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What should the role of veterans be during this USMNT cycle?

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Which veterans can help the USMNT reach Qatar in 2022?

Panama v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When the United States Men’s National Team roster was announced for the recent friendlies against Colombia and Peru, Michael Bradley was the main person of interest on the list. It was also reported that an ankle injury kept Jozy Altidore from returning as well. These decisions, coupled with the return of Brad Guzan to the roster, stirred an obvious debate that will continue in the coming months: what role should the veterans have during this new cycle?

Bradley is one of the national team’s all-time greats but also captain of the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history, and he will be 35 when the next World Cup comes around. Most think he has already lost multiple steps when it comes to roaming the midfield against the world’s elite, and his days are numbered. With Weston McKennie playing a similar role in one of the best leagues in the world, it appears as though Michael Bradley is nearing the end of his illustrious career. So, what exactly is Michael Bradley doing back on the squad? And are there other veterans, like Jozy Altidore, who can be useful to the cause going forward?

Before going too far, it’s important to define exactly what that cause is. Only after being clear on the objectives of the national team can we be clear if there is a role for the aging veterans like Bradley. I will posit for this argument that the ultimate goal of the USMNT is to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Sure, there are smaller objectives along the way, like a Gold Cup victory, or qualifying for the Olympics, but other objectives are inferior to returning to the World Cup. If the U.S. fails to qualify for a second consecutive time, we will witness pandemonium squared, and may never recover from the death spiral. We lose the Gold Cup? Eh.

Some might argue that fielding a semifinal-ready competitive team for the 2026 World Cup is a higher priority. There’s an argument to be made there and that would result in a focus on yet younger players throughout this current cycle. But if the USMNT is not in Qatar, all hope of prominence in 2026 will be comical.

The USMNT will not play a challenging qualifier for the better part of two years, so decisions with veterans should start with the idea that they can help improve that version of the team. With that objective in mind let’s examine the arguments for continuing to call up veterans, starting with the biggest one in question, Michael Bradley. There are three main logical reasons that any player is selected for a team, and one emotional one. The logical ones are that the player can directly improve the play on the field, they could provide insurance in case of injury, or they can improve the team culture.

1. Improving the play on the field

In one critical game would you rather have Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie or Will Trapp on the field? Or more than one at the expense of say a Kellyn Acosta or Tyler Adams? It might depend on where these players are best deployed but it’s safe to say that McKennie is currently playing at a higher level already and certainly will be a good deal further ahead in two years. It’s hard to see Bradley as one of the best XI on the field, especially in two years.

2. Insurance policy for injuries

The U.S. is definitely in short supply of proven defensive and central midfielders, and it’s also possible that U.S. Soccer views either Bradley’s or McKennie’s role as more forward. Danny Williams, another holdover from the prior cycle, has expressed hope that he would be called up for the November friendlies in Europe, which would add some more depth to the central midfield. But, Bradley certainly would be an asset if injuries beset the squad. That alone could be a reason to continue to keep him connected to the team.

3. Locker room benefit

The role in the locker room is the hardest for fans to wrap their head around. Could Bradley be of value when the team inevitably heads down to Honduras for a qualifier? Would that experience and composure, in what are clearly difficult circumstances, help the team? The counter to this argument is that the team already has some younger cycle holdovers like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, and Christian Pulisic who have been through the rigors of qualifying in CONCACAF. Brad Guzan was recently called up as well. Guzan is less of a controversial holdover because goalkeepers have longer careers, but he could easily add to the locker room as a result. Would Bradley really add much more to that experience?

As far as the logical arguments are concerned, Bradley adding depth and insurance for competitive matches is the best one. The central midfield could use more bodies as it is a few injuries away from being very thin as was just witnessed in this round of friendlies. It may be valuable to have Bradley plugged into the system in case he is needed for a competitive match. But this needs to be balanced with the cost of not bringing on a younger player who could benefit from the experience and might have more of an impact in qualifying.

4. The human side of things

There is another reason that veterans could get the call up, but it’s a reason that speaks more to our human sense of right and wrong than our rationale side. Bradley is one of America’s greats and it’s sometimes difficult for people close to the team to experience a cold sudden departure. It was difficult for U.S. fans to deal with the sudden loss of Landon Donovan before the 2014 World Cup. He ending up returning for one final swan song. Perhaps Bradley deserves to make appearances to ease him off into the sunset on his own terms. Perhaps, he has earned the opportunity to be part of the solution rather than ending his career on a sour note. Perhaps that is the right thing to do, even if there is a small cost to the overall objective of the team. U.S. Soccer has been justifiably criticized for being too calculating when it comes to finances and players. Perhaps they need human interest stories to better engage players and fans.

This same discussion holds relevant for a handful of veterans that could arguably improve the play on the field, serve as insurance or help the locker room, while likely not being a key member of the team should it make way to Qatar. The argument for Jozy Altidore is more clear given he’s younger than Bradley (will be 32 in 2022) and there is a greater lack of star power in the forward pool. But what about players like Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe, Joe Corona, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams or Alejandro Bedoya? The argument for any of them to return to the national team is far thinner.

Can any of them help with qualification that won’t start for two years? If not, why would they be called up? Is there are a logical reason or do we just need to make room for the romance of happy goodbyes?