validate it - validate it on the field. It's a good opponent we play against El Salvador. It's going to be a tight game and this is where he should be able to be very effective. We are really looking forward to him capping off a strong season with a good performance against El Salvador.”
There is plenty of reasons to be excited over Aaronson but he is new to the international stage. If he is released to the U.S. U-23 Olympic team in March for qualifying, can he be a difference maker there?
On the full team, there are a bunch of really good young central attacking midfielders in Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Richard Ledezma although injuries happen and the commitment for Musah, as well as the development of Ledezma still give Aaronson a path for the full team.
Central defense right now is wide open for the U.S. team. John Brooks is one of the best players in the pool and he occupies the left side of the pairing when he’s healthy – and that hasn’t always been the case. After that, there are a series of question marks in Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Matt Miazga, Chris Ricahrds, Erik Palmer-Brown, and Mark Mckenzie.
This will leave the door open for each of the four central defenders in this camp (which includes Long, Zimmerman, and Maurico Pindea). McKenzie has perhaps a bigger opportunity in this game for several reasons. He’s coming being named to the league’s Best XI for his season with Philadelphia, he’s young and expected to be a big part of the U.S. U-23 team in 2021, and there are growing rumors and reports of European teams watching him.
Those factors give McKenzie a big stage on Wednesday.
“The centerback position is pretty open,” Berhalter said. “We wanted diversity in the pool in this camp. We have two experienced guys in Walker and Aron with an inexperienced guy like Mark Mckenzie but who had a fantastic season... for us it is looking to see who is going to take advantage of this opportunity. Who can have a good performance in this camp?”
McKenzie spoke to the media this week and sounded ready to prove himself on a different stage, which could then set himself up for an important 2021.
“We all see how deep and talented the center back position is in this cycle,” McKenzie said. “I see that as an opportunity to push myself. I think that internal fire is something that each of us have. Whenever we get the opportunity to come in here, we're pushing and we're fighting because we know Gregg Berhalter said it was an open spot. It's a daily battle, a daily fight, both when you come into camp but also at the club level.”
Despite being the veteran on the roster with the most caps, Arriola is still interesting in this camp. He is essentially coming off a lost season for DC United where he tore his ACL in preseason and only returned for the season finale – where DC failed to clinch a playoff berth.
There are a bunch of questions to answer for Arriola. How healthy is he right now and what level is he at after a difficult 2020?
There are a lot of good young wingers coming up through the ranks with the U.S. team and youth teams and while Arriola is likely not a start for the U.S. team when everyone is healthy, he does have some skills that are important. For one, he is one of the better defensive wingers in the pool that can track back and win the ball while covering a ton of ground. While not consistent with his final ball, he can still make things happen.
But that is all assuming Arriola is health and fit – which Wednesday’s game should give us a good barometer.
“This is a classic case of a guy getting rewarded for his play on the field,” Berhalter said of Mueller’s call-up last week.
Mueller’s call-up is a feel-good story of a guy who has worked extremely hard to get to this point. The Orlando City winger had 10 goals and seven assists in 2020 where he earned my vote to be in the league’s Best XI. He was a major reason why Orlando City earned its way into the playoffs for the first time ever.
But the competition will now be harder for Mueller but the Illinois native has many elements that fit the international game. He can defend and handle the physical side of the game well. His crossing is usually accurate and he is accurate with his passing. But is he fast enough? Does he play the defensive side of the game well enough to disrupt opponents?
Even if he is out of the first-choice 23 right now, Mueller is the kind of player who might have a golden opportunity in 2021 due to the congested U.S. national team schedule that will see a lot of players get games. If he carries his 2020 form into this camp while improving in 2021 for both club and country, he might just find his way into Berhalter’s plans on the deep side of the roster.
Along with Julian Araujo, Bassett is just one of just two U.S. U-20 players on the roster who is eligible to play against El Salvador. Bassett put up solid numbers with Colorado this season with five goals and five assists in the regular season but was also slightly inconsistent. That’s understandable given the stop-start nature of the season (especially given Colorado missed a month due to COVID).
Bassett holds European ambitions and Colorado will likely sell at some point but it is hard to see that happening before the U-20 World Cup. Bassett is a big part of the plans of Anthony Hudson, the U.S. U-20 head coach so this camp will get him back into the swing of the international game and give him momentum heading into 2021. For American fans, the U-20 World Cup is always a fun tournament and this will give us a glimpse of a key player for qualifying and, if successful, the World Cup team.