Veteran midfielder Michael Bradley is back with the USMNT for the first time in almost a year.
The return of several longtime mainstays to the U.S. men’s national team after last year’s shocking failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was always going to happen at some point. On Monday, it finally did.
Michael Bradley, the captain during last cycle’s debacle, is back almost exactly a year after that fateful loss in Trinidad. Bradley headlines the 24-man roster that interim coach Dave Sarachan named for this month’s friendlies against Colombia and Peru alongside 20-year-old Christian Pulisic, who has played just once for the U.S. since last October.
Veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan also returns. Forward Jozy Altidore wasn’t included after re-injuring his ankle on Saturday playing for Toronto FC, but he’ll be back as soon as he’s available.
It’s a change of approach from Sarachan, who has relied on an absurdly young crop of players for USMNT’s last six exhibitions; the average age of the lineup for those matches was under 24. It’s no surprise, though, as Sarachan has said all along that older vets would be added to the mix by the end of the year.
“At some point there has to be the proper blend of youth and experience,” Sarachan said in a press release. “I felt the timing was right to begin that transition. I think it’s important to do it earlier than a week before the Gold Cup or a World Cup Qualifier. Bringing in players like Michael and Brad, who have a vast amount of experience and can be a great resource for our younger players – both on and off the field – is an important step.”
It’s also the correct one, despite what some U.S. fans may think.
The Americans are wafer-thin in goal after Zack Steffen, the 23-year-old Columbus Crew backstop. Guzan, 33, will immediately compete with Steffen for the No. 1 job. The former Premier League and current Atlanta United stopper is also a well-liked locker room presence, a role he honed as Tim Howard’s understudy at the 2010 and ’14 World Cups.
Up front, the U.S. may be even thinner. Altidore is still best striker in the player pool by a considerable distance – those who disagree either overrate his competition or don’t understand the demands placed on international forwards, or both – and at age 28, with 110 caps and 41 goals (including a U.S. record 18 in World Cup qualifying) on his resume, he’ll be invaluable this cycle if he can stay healthy.
Bradley’s return to the U.S. team is more complicated. The position he plays is the deepest in the pool, with 20-year-old Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, 19, looking like USMNT lineup staples in central midfield for the next decade. And it’s fair to question the wisdom of recalling a player who will be 35 when the next World Cup kicks off. As good as Bradley was in leading Toronto FC to within a whisker of the CONCACAF title in April, he hasn’t played well this season with TFC, which will almost certainly miss the MLS playoffs after winning the title a year ago.
But as much as a vocal faction national team backers want to exile every elder statesman who was part of the qualifying failure, not least Bradley, the reality is the U.S. can’t afford to cast aside players who still having something to offer right now. Bradley falls into that category.
Many of the starters from last cycle – Paul Arriola, John Brooks, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin among them – have already returned. Yet there remains an obvious leadership void within the team. Yedlin hasn’t yet emerged as the potential captain many hoped he would be. Brooks has played for the U.S. just once this year. Wood is a reserve in Germany, potentially impacting his stature with the national team. Pulisic and McKennie are barely out of their teens.
Bradley wouldn’t necessarily be competing with Adams and McKennie as much as with the deeper-lying Wil Trapp. He’s shown a willingness to play wherever he’s needed in the past, and his presence alone will force all three midfielders to raise their training level and fight for their spots. That will be good for the team’s development in the long run.
This is how it works. Vets typically haven’t been jettisoned at the start of a new cycle, even when their age profile basically guarantees that they won’t make it all the way though. The likes of Chris Armas, Cobi Jones and current USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart started vital qualifiers during the 2006 cycle before being leapfrogged by players that would go to the World Cup in Germany. Same with Frankie Hejduk and Pablo Mastroeni en route to South Africa 2010, and Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo four years later.
Beyond the headlines, the youth movement continues in earnest. Wide players Jonathan Amon, Reggie Cannon and Ben Sweat have been summoned for the first time. With Altidore sidelined and Wood, Tim Weah and Josh Sargent not starting for their European club teams, 22-year old Netherlands-based forward Andrija Novakovich could get the chance he’s been waiting for. Even with Bradley and Guzan back in the mix, the average age of the squad is still just 23.
“We’ve begun to develop a deeper pool across the board,” Sarachan said. “Players need to understand that there is going to be competition for spots and for playing time, and that is part of the next stage of development for many of these young guys. I think we’re going to see that competition more and more as we move forward.”
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Atlanta United FC; Ethan Horvath, Club Brugge (Belgium), Zack Steffen, Columbus Crew
Defenders: John Brooks, Wolfsburg (Germany); Reggie Cannon, FC Dallas; Cameron Carter-Vickers, Swansea City (Wales); Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls; Matt Miazga, Nantes (France), Antonee Robinson, Wigan (England), Ben Sweat, New York City FC; DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle (England)
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta, Colorado Rapids; Tyler Adams, New York Red Bulls; Jonathan Amon, Nordsjælland (Denmark), Michael Bradley, Toronto; Julian Green, Greuther Fürth (Germany); Weston McKennie, Schalke (Germany); Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund (Germany); Kenny Saief, Anderlecht (Belgium); Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew; Tim Weah, Paris Saint-Germain (France)
Forwards: Andrija Novakovich, Fortuna Sittard (Netherlands); Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen (Germany); Bobby Wood, Hannover (Germany)
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