USMNT roster release a welcome reprieve

Futbol

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CARSON, CA - JANUARY 27: BJ Callaghan of the United States during a training session at Dignity Health Sports Park on January 27, 2023 in Carson, California. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
B.J. Callaghan of the United States during a training session at Dignity Health Sports Park on Jan. 27 in Carson, California. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The big U.S. men’s soccer news this week concerned an interim coach replacing an interim coach who’d replaced a polarizing coach amid an investigation when his contract expired five months ago.

It is, to state the obvious, not how anybody at U.S. Soccer envisioned building off the 2022 World Cup, and toward 2026. It’s not how players envisioned entering June, and their first meaningful USMNT match since Qatar, against Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals. It feels, to some fans, like a prolonged circus, and, well, in a way it has been.

But the news that matters, the now-familiar reprieve from the mess, arrived Thursday in the form of a USMNT roster.

It features the World Cup core, minus the injured Tyler Adams and Tim Ream, plus a recently committed Folarin Balogun. And it’s why the interim shuffling and feet-dragging will likely be inconsequential in the long run.

That B.J. Callaghan, and not Anthony Hudson, will coach the USMNT against Mexico on June 15 — and potentially in the Nations League final on June 18, and then in the Gold Cup — triggered understandable angst Tuesday. Callaghan has never been a head coach, not even at colleges, where he spent the first decade of his career. He was merely the last assistant coach remaining — there are none left on staff — when incoming sporting director Matt Crocker scrambled to find a Hudson replacement last Friday. Callaghan is a respected tactician, but not the man you’d call upon to manage a high-intensity semifinal against a regional rival.

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What matters, though, is that the USMNT is still favored in that semifinal. It still has three years to build toward the biggest tournament in its history. Continuity and progress in international soccer don’t necessarily depend on coaching, and the USMNT’s won’t be erased by this period of uncertainty.

Players will begin reporting to California on Sunday, and this, a two-week training camp culminating in competitive games, would have been an excellent platform for a new permanent coach to begin building. If there is a justifiable criticism of U.S. Soccer, it’s that the federation never seemed to even consider such a timeline as a possibility. Earnie Stewart, the man previously in charge of the coaching hire, chose to depart as sporting director in January. U.S. Soccer, in April, finally picked a replacement, Crocker, who won’t officially start until August — and who now says that “our aim is to have our new [USMNT] coach in place by the end of summer.”

The federation’s reasoning for the protracted timeline, of course, is that their paramount goal is to get these hires right. Whether they really need seven months to do that is debatable.

Also debatable, though, is whether a single training camp in 2023 will have any impact on the team’s readiness in 2026.

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Heck, it’s debatable whether national team coaches, in general, can have much discernible impact at all. Recent history is littered with examples of proven coaches failing at international level. The 2022 World Cup semifinals, meanwhile, featured a last-resort coach and two relative nobodies, one of whom was hired less than three months before the tournament.

Which is not to say coaches never matter. It’s just to say players matter far more. And the USMNT’s current pool is arguably better than ever.

Reims' English forward Folarin Balogun celebrates after scoring a goal  during the French L1 football match between AS Monaco and Stade de Reims at the Louis II Stadium (Stade Louis II) in the Principality of Monaco on March 12, 2023. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)
Reims‘ English forward Folarin Balogun celebrates after scoring a goal during the French L1 football match between AS Monaco and Stade de Reims at the Louis II Stadium (Stade Louis II) in the Principality of Monaco on March 12. (Photo by Valery HACHE/AFP)

It was the best in CONCACAF, and full of 2026 potential, coming out of Qatar. If anything, with the addition of Balogun and the resurgence of Ricardo Pepi, it’s improved since. And it could get even better over the coming years. The U.S. under-20s have rolled to the quarterfinals of their ongoing World Cup without conceding a goal. The pipeline is strong. No circus, no Reyna-Berhalter feud, no interim senior coach can change any of that.

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And the vibes, by all accounts, are still good. Players genuinely enjoyed their March camp under Hudson. They seem to look forward to this environment that they, with the help of Gregg Berhalter and staff, have crafted. “It became, like, this culture that sort of policed itself in a lot of ways,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said in March.

“[There’s] been a great team unity,” Ream said, “and that’s something that hasn’t always been there [in previous eras]. But now, I think it’s a mainstay.”

It persisted under Hudson, a former Berhalter assistant, in January and March. It will surely endure a few weeks under Callaghan, another member of the same staff. “There’s a sense of continuity,” Callaghan said Thursday. “The way that we’re gonna operate, the way that we’re gonna run ourselves day to day, the messaging that we’re gonna have throughout the camp, is all gonna be very familiar for [the players].”

It will even carry over into the next regime, which will begin with relatively low-pressure friendlies in September and October. Over time, of course, it could erode. But the identity of the interim coach in June of 2023 won’t contribute to that.

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The optics of this latest coaching reshuffle are undeniably unsavory, and optics aren’t irrelevant. If the USMNT loses to Mexico, and then its B-team flops at the Gold Cup, this drawn-out process will be questioned, and angst will surely grow.

But come 2026, in all likelihood, all of this will be forgotten, just as 2021 triumphs in these same two regional tournaments felt insignificant by December of 2022.

What will be significant is the players, the ones who very well could still win the Nations League this month, and who’ll develop mostly independently of their national team coach, whoever it ends up being.

USMNT roster and potential starting lineup vs. Mexico

U.S. Soccer announced a 24-man roster Thursday that will have to be trimmed to 23 by Monday. (The one cut will likely be a goalkeeper.) The 24 are:

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GOALKEEPERS (4): Drake Callender (Inter Miami), Josh Cohen (Maccabi Haifa), Sean Johnson (Toronto FC), Matt Turner (Arsenal)

DEFENDERS (7): Sergiño Dest (AC Milan), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Auston Trusty (Birmingham City), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Weston McKennie (Leeds United), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Alan Soñora (FC Juárez)

FORWARDS (7): Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Folarin Balogun (Stade Reims), Taylor Booth (Utrecht), Ricardo Pepi (Groningen), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Tim Weah (Lille), Alex Zendejas (Club América)

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In addition to Adams and Ream, the USMNT’s injury list includes Josh Sargent, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath and Malik Tillman.

The vast majority of the 24 players — with the possible exception of the MLS goalkeepers and center backs — will contest the Nations League, then take their offseasons. A fresh set of mostly MLSers and youngsters will be called in for the Gold Cup, which begins June 24.

One potential USMNT starting lineup against Mexico would be:

GOALKEEPER: Matt Turner
DEFENDERS: Sergiño Dest, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson
MIDFIELDERS: Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna
FORWARDS: Tim Weah, Ricardo Pepi, Christian Pulisic

Callaghan, speaking about Balogun’s integration, said on a Zoom call Thursday that “he still has to come in and compete. Ricardo Pepi is a guy who’s coming off of a great season, scored big goals for us already. And it’s gonna be fun to watch these guys compete.”

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