The United States men’s national team entered this November window knowing first and foremost that they had to qualify for the Copa America.
This would require without key starters Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, both with muscle injuries, and World Cup captain Tyler Adams, out for a long period after a second hamstring operation. And while injuries to key starters are never a good thing for a team, the positive side can be the opportunity they provide to learn more about the overall roster.
The United States actually qualified for the Copa America. But nothing else in the window has gone as one might hope in order to get a true assessment of the team’s depth.
In the first leg, the United States faced a 10-player Trinidad and Tobago team that sat deep in their own half for most of Thursday night’s 3-0 victory. But even that game provided more opportunities to learn more about the pool than Monday night’s away game in Port of Spain. The United States – now also without starting midfielder Weston McKennie, who left camp with a knee injury – held a 1-0 lead until right back Sergiño Dest volleyed over the pitch in the 39th minute, collecting two yellow cards in one minute. leaving his teammates on the ground for more than 50 minutes in difficult conditions.
Playing with ten men, the USA had to try to get a result and lost 2-1 – the same scoreline as their last visit to Trinidad, the 2017 defeat in Couva which knocked them out of the World Cup . It was enough to qualify for the Summer Copa with a 4-2 aggregate victory in the home-and-away series, but any ‘plan’ for the window seemed lost.
“I think according to our plan, a lot of different things were going to happen, right,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, flashing a rare smile during the postmatch news conference. “And the plan is kind of thrown out the window when there are only 10 men left.”
The United States is clearly trying to change the group. After playing a basic 4-3-3 formation last cycle, they used more of a 4-2-3-1 this time around, with Gio Reyna as the central figure as the No.10. the style of play changes, the pool is also constantly evaluated. The core of this U.S. team will not change during the 2026 cycle, nor will the starting lineup when and if everyone is available.
Pulisic, Weah, Adams, McKennie, Reyna, Yunus Musah, Matt Turner, Antonee Robinson and Dest are essentially starters. (Obviously, Dest’s red card could impact his next few windows, but in the long run, it’s hard to argue that he’s not among the United States’ top 11 players.) Chris Richards, Folarin Balogun and Ricardo Pepi will be present. each camp and in the mix to start. Luca de la Torre, Joe Scally and Brenden Aaronson are the locks on the depth chart. Tim Ream is 36 years old, but as long as he plays at a high level with Fulham, he will be part of the team.
This represents a solid core of 16 players around which to build the roster. But the depth – the next 14 men who make up the 30 preliminary squads around which the teams are built – still needs to be built.
During the 2022 cycle, Berhalter found players he could trust for key minutes during qualifying. Kellyn Acosta, Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola played important roles both as starters and off the bench, and others like De la Torre, Jordan Morris, Aaron Long, Reggie Cannon and Josh Sargent were regulars.
This time around, there are spots up for grabs on the depth chart. The United States is looking for a left back behind Robinson and a No. 6 who can fill the role Acosta played last cycle as Adams’ backup. They need wingers on either side of the formation and probably another central midfield option. The backup goalie position behind Matt Turner remains up in the air. Competition in central defense is very real.
As part of the renewal of this cycle, Berhalter is clearly giving players the opportunity to access these roles. Call-ups over the past three months include newcomers like Lennard Maloney, Kristoffer Lund, Kevin Paredes, Drake Callender and Benjamin Cremaschi, as well as players with fewer than 10 caps like Malik Tillman, DeJuan Jones, Tanner Tessman, Alex Zendejas , Gaga Slonina and Johnny Cardoso.
In the first leg, Tillman and Paredes started on the wing in place of Pulisic and Weah, but neither were overwhelmed by their performances. In the end, it was Pepi coming off the bench who was the game-changer, with Robinson and Reyna sealing the result.
After McKennie left camp with a knee injury, Monday’s game saw the United States try a new formation, one they had developed the day before the game and which had not trained at all. Berhalter said the team discussed the training, but didn’t even go through it because they feared it would be spotted in Trinidad.
“In general, for the first 35 minutes, everything went according to plan,” Berhalter said. “One (attacker) arrived, one went, great interactions with the 10 in the pocket, the backs moved forward. Our goal was actually to match the back (attacker) with the back (opponent), which we always like, which showed the guys getting nice and aggressive. We had several opportunities with Brendan Aaronson, with (Balogun), with (Pepi), so overall satisfied. But I wish we had a bigger job to do because after the red card it was more difficult.
The plan was to replace Zendejas with Reyna at halftime, a planned replacement after Reyna played 90 minutes on Thursday in Austin – his first 90-minute outing for the United States since September 2021 and his first for a club or team. country since March 2022. Joe Scally was a planned substitution for Dest.
Zendejas never entered the game. When Dest was shown a red card, Scally replaced Reyna, who had to come off three minutes later at half-time. Tillman came on in the 65th minute for Pepi and Maloney came on in overtime to finish the game. There wasn’t much to learn about the subs, or really too much to say about the performance or the two-striker formation itself.
“Overall (the red card is) a complete lack of respect for the guys who are playing, for the guys who are on the bench,” Ream said. “A lack of respect for the game itself, for the referees. …To me, just a feeling of disrespect to be completely honest with you, and that’s something he needs to understand. Because it completely changes the game, but then it completely changes any kind of potential plan of the guys coming in and the subs off the bench, which makes this completely out of control. So yeah, it’s just disrespectful overall.
This window feels like a bit of a lost opportunity to gather more information, but there will be more chances to evaluate the pool. The United States usually holds a camp in January for MLS players. This will be a good opportunity for players like Jones, John Tolkin, Eryk Williamson, Cade Cowell and others to try and prove themselves. The fact that this is also an Olympic cycle means these camps provide windows for players like Tanner Tessmann, Jack McGlynn, Booth, Cremaschi and Gianluca Busio, among others.
The hope is that some of these players become bigger contributors to the senior team in the coming months.
And while the United States hopes to have its core at next summer’s Copa America, the process of drawing up the depth chart will span two years until the ultimate goal: a Cup of the world 2026 on its national soil.
(Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
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