The second wave of friendlies under new USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter has some shape now that the roster has been announced. The team that he’s called in seems... underwhelming. There’s Michael Bradley poised to continue his steady march toward breaking the USMNT record for caps, the anonymous college graduate at left back, an entire forward line filled with MLS players with only one that scored double digit goals last season, and a center back that scored an own goal in World Cup qualifying. What is this?
Where are the kids? Where are the players that are testing themselves at the highest level? WHERE ARE TIM WEAH AND JOSH SARGENT? Is this what fans want to overpay to see? Is this the best that Gregg Berhalter can do? A roster that looks like 15/24 of a January camp with Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie mixed in? Is everyone who says SUM controls USSF right and is this roster the shooter on the grassy knoll in the flesh?
At the very least it’s disappointing and at the worst it seems like a step back in terms of the work that American Manager Dave Sarachan did at expanding the player pool in his year as interim manager. So what are we supposed to make of this?
The good: this is “The Process”
Let’s give the US Soccer Federation more credit than it deserves and think that it’s making decisions with the “long game” in mind. Suspend your belief in reality for just a minute and step back and look at how the roster fits into “The Process.”
Obviously, Sargent and Weah aren’t on the team sheet. Addressing their omission the coach noted, “We’re looking at this from the big picture standpoint. The big picture is Tim and Josh have the opportunity to play at the U-23 level and gain experience. I see them very much as part of the group moving forward, this is a way for them to keep playing and get on the field.”
That’s nice; they’re in the group going forward and are with the U-23s for this camp. On its face, it would appear that US Soccer is prioritizing getting back into the Olympics on the men’s side. If so, the thinking that the youngsters would have time to get some experience under a new U-23s coach, which the article linked above also mentions will be hired shortly, makes sense. It is still three years and then some between now and the 2022 World Cup kicking off and there’s a lot that needs to happen in that time. One thing that will come up is the 2020 Olympics, a tournament the US men have only qualified for once in the past four times it’s been held.
Concacaf U-23 qualifying has not been scheduled (for 2016 it occurred in October 2015), but holding Weah, Sargent, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Antonee Robinson and other promising players out of the senior squad for now would give them time to gel under a new coach. That time will be more valuable to prep for Olympic qualifying than playing a pair of friendlies that will let Berhalter assess the player pool ahead of the Gold Cup.
The 2020 Olympics are also a way to turn the page for the USMNT. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was in some ways the end of a chapter that began with failing to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Those teams were full of players who took a different track and focused their development and careers in MLS. The current crop of U-23s, at least its brightest members, are choosing to challenge themselves at the highest level in Europe and not repeat the mistakes of the “lost generation” that had its ultimate failure in Trinidad & Tobago.
If the goal is a successful run in the 2022 World Cup, this is the right roster for Berhalter to call in, “The Process” is working, and everything is fine. Of course, that’s only if it means that the players who will make the biggest impact in that tournament are taking the field in Tokyo next summer.
The bad: there is no “The Process”
There’s no way that Sargent and Weah should be behind Corey Baird, Jonathan Lewis, and Christian Ramirez in the depth chart and no way that they don’t have a higher upside for 2022 than Gyasi Zardes. There is room on the roster for them. On top of that, their clubs are under no obligation to release them for a U-23 camp. Plus, if the goal was to have them playing meaningful soccer against tough competition, friendlies against senior players for two tough South American teams would be just that.
In its recent decisions, such as extending Jurgen Klinsmann with a massive contract before ever coaching a World Cup game, hiring Bruce Arena to try and pick up the pieces after Klinsmann’s early qualifying losses, alienating a top dual-national prospect, creating a general manager position that seemed to be aimless that few candidates were interested in, and seemingly pre-selecting the USMNT manager without a competitive hiring process (you know, again), USSF has exercised foresight like it was planning a music festival on Pablo Escobar’s island in the Bahamas. Is that changing?
A good sign is that there are exciting young players in Europe who could make a big difference with the Stars and Stripes ahead of 2022, but does that mean there’s a “Process” that the federation set in motion to make that happen? The crop of players choosing to play in Europe and not MLS it might make it seem like US Soccer is thinking more strategically. Another way to look at it is that the young talented players that are choosing to go abroad over MLS are making the case for long-term planning easier for the federation to take credit for.
Whatever Berhalter says, we don’t know why Sargent and Weah are being sent to the U-23s. If this is not “The Process,” then Weah and Sargent not being called in to the senior team is quite simply just another in a long line of bad decisions.