Given the impressive group of USMNT players and prospects abroad, this January camp was of monumental importance for the all-MLS squad assembled by Gregg Berhalter.
Aside from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, himself headed to Manchester City in the summer, and perhaps LAFC’s Walker Zimmerman, everyone had something to prove to Berhalter and his staff: Even former longtime captain and 143-times capped Michael Bradley.
Consider this list of players not called into January’s camp and wins over the mostly “B teams” of Panama and Costa Rica.
And those are just the “must” call-ups for March’s visits from Ecuador and Chile.
So keeping in mind the staff had a dozen non-friendly chances to evaluate the players on a myriad of levels, here are those who raised or lowered their stock in the matches versus Panama and Costa Rica.
Jonathan Lewis, New York City FC (21) — Personal anecdote: I watched Akron play the University at Buffalo a couple of times during Lewis’ lone season with the Zips, and Lewis’ electric talent leapt off the pitch. That’s a nearly essential sign if a college star has an international future.
Lewis was an impact sub for Berhalter in a similar fashion. In addition to the unteachable pace he possesses, Lewis stood up a cross that Sebastian Lletget finished for the difference-making goal against Costa Rica.
But Lewis’ pro career has been a slow burn (Dominic Torrent deployed him much more than Patrick Vieira, but still zero starts). Even with David Villa leaving NYCFC, Lewis is behind Jesus Medina, reported $9 million buy Alex Mitrita and 2018 revelation Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. He needs an outlet, and maybe former (ages ago) Akron coach and current Columbus boss Caleb Porter would be up for it?
Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy (26) — Lletget left the United States for West Ham United in 2009, so we saw very little of his development. He became, in fact, a curiosity thanks to his making just one senior appearance in West London.
Upon his MLS debut with LA, though, it became clear there was something very good here. Lletget scored for the USMNT in his third cap before suffering a Lisfranc injury and missing 18 months. He scored on Saturday — in the same venue in which he was hurt — and was perhaps the most composed player in a U.S. jersey.
His ability to play anywhere in the midfield is huge, and Berhalter will love what he’s seen from the veteran.
Michael Bradley, Toronto FC (31) — The short- and long-term future of the midfield runs through Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, but Bradley’s performance against Panama — as poor as Los Canaleros were — shows he’s going to be someone who has in him at least another World Cup cycle as a contributor. Think a rich man’s “Kyle Beckerman in the 2018 qualification cycle.” Even if he is not starting, his experience and engine combine to make for a tremendous asset.
Bonus positives: Djordje Mihailovic, Chicago Fire (20). Steffen (23).
Let’s first put a list of players who, unless there were unreported injuries, couldn’t get many minutes, if any, for Berhalter: Reggie Cannon, Auston Trusty, Marky Delgado, Mark McKenzie, Keegan Rosenberry, Justen Glad, Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Miller.
Most of this bunch is quite young, so it’s hard to say they aren’t for the future. Delgado, Acosta, and Rosenberry are the biggest eyebrow-raisers given their age and importance to their current clubs.
Corey Baird, Real Salt Lake (23) — A lot of astute soccer minds love Baird because he’s very good positionially, and that’s true, but this is also a player who was the 18th rated Real Salt Lake player last season despite producing eight goals and five assists. It’s one of those “arguments against analytics,” but he has to get goals and assists against this opposition. Instead, he was just okay. You could easily argue that the team Panama put out there would finish dead last in MLS. I need my wingers to feast on that.
Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew (27) — I hate the idea of piling on, and it’s silly to write off such a tantalizing and industrious talent when so many coaches have failed to do so, but Zardes just isn’t on the level and hasn’t been for some time outside of MLS.
While thriving in MLS usually is a gateway to torture CONCACAF, Zardes hasn’t scored in his last 13 caps. Eight of those caps were 45 minutes or more, so it’s not like he hasn’t a chance to score (He has pitched in an assist). As a center forward, hold up play is important but not as much as goals. Jozy Altidore will need to get a chance to show he should be in the group with Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah, Bobby Wood, and even Andrija Novakovich (and Jordan Morris). Not good for Gyasi.