USMNT – El Salvador: Yanks to end 2020 with MLS-heavy squad

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Despite the final official FIFA international window taking place last month, the USMNT isn’t yet done with 2020 as Gregg Berhalter and Co., are set to take on a CONCACAF foe, El Salvador, in one last friendly on Wednesday.

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Given the ongoing global pandemic facing the world — not to mention, the lack of sanctioning from FIFA — the USMNT has called upon an a squad of players comprised almost exclusively of MLS talents. All but two players — 20-year-old Benfica goalkeeper CJ Dos Santos and 20-year-old Norwich City (on loan to Dutch side) Telstar forward Sebastian Soto — play their club ball for MLS sides.

Following a November camp which saw a (very young) squad of mostly European-based players draw with Wales and beat Panama, Berhalter has been unable to pick a mixed squad since November 2019. With three official competitions on the calendar for 2021 — CONCACAF Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying — Berhalter will almost certainly call upward of 40 players into various camps featuring players from both sides of the Atlantic. As far as this auditions goes, plenty of places on the “B-team” are likely to be up for grabs, just as the chance exists for a handful of lesser rated players to make the jump into the “A-team.”

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Perhaps the clearest takeaway from November was the continued ascent of John Brooks, who over the course of 2020 has truly separated himself from the rest of the pack of center backs in the player pool. Brooks is not only a surefire starter for the next competitive fixture, but he’ll also be leaned upon quite heavily as one of the veteran members of the squad at 27 years old.

On the other hand, perhaps the biggest question remaining for the USMNT — should they face a must-win competitive fixture tomorrow — revolves around the spot next to Brooks — who is the other starter at center back?

Matt Miazga partnered the man himself last month, but he wasn’t overly impressive and left most wanting a little bit more. To put it bluntly, the spot is very much up for grabs, and 2020 MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman is perhaps the leader in the clubhouse, though he must confirm that point with a strong showing (also as the veteran leader at 27) on Wednesday.

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Between them, Brooks and Zimmerman tick most of the major boxes for center backs in Berhalter’s system:

  • Size: 6’4 and 6’3, respectively
  • Reading of the game, plus mobility: Both players are at their best when defending on the front foot, stepping into midfield to break up attacks before they come to fruition
  • Long-range passing: This is perhaps the most important point, as the USMNT’s lack of an elite ball progressor (other than Christian Pulisic, and even then you still need two or three in a team) means that center backs will often be asked to hit passes through the midfield and to the feet of the attacking line. Brooks did so with great success against Wales, and Zimmerman consistently does the same in MLS.
  • Set-piece threats: Virtually every USMNT set piece will begin, and end, with Pulisic trying to land the ball on one of Brooks and Zimmerman’s heads, and for good reason.

21-year-old Mark McKenzie, who made his USMNT debut back in February and then finished second to Zimmerman for Defender of the Year, is another hopeful starter on Wednesday and someone who should factor heavily into one (or both) of the squads in 2021. Aaron Long has more career caps (17) than Zimmerman and McKenzie combined (13), but he’s 28 years old and a better known commodity in USMNT context.

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With Zack Steffen largely entrenched in goal (despite getting very little game time as the backup at Manchester City), Reggie Cannon and Sergiño Dest showing well at right and left back, respectively, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie imposing much greater influence in central midfield, and Pulisic and Gio Reyna clearly capable of shouldering the chance-creation load, eight of the USMNT’s 11 starting spots appear largely settled.

Back to the alternate universe with a must-win game to be played tomorrow, Gyasi Zardes would likely start at center forward and Jordan Morris would likely do the same on the right wing — neither of whom are in this week’s camp as their teams continue their MLS Cup Playoffs journeys. That leaves just the second center back spot in question

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