For the first time since the halcyon days of February 2020, the United States men’s national team is assembling. That was nine years ago. Wow!
The USMNT will play a pair of friendlies in Europe against Wales and Panama later this month, and out of coronavirus-related precaution and acknowledgement of the ongoing MLS playoffs, the squad is comprised almost solely of players who play for European clubs. (The one exception, Johnny Cardoso, plays in Brazil.) The average age of the team is 21, 10 players have the chance to earn their first senior caps, and, most enticing of all, several tantalizing dual nationals have accepted call-ups. With World Cup qualification about one year away, this is the exact sort of squad USMNT fans with an eye towards the future should be looking for. There have been young USMNT squads, there have been European-based USMNT squads, but the player pool has never been deep enough for a team almost exclusively made up of young, high-ceiling players plying their trades in the world’s best leagues.
The most intriguing of the new faces is 17-year-old winger Yunus Musah, whose acceptance of a USMNT call-up is genuinely shocking. Musah spent seven years as one of the most highly regarded players in the Arsenal academy before departing in search of first-team soccer with Valencia in the summer of 2019. He’s found it this year and truly made the most, starting in seven of Valencia’s eight league games and scoring last weekend against Getafe. As you can see from that goal in the video below, he is fast as shit. Though Musah’s natural position is in central midfield, he’s broken into the Valencia team playing on the right wing, which is perfect for the USMNT, whose ideal lineup would feature Christian Pulisic on the left and Gio Reyna in the middle.
As fans of a team that’s featured the rather wooden and hapless Jozy Altidore at the tip of the spear for approximately four decades, the idea of someone that fast scoring goals for the Yanks seems too good to be true. Bad news is, it really might be. Musah is not only eligible for the USMNT, he can also play for Ghana, Italy, and England. He’s been in the English youth set-up for years, and has served as captain in those youth teams. Musah was born in New York City, though his connection to the U.S. basically ends there. It’s undoubtedly a good sign that Musah takes the possibility of winning the 2022 World Cup with the USMNT seriously enough to come hang for a week, but it’s still far from certain that he’ll stick with the U.S. longterm. This could just be a negotiating tactic to get England to give him a senior call-up as soon as possible.
Musah is just one of several players on this roster who could still wind up representing other national teams. Some, like Barcelona’s Konrad de la Fuente (who has Spanish citizenship), Leicester City’s Chituru Odunze (who could also play for England, Canada, or Nigeria), and Wolves’ Owen Otasowie (England and Nigeria), have only ever played in the U.S. system and are probably not ever going to switch allegiances. Johnny Cardoso plays for Internacional in Brazil’s Serie A, and thankfully, the Brazilian federation doesn’t seem to be looking at him. However, Richie Ledezma of PSV and Sebastian Soto of Telstar are both in this camp despite active recruiting efforts from Mexico and Chile, respectively.
Ledezma is an attacking midfielder for one of the Eredivisie’s best clubs, and he just recorded an assist in his league debut. Despite his heroics for the U.S. U-20 squad at the last U-20 World Cup, he has been open about not wanting to “close doors” to either of the national teams he’s eligible for. Getting him his first senior cap for the USMNT would be big, even if he’d be behind Gio Reyna on a hypothetical depth chart. Soto, a striker, has five goals in six games for Telstar in the Dutch second division this year. His nice run of form prompted the Chilean federation to call him up for World Cup qualifiers in September, which, had he appeared in a match there, would have permanently tied him to Chile. Thankfully, he said no. Given that the U.S. doesn’t have an obvious partner/competition for Josh Sargent, who scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season for Werder Bremen this past weekend, keeping a player like Soto in the fold is exactly what the team needs.
While it’s inarguable that this crop represents the highest-potential roster we’ve seen from the USMNT in a long time, it’s also hard to find ways Berhalter could improve this roster even in the present. I’m a huge Tyler Boyd fan, and while I would also love to see Brenden Aaronson, Erik Palmer-Brown, and Mark McKenzie in here, this crop of kids and also Tim Ream (who is almost twice as old as Musah) really represents both the future and present of the USMNT. Gio Reyna is 17, but he’s also tearing it up for one of the best teams in the world. Sergiño Dest is 20, but he plays on the same team as the best soccer player of all-time. Some players, like Chris Richards at Bayern, Otawosie, Cardoso, Konrad, and Timothy Weah, aren’t logging consistent first-team minutes like their MLS counterparts, but I would still rather see them integrated into the senior team than a known quantity like Aron Johansson.
It has now been three years since the USMNT was beheaded by Trinidad & Tobago in World Cup qualification. It’s remarkable to go back and look at the roster for that game—the world’s slowest man, Omar Gonzalez, in central defense, Benny Feilhaber from beyond the grave, Mr. Can’t Score, Bobby Wood—and consider how different and more exciting this roster is. Even I am not deluded enough to think that every one of these guys is going to hit their max potential and become stars at their big-time clubs, but the sense of possibility is enthralling.