5 players to watch during USMNT’s January international friendlies

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5 players to watch during USMNT’s January friendlies originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The future is now.

The United States men’s national team is gearing up for two international friendlies against Serbia and Colombia, but because it’s not recognized by FIFA on its international calendar, the Stars and Stripes’ marquee players abroad will not be involved.

Instead, the USMNT will get the chance to analyze a new batch of youngsters as the 2026 FIFA World Cup cycle gets underway. 

Out of the 24 players called up to the roster, keep an eye on these five:

GK Gabriel Slonina

The USMNT’s No. 1 goalie has become 28-year-old Matt Turner, a former New England Revolution star who is now producing quality performances with Arsenal in a backup role. Developing young goalies has been an issue with the program, but there’s hope that Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina could be one for the future.

The 18-year-old emerged for the Chicago Fire the last two seasons, leading to a $15 million transfer to Chelsea last summer (he stayed with Chicago for the remainder of the season on loan).

This past season, the 6-foot-4 goalie logged 12 clean sheets in 32 games played and saved 64.6% of shots he faced, a solid rate for someone his age. He could be one to watch to make the 2026 World Cup roster.

LW Cade Cowell

You can never go wrong with deploying speedy wingers, especially those who are direct and want to take on defenders in one-on-one situations. Think Christian Pulisic, for example, the nation’s best winger. Whenever he collects the ball on the left flank, he’ll turn towards the goal and try to make a play with his right foot. That’s essentially the mold Cade Cowell has.

The 19-year-old forward is starting to become a pivotal player for the San Jose Earthquakes and has been rumored for a potential move to Europe soon. What makes him enticing? He’s already six-foot tall and weighs over 170 pounds. Combine that with his blazing speed and there’s a unique profile in him that’s rare to find. 

It’s possible that with his build, he’ll eventually convert to a center-forward. But for now, refining his skills out wide and improving his final product is key. Anytime he has the ball, he’ll get you on your feet. January could be a crucial turning point in his development, especially considering his Mexican background could’ve seen him represent El Tri instead. 

CAM Paxten Aaronson

If this last name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Paxten Aaronson is the younger brother of Brenden Aaronson, who broke out with the USMNT last year thanks to his impressive play upon moving to Leeds United of the English Premier League.

Paxten still has a long way to go to crack the main core of the U.S., but he recently moved from Philadelphia Union to Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga, a club that has a knack for polishing and growing under-the-radar youngsters.

The 19-year-old usually plays in a central attacking midfield role and is currently touted for his playmaking abilities. At 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds, Aaronson definitely has some bulking up to do, and figuring out his long-term position is another crucial step. The decline of pure No. 10s means he’ll need to sort out if he’s a winger, false nine or a box-to-box midfielder, which is a similar identity crisis Brenden is still undergoing.

ST Brandon Vázquez

The USMNT’s striker woes going into Qatar were a hot concern, and it has stayed that way afterward following their lack of goals scored. But maybe Brandon Vázquez can break that trend. 

Vázquez of FC Cincinnati is coming off the season of his life. The 24-year-old bagged 18 goals and eight assists in 33 appearances last season, playing a massive role in the team’s run to the postseason. 

He’s a classic No. 9, a relentless finisher inside the box. He ranked in the 90th percentile in non-penalty goals and 89th in non-penalty expected goals, per Football Reference, compared to other forwards outside of the world’s top-five leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France). If his teammates can feed him in dangerous areas, the goal-assist output should follow.

LB John Tolkin

Antonee Robinson’s health status going into Qatar was a genuine worry for the USMNT because the left flank looked much less dynamic without his energetic overlapping runs to support the attack. Beyond him, the U.S. didn’t have the same level at left back. 

John Tolkin could change that. The 20-year-old left back with the New York Red Bulls put up another solid season under more playing time. In 31 games, he helped offensively with one goal and three assists with his runs into the final third, and ranked in the 83rd percentile in shot-creating actions, per Football Reference.

Defensively, he ranked 99th in interceptions and 92nd in tackles, with his versatility allowing him to also line up as a wingback or defensive midfielder. It’s an intriguing profile if he continues his upward trajectory, and maybe we could be treated to Cowell and Tolkin both playing simultaneously on the left flank. 

Let’s see if any of these five players can show flashes of becoming vital international figures going forward.