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USMNT Stock Watch: Haji Wright trending up, Schalke teammate Weston McKennie down

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New U.S. mens’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has spent most of the last week in Europe, scouting players and meeting around 10 of them for the first time as the American manager. He’s also taken in two games so far — with another pair to follow before he heads home — in Germany. His travels offer clues about his priorities.

A U.S. Soccer spokesman wouldn’t name names when asked which specific players Berhalter will meet with while he’s overseas, but it probably isn’t hard to guess. Valuable face time with the likes of John Brooks, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie — all of them expected U.S. fixtures throughout the 2022 World Cup cycle — is surely on his agenda.

Part of Berhalter’s mandate is also to be open-minded, with an eye on anyone who can help the Yanks return to greatest show in sports. So while it wasn’t ideal that McKennie didn’t play in Saturday’s match at Augsburg that the new boss traveled to the Munich outskirts to see, Berhalter received a pleasant surprise when 20-year-old Californian Haji Wright came off the bench and played the final 45 five minutes for visitors, more than every other American in Germany’s top flight combined last weekend.

Wright isn’t the only Yank who boosted his USMNT standing over the last week. Find out who else is on the rise below.

Los Angeles native Haji Wright, 20, has appeared in three of Schalke’s last four Bundesliga games. (Sebastian Widmann//Getty)
Los Angeles native Haji Wright, 20, has appeared in three of Schalke’s last four Bundesliga games. (Sebastian Widmann//Getty)

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F Haji Wright, Schalke (German Bundesliga)

Not only did Berhalter watch the Los Angeles native play the entire second half of Schalke’s 1-1 stalemate at Augsburg, he also saw him put the ball in the net. Alas, Wright’s apparent game-winner in the 84th minute was ruled offside.

Takeaway: The rangy striker has now appeared in three of his club’s last four league matches. He hasn’t scored yet, it’s true. But clearly he’s doing something, um, correctly to continue to earn playing time, even if Schalke’s ongoing participation in the Champions League (they’ll face mighty Manchester City in the Round of 16) has forced manager Domenico Tedesco to rotate his squad. That Wright’s latest appearance came with his international manager in the house can only help his chances of being called in when a full-strength USMNT convenes for the first time under Berhalter in March.

How much will new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter rely on center back John Brooks this cycle? (Sebastian Widmann/Getty)
How much will new USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter rely on center back John Brooks this cycle? (Sebastian Widmann/Getty)

D John Brooks, Wolfsburg (German Bundesliga)

A day earlier, Berhalter was in attendance to see Brooks help Wolfsburg keep a clean sheet in Friday’s 2-0 win at Nurnberg. Only six teams in Germany’s top flight have conceded fewer goals this season than the Wolves, for whom the 25-year-old has started all but one match.

Takeaway: It probably says something that out of all his European-based players, Berhalter went to see Brooks play first. The 25-year-old German-American is the most talented and experienced defender, by far, in the player pool. Still, questions about his commitment to the national team continue to linger more than five years into his U.S. career. It makes sense that the new coach would want to establish a relationship early on. Because if Brooks is going to be a key component for Berhalter this cycle, getting him to buy in is essential.

G Zack Steffen, Columbus Crew (MLS)

Steffen completed his transfer to Manchester City last week, but will remain with the Crew for the first half of 2019 before heading to England in July.

Takeaway: The arrangement is a win both for Steffen and the national team. Not only will Steffen now be available for January camp under his former club coach, he’ll play regularly at club level right up until June’s Gold Cup. And if he wins the starting job for the U.S. in that tournament, it could help the young backstop, 23, qualify for a British work permit that would allow him to either stay at Manchester City as Ederson’s understudy, or go on loan to another English club.

G Ethan Horvath, Club Brugge (Belgian First Division A)

Horvath, also 23, earned his third consecutive Champions League shutout last week as Brugge bowed out of the competition by holding Atletico Madrid at home. (Horvath’s previous two clean sheets came at Monaco and Dortmund.) He then kept KV Kortrijk of the board Saturday in league play in his 10th straight start across all competitions.

Takeaway: The Denver-area product continues to make progress this season. He’s also starting to make the battle for the national team’s No. 1 shirt intriguing, with Steffen and Atlanta United veteran Brad Guzan also in the mix for the USMNT job.

F Andrija Novakovich, Fortuna Sittard (Dutch Eredivisie)

Making his first start since October on Saturday, Novakovich set up Fortuna’s winner in an impressive 2-0 away victory over traditional power Feyenoord:

Takeaway: The 22-year-old never really won over interim coach Dave Sarachan. But like every other player, he has a new lease on life under the new regime. The fact that Berhalter played in the Netherlands and still has lots of contacts in the country ensures that he’ll monitor Novakovich closely.

M Joe Corona, Club America (Mexican Liga MX)

After spending much of the Apertura season on the bench, Corona slowly broke back into coach Miguel Herrera’s plans before the playoffs and played in both legs of the final against Cruz Azul, starting last week’s opener and coming off the bench on Sunday to help America claim the title.

Takeaway: Corona is no stranger to the national team; his first cap came in 2012, his 23rd and most recent was in June. He’s never really established himself as a regular, however, and at 28 he’ll be on the old side when the 2022 World Cup in Qatar kicks off. That said, his experience could be useful in qualifying.

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Central midfielder Weston McKennie has been an unused substitute in Schalke’s last two games. (Getty)
Central midfielder Weston McKennie has been an unused substitute in Schalke’s last two games. (Getty)

M Weston McKennie, Schalke (German Bundesliga)

Berhalter was surely hoping to watch McKennie in the flesh on Sunday, but the hard-tackling Texan never made it off Tedesco’s bench. It was the second time in five days that McKennie was an unused sub; he also sat out Schalke’s Champions League group stage finale against Galatasaray.

Takeaway: As it is with fellow 20-year-old Pulisic, the reduction in McKennie’s playing time this season compared to last is concerning. Competition for spots on Champions League teams is always fierce, however, and this spell on the sidelines should benefit both key U.S. players later on — provided, of course, that they win back their starting jobs later on this season.

F Bobby Wood, Hannover (German Bundesliga)

Wood was an unused sub for the first time since September in Saturday’s 4-0 smackdown by Bayern Munich.

Takeaway: The fact that Hannover lost in lopsided fashion without him helps his case. On the other hand, it’s not like the Reds, now dead last in the Bundesliga, were winning when Wood played. He’ll have to make sure to take advantage of his next opportunity from manager Andre Breitenreiter, whenever it comes.

M Kenny Saief, Anderlecht (Belgian First Division A)

The Israeli-American has started just two matches for Anderlecht since the start of November, but didn’t dress in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Cercle Brugge.

Takeaway: The U.S. can never have enough naturally left-footed wingers, especially those with decent European experience, even concerns remain about Saief’s ability to defend out wide. That said, Saief, who turned 25 on Monday, has struggled in his first half-season since moving from Gent over the summer. Hopefully he can carve out a regular place in the new year.

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