Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson earned a big reward for his terrific rookie season Wednesday when the Medford, N.J., native who turns 19 this month was called up to the senior U.S. men’s national team for the first time.
Aaronson is among 26 players on coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad for the Americans’ debut in the Concacaf Nations League, a new tournament designed to give the region’s national teams more competitive games. It also helps the programs in FIFA’s global rankings, which matters for seeding in the World Cup draw.
“He’s a very agile player, very aware between the lines, able to give solutions offensively and very secure on the ball,” Berhalter said of Aaronson in a statement on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website. “He’s another case of getting a younger guy into the program, getting our eyes on him and also letting him understand what it means to be in with the full men’s national team.”
The Americans will play Cuba on Oct. 11 in Washington (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1, UniMás and TUDN), then go to Toronto to play Canada on Oct. 15 (7:30 p.m., ESPN2, UniMás and TUDN).
Aaronson’s call-up comes with a strong recommendation from U.S. under-23 team coach Jason Kreis. During the age-group squad’s training camp over Labor Day weekend, Aaronson was one of the most impressive players -- including a pretty assist in a 2-0 exhibition win over Japan.
“He thinks really highly of me, and I think he’s a great coach,” Aaronson said of Kreis.
Aaronson is the first Union player to be called up to the senior U.S. team since January, when Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty were part of the annual winter training camp for domestic prospects. Neither player made the field during the games at the end of the camp.
This time, the stakes are higher because the games are official, not friendlies. Because of that, Berhalter called in many veterans, such as Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Jozy Altidore. Newcastle United right back DeAndre Yedlin also returns to the national team for the first time since March, having finally recovered from a groin injury that required surgery in May.
The headline players are once again midfielders Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic, the Hershey native. Expect Pulisic to be in an even bigger spotlight than usual because he hasn’t played for Chelsea since the end of August. He wasn’t even on the bench for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League game against French club Lille.
“I watch these guys every single week that they have an international game,” he said. “I watch them in the Premier League now, which is unbelievable to say. ... It’s going to be a treat to be playing with these guys.”
There’s also some additional local flavor in Wyndmoor native Daniel Lovitz, who will provide depth at outside back.
Three notable players are out injured: centerback John Brooks, central midfielder Tyler Adams and forward Tim Weah.
A side effect of the games’ being official is that they can be used to cap-tie prospects to a national team. You don’t get to change your national team once you’re cap-tied, but if you’ve played only in friendlies and youth events, you can petition FIFA for a one-time change of allegiance.
Because of that, the biggest headline in Berhalter’s roster is a name that’s missing: 18-year-old Dutch-American outside back Sergiño Dest. He played for the U.S. at this year’s Under-20 World Cup, and made his senior debut in two friendlies last month. He also has become a regular for his club, Ajax of Amsterdam, including playing in the UEFA Champions League this season. Dest started Wednesday’s against Spain’s Valencia.
Since Dest isn’t cap-tied yet, the Dutch federation has been lobbying him to switch to the Netherlands, with the effort reportedly led by Ajax manager Erik ten Hag and Dutch national team head coach Ronald Koeman.
“I haven’t decided yet on either one. I need more time," Dest told Fox Sports Netherlands after Wednesday’s game. “I need to think carefully. So I left it alone this time. I hope to have decided next month.”
Dest said he turned down invitations from both the U.S. and the Netherlands. Berhalter said he has “had conversations with Sergiño, the conversations were positive, and the content of these conversations is going to remain private.”
Also not called up were Alex Mendez, Ulysses Llanez, and Efrain Alvarez, American-born youth prospects with Mexican ancestry who are eligible for both nations. Mendez and Llanez were stars of this year’s U.S. under-20 World Cup team, and Alvarez has become a regular with the Los Angeles Galaxy at 17.
The Mexican federation is attempting to recruit all three — Alvarez has already played for its youth teams — while the U.S. federation has seemed to not pay much attention.
Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Defenders (8): Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Matt Miazga (Reading, England), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United, England), Walker Zimmerman (Los Angeles FC)
Midfielders (8): Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Sebastian Lletget (Los Angeles Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04, Germany), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea, England), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)