There are moments when the focus of an international manager veers decidedly toward near-term concerns. Who is in form? Who is fit? Who is the next opponent? But there are also those occasions when a manager can allow him or herself to scan the horizon and look to the future.
In the case of United States men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter, this is decidedly one of those occasions. The 24-man roster he announced on Tuesday for matches against Wales on Nov. 12 and Panama four days later features 19 players who are age-eligible for the 2021 Olympics and 14 who are 20 years old or younger. This group’s youth and its corresponding potential makes this squad among the most tantalizing in recent memory.
The roster has some names that, at least publicly anyway, have only recently appeared on the national team radar. The most intriguing is that of Yunus Musah.
The 17-year-old winger was born in New York, plays for Valencia, scored his first professional goal last weekend, and is a product of Arsenal‘s academy. He’s played for England‘s youth national teams — although not in official competition, meaning he doesn’t have to file a one-time switch to represent the U.S. — and is eligible to represent Ghana as well. Credit, then, to U.S. Soccer Federation sporting director Earnie Stewart, U.S. men’s national team GM Brian McBride and Berhalter for jumping on the opportunity to bring in a player that Berhalter said the USSF has been tracking for 18 months. And yes, much like the U.S. did with Sergino Dest when he was deciding his international future, this is as much a recruiting trip as anything.
“What we see from [Musah] is a player that’s hungry, he’s hungry to make his impact,” said Berhalter. “He has a connection with the United States. He loves the direction the team is going in. He loves the young talent that he he can be alongside. And we see him as having a ton of potential. And for us, it’s about getting him on the field with us, letting him experience how we work as a group, how we work as a staff, [and getting] him in the team environment that we’re able to create, and then all we can do is hope that in the end, he chooses us for the long term.”
It’s not just a question of Musah choosing. Berhalter will be doing some choosing of his own.
“One thing I’m always careful about is, I want to know the player’s connection to the United States in terms of: Do they feel it in their heart?” he said. “Do they feel like they want to be part of this team? Do they feel a connection to the United States? Because that’s really important. We also want to create a team that has a deep passion for representing our country.”
Then there are the likes of Internacional holding midfielder Johnny Cardoso, Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Owen Otasowie and Caen forward Nicholas Gioacchini. Cardoso has been called in for a couple of U23 camps, and is one of those out-of-nowhere players to whom fans latch on. He is the first player in 24 years to earn a national team call-up while playing for a club outside of CONCACAF or UEFA. Cobi Jones last did it, earning a call-up to the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup while playing for Vasco da Gama.
To a large degree, this is all part of a roster’s natural progression. Thirteen players in this squad have represented the U.S. at a youth World Cup, including six at last year’s U20 tournament.
There’s also the chance to get another dual national — or in this case, triple national — into the fold in Sebastian Soto. Names like Dest, Chris Richards, Alex Mendez and Ulysses Llanez have been on the minds of fans for some time now. Now that the quartet is breaking into their respective first teams, the time is right to take the next steps at the international level.
Granted, Berhalter isn’t looking exclusively to the future. It has been nearly a year since anything close to his first-choice group has been together, so the November get-together will be an all-too-rare opportunity to see some first-choice players up close. That’s even more so the case with the triumvirate of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, who have shared the field for just 62 minutes since the start of 2019.
Alas, that dynamic could continue as Pulisic suffered a hamstring injury while warming up last weekend for Chelsea‘s match against Burnley. Blues boss Frank Lampard said that the injury is “very minor” but given Pulisic’s injury history, it seems there is more than a decent chance the U.S. attacker will miss out.
Pulisic’s possible absence is mitigated by the presence of 17-year-old Giovanni Reyna. In a world without COVID-19, Reyna would have long since made his debut given his performances for Borussia Dortmund. Now that wait is almost certain to give way to actual minutes on the field alongside Adams and McKennie.
“I think we should be able to be very aggressive offensively, getting behind the opponent, really putting the opponent on their heels,” Berhalter said. “And those are things that we need to just work on because we haven’t been together with this group often. Tyler’s played one game for us since I’ve taken over. So it’s just about getting them on the field playing together, getting them comfortable with each other.”
With several competitions scheduled for 2021, including World Cup qualifying, the time is now to get that chemistry established.