Five steps and approaches for the USMNT heading into 2023.
December 16, 2022
WHILE WE DO NOT yet know who the U.S. national team coach for the start of the 2026 cycle will be, the most recent cycle offered up a blueprint for what should be the team’s priority in 2023. Fortunately, the groundwork is not enormous. It doesn’t involve a lot of breaking down and rebuilding, but rather more of a continuation of the past few years.
After poor World Cups or unsuccessful qualifying campaigns (such as 2017, 2006, and 1998), there is a big task involved in terms of reworking or rebuilding the team. Even after successful World Cups, there is a tendency to cling to players who are at risk of aging out. This was the problem with the U.S. team after 2002 when top players Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, and Brian McBride kept their role on the team and weren’t close to their prime level come 2006.
For the first time, neither of these two are a concern following a World Cup. There is no need to scrap/rebuild and there is minimal risk of anyone aging out. Aside from central defense, the entire starting lineup along with most key subs are all going to be in their prime years throughout the upcoming cycle.
It doesn’t mean the team doesn’t need work in some areas. It certainly does. But regardless if Gregg Berhalter returns or someone else takes the job, a lot of the next steps and approaches are obvious.
While much of the development of the team are big picture and need to be handled over the next four years, here are some thoughts about what needs to be done in 2023 as part of the short-term.
Shift through center forwards
Entering the 2022 World Cup, one of the big concerns of the team was in center forward. Berhalter went with Haji Wright, Jesus Ferreira, and Josh Sargent. While Wright scored an accidental goal, it wasn’t a great tournament for him. Ferreira, who hadn’t played in nearly two months, struggled in his 45 minutes. Sargent was lively and showcased himself well, but still didn’t get on the scoresheet.
All three should continue to be in the picture, but the competition should be re-opened. Fortunately, there are more options of players who are beyond speculative call-ups (like Sebastian Soto and Matthew Hoppe were in the past cycle). Look at these four:
Daryl Dike: The powerful Dike, 22, spent most of 2022 injured, but he is back for West Brom and looked sharp in meaningful minutes this past weekend. He is a very unique forward.
Brandon Vazquez: After a great season with Cincinnati, Vazquez needs to show it wasn’t a one-season fluke. At 24, he’s entering into his prime and he could have offers soon. U.S. fans should hope it is not Chivas in Liga MX.
Jordan Pefok: After starting off the Bundesliga season on a tear, Pefok has cooled in recent months. But he is still playing weekly at Union Berlin. While Pefok, 26, isn’t a complete player, he is a strong presence in the box.
Ricardo Pepi: The toughest cut from Qatar, Pepi, 19, had a poor start to 2022 and his transfer to Augsburg didn’t work out. But he has completely revived his career in the Eredivisie on loan at Groningen.
What is important to remember is that center forwards mature better in their later twenties and these four players (along with the three taken to Qatar) will all be at the best ages heading into 2026.
There isn’t a need at all to select top forwards now. Whoever is hot in 2023 might just be due to a hot streak. It doesn’t reflect who will be a quality player in 2024 or 2026. But continuing to give opportunities and experience to these players in 2023 will help build chemistry, foster competition, and allow for easier selection in 2025 and 2026 when the actual World Cup team will be built.
But the U.S. team should have as many as seven strikers in their prime towards the end of this cycle. We don’t know who the best option will be 2026 – and that is fine. But it will be advantageous to allow whoever becomes best options in 2026 to have established chemistry with the team.
Central defense rebuilding
This issue is more pressing in 2023. From 2019 - early 2022, it would have been an outlandish prediction to say that in the three U.S. central defenders to play in Qatar would be Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, and Cameron Carter-Vickers.
From the Qatar roster, Ream and Aaron Long will be phased out quickly. Zimmerman might be phased out later in the cycle (although I predict he’s an excellent option for the Olympic team as an overage player).
Fortunately, there are several options of players who are already established high-level professionals.
Cameron Carter-Vickers: Now with World Cup experience, the Celtic captain will obviously continue to be involved in. Carter-Vickers, 24, has logged a ton of minutes for a player at his age.
Erik Palmer-Brown: He’s in a great club situation where he starts regularly with Troyes in Ligue 1. He fell behind others in 2022, but this could be a big cycle for him. Palmer-Brown, 25, has the talent to separate himself from the pack.
Chris Richards: At 22, Richards would have made the 2022 World Cup team if healthy. As talented as he is, injuries are a bit of a concern for him. He will finish 2022 playing under 600 minutes of club soccer. He’s missed a lot of time but if he can stay healthy, he could factor in. Finding regular minutes, however, is still a concern in the Premier League.
Miles Robinson: Robinson was so instrumental to the U.S. team’s success at the 2021 Gold Cup and he helped the team – big time – at the start of World Cup qualifying when the rest of the team wasn’t playing well. But his injury at the start of the year cost him dearly. If he can return to full strength, he brings a high level of athleticism which could be useful.
Mark McKenzie: After playing well with the Philadelphia Union, McKenzie struggled a bit his first year at KRC Genk. But the start of the 2022/23 Belgian season has seen him play at another level. Genk is running away with the lead in the First Division and McKenzie is playing regularly. His national team performances have been uneven, but he is still worth call-ups and caps in 2023 where the stakes are relatively low.
James Sands: Has been playing regularly at Rangers this season and, while he has work to do to catch the others, is still young and could continue to improve his stock.
Matt Miazga: At 27, he’s older than the others on this list but he has a lot of experience. He will turn 30 at the next World Cup, so he is far from being too old. It depends on showing continued growth at Cincinnati.
These are the types of competitions you want to see on the U.S. team – between players who are beyond being speculative and have shown qualify over multiple seasons.
Finding roles for Reyna & Aaronson
The top story this week has obviously been Gio Reyna. He wasn’t unhappy about learning he was a bench player at the World Cup and his attitude wasn’t great in Qatar. Then you have Berhalter’s comments to an off-record council that were leaked.
There are a lot of things that must happen in the future. The first is that Reyna needs to mature and grow up. He has still only started limited games over the past year and fell behind good players like Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, and Christian Pulisic in the starting XI. That happens and that is what good competitions should look like.
Then there is his position. Assuming Berhatler could get back onto good terms with Reyna should he return as coach, or even if there is a new coach, finding a role for Reyna is key.
It’s not necessarily easy. The “MMA” midfield could use some more creativity, but the trio is young, promising, and effective on both sides of the ball. It’s tough to argue that Reyna should replace either Weston McKennie or Musah. On the wings, Pulisic and Weah are good options with both having found the back of the net in Qatar.
There are other potential options to still get Reyna on the field – although both have drawbacks. Weah could move into the lone No. 9 position and Reyna could take the wing but that takes one of the team’s best crossers in Weah away from the flanks. Weah is a better winger than a lone No. 9 in a 4-3-3. If not that, could Reyna move into a false No. 9 position? With so many true center-forwards entering their prime years in the coming cycle, most coaches are probably going to want to have the best lineup to have a No. 9.
There is also Brenden Aaronson who was typically the first sub off the bench in Qatar when replacing McKennie or Pulisic after his injury. Is he just a hybrid back-up for either the midfield or the wings, or is there a path for him to get into the starting XI?
An improving player pool always means good players will fall outside the starting XI. It will be a challenge for managers to handle. But the key here is that, in the coming years, players will drift in and out of form. The starting XI needs to be flexible.
Let Youth National Teams do their job
One of the benefits in the coming cycle is that there is now less of a need for speculative caps on highly unproven players who are still very new to the professional game. All previous U.S. managers have tried to force the issue with very unproven players and even in the last cycle, Berhalter awarded a lot of speculative caps. This doesn’t even include January camp friendlies outside of the FIFA window.
Even on FIFA dates, players such as Owen Otasowie, Sebastian Soto, and Uly Llanez were all called up despite very little experience. There were also call-ups to players who still might pan out, but who were also still unsettled in their careers and didn’t make an impact on this cycle (players like Konrad de la Fuente, Nicholas Gioacchini, Matthew Hoppe).
With a majority of the starting lineup set and decent number of backups, there is no need to waste call-ups on young players based on performances at the youth levels, players who simply could be on a hot-streak, or players who have only just started playing at the first-team level. The start of the new cycle in 2023 will mark a different set of standards to make the team.
Call-ups are a limited and valuable resource. The U.S. team now can be more selective with caps. They can focus on players who have shown their qualities over a full season and are less likely to fade into obscurity.
When looking at the list above for central defense and center forward candidates who were not in Qatar but are looking to fill a void on the USMNT, every one of them has multiple years of first-team club experience. You can always make an exception for a rare case like a Musah or Sergino Dest, but the improved standards to make this team should eliminate wasted speculative picks.
And building on that, the senior national team can let the youth national teams do their jobs.
In 2018, it was a massive rebuild and players were frequently skipping the U-20 cycle and there was no U-23 team in the Olympics. People forget just how big that jump from the U-20 level to the senior team is. Berhalter tried to smooth that transition with some veterans who weren’t long-term options but, instead, were placeholders. These placeholder options, like the speculative picks, are also not needed in 2023 to being a cycle.
Building off the lack of need for speculative call-ups or placeholder picks, this cycle has a completely different feel. The U.S. U-20 team will have a World Cup in 2023, another one likely in 2025, and the U.S. U-23 team will be in the Olympics for the first time in 2024 since 2008.
Typically, the best youth prospects can get pulled up to the national team quickly because there is a need to get the team ready for World Cup qualifying. With the U.S. team not having to take part in qualifying, the U.S. can afford to let players mature with youth teams and not skip stages in their development.
For example, a young and uncapped player like John Tolkin could be seen as a very good left back candidate for the national team behind Antonee Robinson in the cycle ahead. But he’s not needed with the U.S. team now. Instead, he can play out his cycle with the U.S. U-23 team, possibly get sold to a European team when the time is right, and if he is still doing well there, make a springboard to the full national team. But the U.S. can now let good players like Tolkin, Taylor Booth, Tanner Tessmann, Bryan Reynolds, and others focus on the Olympics. You can also let players on the fringe of the national team focus on Paris and regroup – players such as Hoppe, de la Fuente, Paxten Aaronson, and Kevin Paredes. In previous cycles there would have been a big debate over the need for Paxten Aaronson or Paredes to go to the Gold Cup over the U-20 World Cup. But there is much less of a need for them to skip stages of the pathway now.
The 2008 Olympic team saw the tournament serve as a springboard for players like Stu Holden, Charlie Davies, Maurice Edu, Jozy Altidore, and others to move from the fringe of the U.S player pool and into becoming key players.
The U.S. can be patient this cycle with youth national team players to let them use the experiences of major youth competitions to their benefit. Some players will live up to expectations, others won’t. But the U.S. will have the time to see which players are the best and most prepared based on real performances.
The U.S. doesn’t need many of system’s top youth players by 2024. They can really start building up most of the depth in 2025 when the current group of young players now has the experience of leading teams at the U-20 World Cup and Olympics. At that point, they’ll be making their inroads into the U.S. team as better players.
In 2023, the U.S. team needs to be creative with its scheduling and set a clear pathway for the team this cycle. Two Gold Cups and two Nations Leagues in a four-year cycle are not enough. The 2024 Copa America makes sense if “guest team restrictions” are lifted and the U.S. possibly hosts the tournament. Guest team restrictions make it unworkable, but if it resembles the 2016 Copa America Centenario, then it would be the best opportunity to get games.
Then 2025 will be a big year for the U.S. team to build its team based on the lessons from the Olympics, the Copa America, the U-20 World Cup, plus all the evaluations of players at their clubs. The old Confederations Cup would have been perfect for this, but could U.S. Soccer organize something on its own with other top teams?
After this cycle, the same questions will remain. It’s a long-term issue and a watered-down World Cup qualifying with a new 48-team World Cup isn’t going to be challenging. There are only so many times exceptions can be given to allow participation in the Copa America without “guest team restrictions.” Perhaps down the road, a global Nations League, or the top teams in CONCACAF merge with CONMEBOL? The U.S. needs to have a dependable schedule in between World Cups. The federation appears to be doing a sufficient job with the upcoming cycle if the Copa America rumors are true, but a longer-term solution is still needed.
For 2023, however, the work behind the scenes to pave a challenging cycle for the U.S. team is key for 2026.