3 Storylines to Watch in USMNT vs. El Salvador
by Bart Keeler
As the final month of 2020 begins to dissipate, everyone is looking forward to 2021. USMNT fans have a hopeful outlook on next year as it will bring no fewer than 12 matches for the senior national team and possibly 16 youth national team matches.
Concacaf Nations League Finals, Gold Cup and Qualifiers for the World Cup will dominate the schedule. On top of that, head coach Gregg Berhalter must also prepare teams for a U-20 World Cup and the Olympics (which includes a qualifying tournament). Yes, that is a lot of international soccer to watch.
The hope of 2021 may be the main narrative of this makeshift December camp, but there are a few other stories circling around. As the USMNT prepares for its match against El Salvador on Wednesday, Dec. 9, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, here are three stories to watch during and after.
USMNT fans were giddy watching a young group of players take the field against Wales and Panama. Though this squad doesn’t have as many shiny objects as November’s did, we will see plenty of promising youngsters against El Salvador.
Four players on this squad are eligible for the 2021 U-20 World Cup for May and June. An additional 15 players are eligible for the U-23 Olympic tournament. These players are more likely to feature for those tournaments than the guys who played in November. Unlike the European clubs, MLS clubs are more likely to release players for youth tournaments.
Let’s face it, Pulisic, Dest, McKennie, Sargent and Adams aren’t playing in Tokyo next summer. This roster features tons of young talent developed in MLS, including the focal point Brenden Aaronson. He’s already packed for his move to RB Salzburg but he could be the team leader at the Olympics. Cole Bassett, Sam Vines, Kyle Duncan, Jackson Yueill, Sebastian Soto and Ayo Akinola all have legitimate chances to be released for either the qualifying tournament or the Olympics in August.
For Berhalter, being able to introduce the young players to his system means more good players are familiar with his patterns of play. This will be beneficial come World Cup qualification when the USMNT will play 14 matches in seven months.
Center Back: Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long and Mark McKenzie
For the first time in a long time, there is no shortage of international-quality American center backs. The question, however, is how they’re ranked on the depth chart. This camp features three men who are absolutely vital to success in 2021 and Berhalter should take a long, hard look at the youngest of the three.
Mark McKenzie has been a hyped defender for three years now. The left-footed (perhaps ambidextrous) 21-year-old Philadelphia Union product has been linked to a move to Europe this transfer window and showed out in the 2019 U-20 World Cup. He was called up for and received his first cap in the match against Costa Rica in February.
However, Long and Zimmerman started that match; Long at left-center back and Zimmerman on the right. Long has been the preferred starter for Berhalter and has captained the team four times. Zimmerman hasn’t featured as much since Berhalter was hired but has Concacaf Qualifiers and Gold Cup experience under his belt.
Zimmerman is a better passer than Long, and has even been used as a striker late in games for his club teams. He’s also coming off an MLS Defensive Player of the Year season for Nashville.
Who plays and where could show how well the three men performed in camp but Berhalter really should run McKenzie for a good portion of the match. This is a priority because of his age and upside but also because he may be transferred to a European club this winter window and therefore unlikely to accept a call-up for the January 2021 camp.
As mentioned, Brenden Aaronson is heading to RB Salzburg to join the Austrian Bundesliga leaders in January. His Philadelphia teammate, McKenzie, has some rumors flying about him, including Scottish side Celtic.
However, Soto could secure a move back to Norwich City, the club that owns him, by playing in this match. If he plays, he will have played in 50 percent of USMNT matches this season—yes, that’s only two of four matches—but it could, among a few other factors, convince the U.K. government to grant him a work permit.
The above applies to McKenzie and could open up English clubs to him.
On the opposite side of the pond, CJ Dos Santos may have come into this camp so he can transfer from Benfica in Portugal to an MLS club. Because he is only playing for the B side in Liga Portugal 2, he would like a transfer to find playing time for a first team.
Any senior international cap will increase a player’s value and notoriety. Though they are just starting their careers, an appearance against El Salvador could help Bassett, Vines, Duncan (who previously played in Europe for a time), and Julian Araujo as their careers progress.
Overall, this squad will be fighting for one of the many roster spots for the four competitions next summer and, then, hopefully the roster for World Cup Qualifiers. With the crammed schedule of one national team competition at some level for seven months in a row, everyone in this camp can prove they can be an asset to Berhalter if he needs to.