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Combing through Gregg Berhalter’s latest USMNT call-ups

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This is going to meander a bit, because I’m just not sure what to make of Gregg Berhalter’s latest selection of USMNT call-ups other than to say that they make me uneasy.

The roster may be meant to develop long-term success, but his unorthodox decisions are — rightly or wrongly — putting a lot of eyes on short-term results. Because like it or not, the CONCACAF Nations League results affect their FIFA rankings, which matter to Hex qualifying places.

The U.S. was always expected to boss Cuba on Oct. 11 before a challenging match versus Canada at BMO Field four days later. The Yanks haven’t lost to Cuba since 1949, and the matches are usually quite one-sided.

[ MORE: Dest turns down cap-tie call-up ]

Facing an improved Canada angling for a Hex berth is a different feat, even if the Americans haven’t lost to the Canucks since 1985. That’s a run of 17 matches which includes 10 wins.

That could well end this month.

Single matches have become as scrutinized as ever since Bruce Arena’s USMNT crashed out of World Cup qualifying in Couva. Arena has rebounded, rescuing the New England Revolution and putting them into a playoff spot, but the national team has been at sea since Berhalter took the reins of the club.

Now Berhalter is making a habit of calling up players who are not in form, or not the best at their positions amongst Americans in MLS. There was online buzz about Berhalter calling up Brenden Aaronson instead of some non-first team players in Europe, and that’s an interesting conversation, but really we should be asking what qualifies Aaronson ahead of a number of his peers (let alone those a bit older and more experienced than him).

As an aside, I’m thrilled for Aaronson and excited to see an 18-year-old prospect put on the shirt of the country. There’s always hope, and the U.S. and MLS are churning out better players than ever before. I just don’t get this selection now.

Cannon and Aaronson (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I want to reiterate that I’m not judging players against some sort of perceived “Eurosnob” standard, though I’ll raise my hand high in the air and acknowledge that while I really enjoy MLS and marvel at its incredible rise, there are at least a dozen leagues in Europe (including two second tiers) which are currently above it in top-to-bottom roster quality.

The issue I see with Berhalter’s roster isn’t about Richie Ledezma (please actually call the kid, okay?) or Eric Lichaj or Julian Green. It’s about the players Berhalter is picking from within his own backyard.

Go back to his first January camp and first match as USMNT boss: Nine of the 11 starters are still with the squad (Djordje Mihailovic and Jeremy Ebobisse are out).

Fourteen players are back from that squad, which did not include any European-based players. The MLS additions are Brad Guzan, Jackson Yueill, Jozy Altidore and Brenden Aaronson. The others are Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle) and Weston McKennie (Schalke).

That seems like a pretty high number to return from a side which is 7-4-2, with a 1-2-2 record against Top 50 sides. The win is a B team beating a Costa Rica B team. The USMNT has also lost to two teams (Jamaica, Venezuela) outside the Top 50.

It’s not like these players have shown an incredible amount in a U.S. shirt, but aren’t in a good fit in their club. Considering that the Yanks are not producing goals by the dozen, consider this:

The leader in “big chances created” in MLS this year is current call-up Jordan Morris with eight. Jozy Altidore is second, also a call-up. No sane mind has a problem with either of those players being on the roster.

But Corey Baird has created two, good for 60th in the league amongst Americans. He is credited with 28 key passes. That’s 19th amongst Americans. He has five goals and three assists, both good for the fifth-highest totals… on his team, which has the scored the second-fewest of any playoff team.

I literally feel bad for harping on Wil Trapp‘s continued presence on the squad, because it’s not his job to turn down call-ups, but this one is astounding. The Columbus captain has started just three of the Crew’s last six matches. Known for his familiarity with Berhalter’s system as well as his passes, Trapp is 40th amongst American MLS players in key passes. He is fifth amongst U.S. MLS midfielders in accurate long balls, and three of the four players ahead of him (Michael Bradley, Jackson Yueill, and Cristian Roldan) have been called up, too. So there’s some method to that madness, but still should that override a consistent series of pedestrian at best performances in the USMNT shirt?

Aaronson is another weird one, and not just because he’s an unfamiliar name at age 18 in MLS. We should absolutely note that he’s unlikely to play a ton, especially against Canada, so the argument here is more about Berhalter’s rationale than Aaronson doing some sort of damage to the team’s fortunes.

He’s been a part of U-23 camp as Jason Kreis prepares for Olympic qualifying, and there’s really no need to see him ahead of a number of players who aren’t in contention for the Olympics. And if in fact the U-23 pool is in play, then there are a number of players from that group worth considering over him.

He might be great, and this might be a bit of brilliance from Berhalter, but he’s also the 10th rated American midfielder under 20 inside of MLS, many of whom play a similar role as him (How Paxton Pomykal isn’t in this camp is beyond me). Even taking out Sands, Cerrillo, and Durking, there’s a series of players in a bit better form above him. Again, I’m not questioning Aaronson’s long-term prognosis, rather where he is now. You don’t want to see what happens when you toss 20- and 21-year-olds onto this list.

Fullbacks Reggie Cannon, Daniel Lovitz, and Nick Lima have all dipped 10 places or more amongst American players in MLS (WhoScored) since the last round of call-ups.

Here, without judgment, is a list of American fullbacks who rank higher in performance score this year than all three of those players on multiple stat sites, having played at least 20 matches (ages in parentheses)

Ryan Hollingshead (28)
Tommy Thompson (24)
Aaron Herrera (22)
Jordan Harvey (35)
Graham Zusi (33)
Donny Toia (27)
Justin Morrow (31)
Jorge Villafana (30)
Keegan Rosenberry (25)

I’ve written this before, but this round of call-ups seems to reinforce it: The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that Berhalter is so confident in being able to out-produce his peers, as he did with a substandard roster in Columbus, that he doesn’t care what the metrics say.

I get Gyasi Zardes, who is presently a very decent bench option beyond Jozy Altidore and Josh Sargent. The majority of the roster is defensible, which is a low bar, but fine.

I just feel like Berhalter is about to hang his hat on how his side fares against a Cuba team which should be defeated by any combination of regular MLS starters, let alone the best available to him.

Then Canada, who is much improved despite its losses to Mexico and Haiti and Gold Cup (At least they scored against Mexico, amirite?).

Canada has a Champions League goalkeeper in Red Star Belgrade’s Milan Borjan, but very little in defense. Their midfield is going to be a batch of MLS players and Rangers man Scott Arfield. The one place they can burn you is with talented attackers Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Gent), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) and others.

So it’ll be a bit concerning if his XI looks like anything other than this:

Steffen

Yedlin — Zimmerman — Miazga — Ream

Bradley — McKennie — Lletget

Pulisic — Altidore — Morris

That’s still a lineup that beats Canada, maybe comfortably.

Report: Austin FC hire Reyna as sporting director

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Months after locking in Josh Wolff as head coach, Austin FC is reportedly on the verge of naming one of MLS’ best sporting directors to the same role.

The Athletic reported on Wednesday that Anthony Precourt’s Austin FC has hired Claudio Reyna from New York City FC to be the expansion club’s new sporting director. It’s the second expansion club that Reyna is working for since he joined NYCFC in 2013 as its first director of soccer operations.

[READ: MLS takes big step with All-Star game update]

If true, it’s a shrewd move by Precourt to bring in a man who knows MLS like the back of his thumb, and to pair him with a former teammate from the U.S. Men’s National Team. Wolff’s spent almost his entire career in professional soccer in MLS too, so the club now has two influential individuals who are knowledgable about the league and it’s various roster mechanisms.

Austin FC doesn’t enter MLS until 2021, so locking in Reyna now gives him more than a year of runway towards building an MLS-ready roster. Precourt has surely seen the best-case scenario – Seattle, Los Angeles FC, Atlanta United – where a team loaded with top-heavy talent and good role players can make a deep playoff run in its expansion season. But he’s likely also seen the worst-case scenarios – look at Minnesota United in the past and FC Cincinnati this year.

Bringing in Reyna certainly makes it more likely that Austin FC’s future will lie in the former category.

Chelsea verdict due mid-December in FIFA transfer ban case

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Chelsea can expect a verdict within three weeks in its appeal to overturn a FIFA transfer ban for breaking youth transfer rules.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport said after a hearing Wednesday its ruling is expected in the first half of December.

The month-long trading window for English clubs opens Jan. 1. Chelsea already served half its one-year ban on registering new players during the offseason.

Chelsea is challenging verdicts by FIFA’s disciplinary and appeal committees that the club had 150 violations of rules protecting minors from trafficking. Those cases involved about 70 players.

Chelsea also broke rules prohibiting third-party influence on players. FIFA imposed a fine of 600,000 Swiss francs ($608,000).

The club has denied wrongdoing.

The timeline of this transfer of minors’ case is similar to Barcelona’s appeal in 2014 when CAS upheld a transfer ban on Dec. 30, almost four weeks after a hearing.

MLS takes big step with All-Star Game update

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For the first time since 2004, the Major League Soccer All-Star team has a new opponent.

In a press conference in Los Angeles, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX executive president Enrique Bonilla jointly made the announcement that the 2020 MLS All-Star Game would test the best players from MLS against the top stars in Liga MX, with the match set to take place on July 29 at Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium.

The news of MLS taking on the Liga MX all-stars is the realization of an idea that has been floated by fans and media members for the last few years. The annual MLS All-Stars vs. club giant had grown stale in recent years, especially since those clubs weren’t ever incentivized to take the game seriously. Big stars might have only played one half, if at all, as they built match fitness for the start of their seasons in Europe, and it ultimately is a bad marker for MLS.

If MLS really wants to compare itself with other top leagues in the world, then there’s no better an opponent than Liga MX. The Mexican first division has continued to basically wipe the floor with MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League, though this season Atlanta United did triumph over Club America in the Campeones Cup.

In addition, MLS may have a decent chance to beat Liga MX in an all-star game. The talent at the very top of MLS is arguably higher than in Mexico, though the Liga MX clubs are stacked with talent in the middle of the rosters, which is where MLS clubs are exploited year after year. However, if it’s Josef Martinez, Carlos Vela, and Nicolas Lodeiro up front for the MLS All-Star squad, they could have a very good shot to succeed.

“We are so pleased to bring the 2020 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target to Los Angeles, one of the great soccer markets in North America,” Garber said in the press conference. “As we celebrate our 25th season, we wanted to deliver an unique and unprecedented format for our annual All-Star Game. Our first ever game between the best of MLS and LIGA MX’s top players is the perfect way to build on the growing relationship between the two top soccer leagues in the region.”

It’s unclear whether this will be a recurring match in the future. However, moving away from the prior all-star game model will help MLS grow as a league and catch up to Liga MX in the long wrong.

How the USMNT found and kept Dest

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With the stroke of a pen on Gregg Berhalter’s lineup card and the referee’s whistle to finish the game, a 4-1 U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Canada, Sergino Dest officially tied his future to the USMNT. It was arguably the final step in a recruitment that began more than three years ago thanks to a message from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Dave van der Bergh.

Since retiring as a player, the former New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas winger has spent his time coaching youth teams within U.S. Soccer, and in this instance, he was working with then U.S. Under-17 head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth was unavailable for comment on this story.

Dest first came on van der Bergh’s radar from a contact at Ajax, where van der Bergh came through the youth academy, and it led to Dest’s first call-ups to the U.S. U-17s in 2016.

“I was tipped off by people at Ajax that there was a player with a dual nationality, and considering that we had been looking at dual nationalities, that I should take a look at him,” van der Bergh said in an e-mail. “I found out about him through the club itself, actually.

“The first time I saw him, I asked for video footage from Ajax, which they gave to me and that was great. Then I asked a really good friend of mine to take a look at him for us. He is somebody I really trust as far as scouting goes, and he said the same things that I thought I had seen. That’s when I decided to tell John Hackworth about him.”

Hackworth and co. brought Dest along slowly, getting him incorporated in the group. He was a reserve in the 2016 Nike International Friendlies as a 15-year-old, with Sporting KC defender Jaylin Lindsey starting ahead of him at the time.

But while the U.S. Soccer Federation was at turmoil at the top – this was just months after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena after his season with the LA Galaxy wrapped up – Dest was making a very good first impression to the coaches.

“I thought that it was unusual,” former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos recalled in a phone interview. “Normally, our defenders on youth national teams, 1-on-1 they usually have a lot to learn. I felt that Sergino was one of those defenders that never got beat 1-on-1, and that caught my attention.”

Dest wasn’t part of the U.S. U-17s run to the CONCACAF Under-17 final in 2017, but he earned a spot on the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup roster, and it’s where he became a breakout star for American soccer fans. His impact  play from left back or right back added a new element to the U.S. attack and he held his own defensively.

Since then, Dest has continued to progress for club and country at a rapid rate. He helped lead the U.S. U-20s to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a run to the quarterfinals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and for Ajax he went from the U-19s in 2017 to Jong Ajax a year later and now a sure-fire starter at right back for the first team in 2019.

“He just became more and more mature,” Ramos said of Dest’s progression as a player in a short span. “He became more of an impact player on the attacking side of the field, and in general I give the players the freedom to express themselves within the context of the way we want to play. I think he was happy with the way we played and it allowed him to express himself, so it worked really well.”

His success in the Ajax first team of course got the attention of the Dutch National Team, who suddenly had an interest in Dest. In the youth stages, it made more sense for Dest to play with the U.S. because he’d have a better opportunity to play at a youth World Cup. The Netherlands hasn’t made the World Cup at U-20 or U-17 level since they hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2005, a shocking statistic considering all the stars they’ve produced over the years.

Suddenly, Dest was being faced with the prospect of competing for playing time on a team that made the final four less than a decade ago and looks to be surging back to prominence, or staying with the only national team program he’d known. The U.S. stepped up its recruitment in September when Gregg Berhalter called Dest in for a pair of matches, first against Mexico and then against Uruguay, where the teenager started both matches. At the same time, his former coach Ramos was keeping in touch with Dest once he decided in October to take more time to make his decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands.

“I continue to be in contact with Serg like I do with many of the players,” Ramos said. “Basically, my recommendation to him was to go with his heart. I feel like, of course you can listen to your agent and you can listen to people in the press, and you can always choose what’s more convenient to you, for your career. But I think the most important thing when playing for a country is to choose where your heart is. That’s basically what I told him.”

Dest made his decision to stay with the U.S. on October 28, and it was a big win for a USMNT program that had lost promising midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez in a similar situation to Mexico. Even bigger, Ramos noted, was that Dest wasn’t born and raised in the U.S., and his main connection with his nation was through the national team itself.

“I’m very proud of that, because it means he has a trust in our program and he’s confident that he’s going to get the most out of his opportunities that he gets here with our program,” Ramos said. “I think it goes to show the great job Hackworth did with him and how happy he was to be with us in the U-20s that he feels like this is his home.

“You have to remember this a kid who never lived in the U.S., he grew up in Holland, and that the closest thing for being home for him has been our youth national teams. I think he felt comfortable. He’s been comfortable and he felt like we took care of him, and he’s been happy. That’s just my feeling.”