Key USMNT questions heading into a busy 2021 that includes the start of World Cup qualifying

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The strangest year in recent U.S. men’s national team history finally ended Wednesday in high-scoring fashion, as an American squad made up mostly of reserves and newcomers clobbered El Salvador 6-0, with the first five goals coming before the match was 27 minutes old.

Coming on the heels of last month’s similarly lopsided win over Panama and a scoreless draw at Wales by an almost entirely different, nearly exclusively European-based USMNT and combined with February’s pre-pandemic victory over Costa Rica, it meant Gregg Berhalter’s side closed its coronavirus-cursed 2020 unbeaten with three wins and a draw.

Now the calendar flips to 2021. And despite remaining uncertainty regarding the impact of the ongoing health crisis, next year promises to be a pivotal one for the a national team that, for all justified excitement around its cohort of emerging world-beating youngsters, is still largely unproven at the international level.

“None of these results are gonna help us in 2021,” Berhalter flatly told reporters following Wednesday’s contest. “I think the team has confidence, but you still have to go out on the field and play the game.”

Until the U.S. gets to that point, there are things that we just don’t know.

After scoring Wednesday in the final U.S. match of 2020, Paul Arriola and Ayo Akinola (right) will be looking for more national team opportunities next year. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
After scoring Wednesday in the final U.S. match of 2020, Paul Arriola and Ayo Akinola (right) will be looking for more national team opportunities next year. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Like, who will emerge during January’s planned (but still to be confirmed) camp for primarily out-of-season MLS players? Will CONCACAF’s Olympic qualifying tournament, which was postponed a full year because of COVID, actually go ahead this March? Which dual-nationals will ultimately commit to the USMNT?

And will any of the players who starred on Wednesday, including goal-scorers Paul Arriola, Ayo Akinola, Sebastian Lletget and Man of the Match Chris Mueller, who had two in his debut, be able to force themselves into Berhalter’s first-choice lineup alongside shoo-in starters such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest?

Those are all valid queries, but they are hardly the only ones. Here are the biggest questions facing the USMNT in the new year.

How will U.S. manage the calendar, possible Olympic participation?

Even without a trip to Tokyo – one the U.S. Soccer Federation would love to make after the U.S. men failed to qualify for the last two Summer Games – matches will come thick and fast in 2021.

There’s supposed to be one at the end of January camp, as usual. The senior team then has two open friendly dates to fill in late March separate from Olympic qualifying, which this is limited to players under 24-year-old (normally it’s an U-23 event) and will probably have to be contested by a team made of of MLS youngsters because of conflicts with European club campaigns. (Club teams, including those in MLS, are not obligated to release players to youth national teams as they are to senior teams during FIFA fixture windows.)

The CONCACAF Nations League final four follows in June, with the Gold Cup in July. If the U-23s qualify, the Olympics run from late July to early August. World Cup qualifying, by far the most important competition the Americans will compete in next year (more on that below), begins in September, with eight of the 14 games completed by the end of next year.

Right now, Berhalter’s plan apparently is to use his full-strength roster only for World Cup qualifying and the Nations League. But that could change if the U-23s make it to Tokyo.

If they do, U.S. Soccer will do everything it can to assemble its best possible team, one that would be considered a legitimate gold medal contender with all its eligible members available. And while that’s not likely to happen, it’s possible that global titans like Chelsea and Barcelona would recognize the value in exposing their players to a mainstream American audience. They won’t get everyone, though, and any clubs that do release players will want something in return. At minimum, Berhalter would probably have to agree not to summon them for the Nations League. It would then be on the understudies to use that tournament, plus the January camp and Gold Cup, to climb the coach’s depth chart.

“Next year is going to be a really busy year for us,” Berhalter said. “We’re going to need a lot of players. That’s why this camp was so important – to get more players in, evaluate more players and see how we can divide it up next year.”

Will youngsters’ Champions League success translate to USMNT?

Never before have so many Americans been difference-makers at the highest level of the sport. Eight of the record nine USMNT players who competed in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League this fall are with teams that advanced to the second round. All of them are in their teens or early 20s, too, with the exception of Manchester City keeper Zack Steffen, who is 25.

On Tuesday, many of the players in U.S. camp watched as McKennie scored a spectacular goal in Juventus’s win over Dest and Barcelona. Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna continue to be key cogs for Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund, respectively. Chris Richards is breaking in with European champ Bayern Munich. Then there’s Valencia’s Yunus Musah, 18, who remains eligible for at least two other countries, including England. All performed well in the games versus Wales and Panama save Pulisic, who missed both with a hamstring injury.

But then none of them played a minute this year with the U.S. alongside with MLS-based forwards like Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes. Same on the back line, where standout domestic central defenders Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie and Walker Zimmerman didn’t get the chance to audition for the wide-open spot next to 2014 World Cup veteran John Brooks. The the lack of proven options at the striker and center back positions remains a worry. For all this team’s promise, it’s too early to anoint them just yet.

“It’s still a young group and that’s the important thing. We can’t rush it,” Berhalter said. “We need to support them, we need to keep believing in them, and I think the sky’s the limit. But the first thing is giving the group time.”

Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie (above) will be a key cog for U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter when qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar kick off next year. (John Dorton/ISI/Getty Images)
Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie (above) will be a key cog for U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter when qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar kick off next year. (John Dorton/ISI/Getty Images)

World Cup qualifying is everything for this young American squad

However the first two-thirds of the year shakes out, the undisputed top priority for the USMNT in 2021 is the start of World Cup qualifying, which CONCACAF announced last week will begin with a three matches in September. Three more follow in October with another two in November – including a grudge match at home against chief rival Mexico. The 2021 slate ends with a trip to Jamaica, where the U.S. has won just once in six qualifiers all-time.

But by then the U.S. program will also have waited almost four full years to finally put the debacle of 2017 behind them. And to a man, the players – both the ones who were part of last cycle’s failure and the newbies – seem to relish the responsibility of lifting the USMNT back onto the sport’s grandest stage.

“That’s obviously our main goal,” the 25-year-old vet Arriola, who played in that fateful loss at Trinidad in October of 2017, said of qualifying. “I’m extremely eager. I think we’re in a great position.”

The U.S. went a perfect 3-0 against CONCACAF foes this year. But while that’s a small sample size, and although its true that none of those matches were on the road, Arriola said that the scoreline Wednesday – which followed November’s 6-2 rout of Panama – reveals the mentality of the player pool.

“It’s hard to replicate going down to Azteca and playing in the World Cup qualifier there, or Costa Rica or all of these other countries,” he said. [But] even today the killer instinct is a great step for us. to continue to not let up.

“I think we need to just be able to execute and be ready and not take our foot off the pedal,” he added. “I think it’s going to be a great year for us next year, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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