When the U.S. men’s soccer team gathers next week to resume World Cup qualifying, it will be facing more than just a trio of battle-tested regional foes.
The one road game in the three-game slate, at Canada on Jan. 30, will be outdoors in Hamilton, Ontario, about 40 miles south of Toronto and 70 miles west of Buffalo — and on artificial turf.
To prepare for all the natural and human-made elements, the U.S. Soccer Federation set the game before it, Jan. 27 vs. El Salvador, in Columbus, Ohio. And to ensure a short flight out of Canada, the third game is in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 2.
Starting in Columbus makes plenty of sense, as a cold-weather tuneup and because the city has long been one of the national team’s great fortresses. But while the Twin Cities have an even bigger soccer history than Columbus, going there in mid-winter isn’t great for an elite soccer player’s hamstrings. That the playing surfaces at both stadiums are heated will only help on those two game days, and perhaps for practices leading up to game days.
So the anticipation for Friday afternoon’s announcement of the U.S. roster for the three games wasn’t just about the usual speculation of who’d make the cut and who wouldn’t. It was about how many players U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter would summon. With three games in seven days and five subs per game, he was incentivized to call in more players than the usual 23 to 26.
That’s exactly what happened, as Berhalter picked 28 players. There are four goalkeepers, five outside backs, four center backs, seven central midfielders, five wingers, and three strikers. And of the eight forwards combined, three can play up front on the wing, and two can drop back to central midfield if needed.
“When we think about the potential of playing three games in seven days, that’s enough right there to need a bigger squad,” Berhalter said in a news conference after the roster was announced.
“We think about yellow card accumulation — we can be missing some guys for that — we have the potential for injuries, and then finally, any potential wear and tear that the turf in Hamilton can bring,” he said. “We feel that we’ll have enough cover no matter what happens in this window.”
All four big names from the Philadelphia area made the cut: goalkeeper Zack Steffen (Downingtown), center back Mark McKenzie (Bear, Del.), and wingers Christian Pulisic (Hershey) and Brenden Aaronson (Medford).
Berhalter also said he has a set of alternates ready to be called in during the FIFA window if needed. But the good news is everyone he called up is cleared to travel to Canada, which requires all foreign visitors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“When I look at the threat of COVID and how quickly this new variant has been spreading, we can expect guys to come into camp and test positive — that’s just the nature of it — so we need some protection on that,” he said.
And as a former U.S. player, he knows that even the best-laid plans can be knocked sideways whether there’s a pandemic or not.
“We’re expecting the worst, right?,” he said. “You never know. Every window has its own little story to tell. And we’re expecting for this one not to be any different.”
As ever, there are notable exclusions — but this time, they aren’t just down to form and the manager’s choice. Berhalter said rising star midfielder Gianluca Busio of Italy’s Venezia was a late cut because he contracted COVID-19.
Players who didn’t make it for form reasons include center backs John Brooks (Wolfsburg, Germany) and Tim Ream (Fulham, England); and strikers Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion, England), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys, Switzerland) and Josh Sargent (Norwich City, England).
Asked specifically about Brooks, Berhalter said: “For this window, we decided based on how we’re looking at these games, and what are the strengths of our opponents, that he wouldn’t be the best fit for this particular window.”
He applied the same logic to other players.
“This isn’t stuff that’s written in stone,” he said. “Just because a player’s not in this camp, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a future with the program — and that goes for Jordan Pefok, it goes for Josh Sargent.”
Coincidentally, at the same time Berhalter was speaking, Sargent scored two goals for Norwich, sparking a 3-0 win over Watford that pulled the Canaries out of the Premier League’s relegation zone for the first time this season.
“That’s great news for Josh and great news for Norwich,” Berhalter said.
But as fans on Twitter hailed Sargent’s feat, they also knew what Berhalter didn’t say: that Sargent hadn’t scored in 22 straight games before then. If he can get on a run, perhaps he’ll move back up the depth chart and return to the U.S. squad for the qualifying finale in March.
The U.S. roster
Goalkeepers (4): Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Gabriel Slonina (Chicago Fire), Zack Steffen (Manchester City, England), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Defenders (9): Reggie Cannon (Boavista, Portugal), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona, Spain), Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United), Mark McKenzie (Genk, Belgium), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim, Germany), Antonee Robinson (Fulham, England), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray, Turkey), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Midfielders (7): Kellyn Acosta (Los Angeles FC), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig, Germany), Luca de la Torre (Heracles Almelo, Netherlands), Sebastian Lletget (New England Revolution), Weston McKennie (Juventus, Italy), Yunus Musah (Valencia, Spain), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
Forwards (8): Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg, Austria), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg, Germany), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea, England), Tim Weah (Lille, France), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
The upcoming games across Concacaf
Thursday, Jan. 27
7 p.m.: United States vs. El Salvador (ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN), Jamaica vs. Mexico (CBS Sports Network, Telemundo 62, Universo, Paramount+)
8 p.m.: Honduras vs. Canada (Paramount+, TelemundoDeportes.com)
9 p.m.: Costa Rica vs. Panama (Universo, Paramount+)
Sunday, Jan. 30
3 p.m.: Canada vs. United States (Telemundo, Universo, Paramount+)
5 p.m.: Panama vs. Jamaica (Universo, Paramount+)
6 p.m.: Mexico vs. Costa Rica (Univision 65, TUDN, Paramount+)
7 p.m.: Honduras vs. El Salvador (Universo, Paramount+)
Wednesday, Feb. 2
7 p.m.: Jamaica vs. Costa Rica (Universo, Paramount+)
7:30 p.m.: United States vs. Honduras (FS1, Univision 65, TUDN)
9 p.m.: El Salvador vs. Canada (Universo, Paramount+)
10 p.m.: Mexico vs. Panama (Univision 65, TUDN, Paramount+)