With Copa America qualification set, the USMNT must identify players beyond nucleus

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The U.S. men’s national team went into this November window knowing, above all else, it needed to qualify for the Copa America. 

It would have to do so without key starters Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, both out with muscle injuries, and World Cup captain Tyler Adams, who is out for the long term after a second hamstring surgery. And while injuries to key starters are never a good thing for a team, the silver lining can be the opportunity they bring to learn more about the overall roster. 

The U.S. did indeed qualify for the Copa America. But nothing else about the window played out as one might hope in order to get a true evaluation of the team’s depth.

In the first leg, the U.S. played against a 10-man Trinidad and Tobago team sitting deep inside its own half for most of Thursday night’s 3-0 win. But even that game yielded more opportunity to learn about the pool than Monday night’s away leg in Port of Spain. The U.S. — now also without starting midfielder Weston McKennie, who left camp due to a knee injury — held a 1-0 lead until right back Sergiño Dest melted down on the field in the 39th minute, picking up two yellow cards inside of a minute to leave his teammates a man down for more than 50 minutes in difficult conditions. 

Playing with 10 men, the U.S. had to try to grind out a result and lost, 2-1 — the same scoreline as the last time they visited Trinidad, the 2017 loss in Couva that knocked them out of the World Cup. It was enough to qualify for the summer Copa with a 4-2 aggregate win over the two-leg series, but any “plans” for the window felt lost.

“I think according to our plan, there were going to be a lot of different things happening, right,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said, cracking a rare smile in the postgame press conference. “And the plan gets thrown out the window a little bit when you’re down to 10 men.”

The U.S. is clearly trying to evolve the group. After playing out of a base 4-3-3 formation in the last cycle, they’ve utilized more of a 4-2-3-1 this time around, with Gio Reyna a central figure as the No. 10. And as the playing style changes, the pool is constantly being evaluated, too. The nucleus of this U.S. team is not going to change over the course of 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 basically locks as starters. (Obviously, Dest’s red card may impact his next few windows, but in the long term, it’s tough to argue he is one of the 11 best players for the U.S.) Chris Richards, Folarin Balogun and Ricardo Pepi are going to be in every camp and in the mix to start. Luca de la Torre, Joe Scally and Brenden Aaronson are locks on the depth chart. Tim Ream is 36 years old, but as long as he’s performing at a high level with Fulham, he will be in the team. 

That’s a solid core of 16 players to build the roster around. But the depth — the next 14 men who make up the 30-man preliminary rosters around which teams are built — still needs to be built out.

In the 2022 cycle, Berhalter found players he could trust for key minutes during qualifiers. 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 on the depth chart up for grabs. The U.S. is looking for a left back behind Robinson and a No. 6 who can fill the role Acosta did in the last cycle as the backup to Adams. They need wingers on each side of the formation and likely one more central midfield option. The backup goalkeeper job behind Matt Turner remains unsettled. The competition at center back is very real.

As part of the turnover in this cycle, Berhalter is clearly giving players opportunities to grab those roles. Call-ups in the last three months have included newcomers like Lennard Maloney, Kristoffer Lund, Kevin Paredes, Drake Callender and Benjamin Cremaschi, as well as players who have 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 got starts on the wing in place of Pulisic and Weah, but neither overwhelmed with their performances. In the end, it was Pepi off the bench who changed the game, with Robinson and Reyna sealing the outcome.

After McKennie departed camp with his knee injury, Monday’s game saw the U.S. try a new formation, one they came up with the day before the game and had not trained at all. Berhalter said the team talked through the formation, but didn’t even walk through it as they were concerned it might be scouted in Trinidad.

“In general, for the first 35 minutes, it was working as planned,” Berhalter said. “One (forward) was coming, one was going, nice interactions with the 10s in the pocket, fullbacks getting forward. Our goal was actually (attacking) fullback (matching up) to (opposing) fullback, which we always like, which showed that the guys were getting nice and aggressive. We’d had a number of chances with Brendan Aaronson, with (Balogun), with (Pepi), so overall pleased with it. But, I wish we would have had a bigger body of work to go on because after the red card it was more challenging.”

The plan was to substitute Zendejas for Reyna at halftime, a planned sub after Reyna had gone 90 minutes on Thursday in Austin — his first 90-minute outing for the U.S. since Sept. 2021 and his first for club or country since March 2022. Joe Scally was a planned substitution for Dest. 

Zendejas never got in the game. When Dest was red-carded, Scally subbed in for Reyna, who was set to come off three minutes later, at halftime. Tillman entered in the 65th minute for Pepi and Maloney entered in extra time to see out the game. There wasn’t much to be learned about any of the subs, or really too much to go off of on the performance or the two-striker formation itself.

“Overall (the red card is) a complete lack of respect for the guys that are playing, for the guys that are on the bench,” Ream said. “A lack of respect for the game itself, for the referees. … For me, just a feeling of disrespect to be completely honest with you, and that’s something that he needs to understand. Because it completely changes the game, but then it completely changes any type of potential plan of guys coming in and subs off the bench, throws that completely out of whack. So yeah, just disrespectful overall.”

This window felt a bit like a lost opportunity to gather more information, but there will be more chances to evaluate the pool. The U.S. typically has a January camp for MLS-based players. It will be a good chance for players like Jones, John Tolkin, Eryk Williamson, Cade Cowell and others to try to prove themselves. That this is an Olympic cycle, too, means those camps give windows for players like Tanner Tessmann, Jack McGlynn, Booth, Cremaschi and Gianluca Busio, among others.

The hope is that some of those players emerge as bigger contributors for the senior team in the coming months. 

And while the U.S. will hope they can rely on their nucleus in next summer’s Copa America, the process of building out the depth chart will extend out two years beyond that to the ultimate goal: a 2026 World Cup on home soil. 

(Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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