Almost as long as Major League Soccer has existed, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s domestic contingent has gathered for the annual January camp.
The difference in 2022 versus other years?
Instead of preparing for ‘remove the rust’ friendlies, three crucial FIFA World Cup qualifiers await the team at the end of the month that will go a long way towards dictating which Concacaf’s representatives go to Qatar.
While the team’s growing European-based contingent will be key for those matches, the core group of domestic players are currently in Phoenix building fitness off last month’s camp in order to position themselves to play a part in the matches against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras in a few weeks.
“The important thing here is to understand why we did the December camp and why we had these guys playing,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said to reporters on Monday. “Some of the European guys – Brenden Aaronson for example – hasn’t played in a month. He was off December 12. A guy like Walker Zimmerman, his last game was December 18 and now he’s back on January 7.
“There wasn’t that much time off for these guys. We’re going to use the next two weeks to evaluate where these guys are.”
WATCH: Gregg Berhalter’s Opening Press Conference | Jan. 10, 2022
Along with training every day in Phoenix, the current 20-player roster will build up match fitness with three closed-door scrimmages during the next two weeks. The team will face host club Phoenix Rising on Thursday, followed by Grand Canyon University (Jan. 17) and Sporting Kansas City (Jan. 21).
The resulting performances and data will give the coaching staff a good picture of their readiness to compete in high-intensity international competition.
“We’ll get them up to close to 90 minutes in the last scrimmage, then we’re going to be able to tell. The most important thing is that we can put a team on the field that compete at a high level, because we know that’s what World Cup qualifying games are about. We’ll make the best possible decision that we can, to get the group that can do that on the field.”
For Berhalter and his staff, this month will be one of the busiest since they came on board as they balance the dual responsibility of running daily training sessions while also monitoring the European-based contingent ahead of naming the training camp roster for qualifying later next week.
The health of the overall player pool is relatively strong at the moment, though question marks remain about the availability of European-based attackers Tim Weah and Gio Reyna.
One of the team’s top performers during the October and November windows, Weah was rounding back into strong form before suffering a thigh injury while training with Lille in early December.
Meanwhile, Reyna has not played a game for the USMNT or Borussia Dortmund since suffering a hamstring injury in the opening qualifier on Sept. 2 at El Salvador. The 19-year-old did return to training for Dortmund at the end of November and could be back in the matchday squad as early as this weekend’s encounter with Freiburg.
“With Gio and Tim it’s too early to tell – we just don’t know yet,” Berhalter said about their status for the qualifying roster. “We have 14 days until they can come into camp and those 14 days will be important.”
Morris and Long Improving
The two domestic camps are serving meaningful purpose for domestic-based players Jordan Morris and Aaron Long to continue their road back to regular match fitness.
After tearing his ACL while on loan with Swansea last February, Morris recovered in time to play three matches for Seattle Sounders at the end of the MLS campaign and went 68 minutes for the USMNT in last month’s 1-0 friendly win against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Morris’ first cap in two years showed a continued progression and built on the possibility that he could contribute at the end of the month.
Long, who missed the rest of the MLS campaign after suffering a ruptured Achilles with New York Red Bulls last May, has been part of the last three USMNT camps. In November, he was brought in for evaluation with the team’s performance staff and continued to build back strength and fitness with the team in December before joining full team training towards the end of that camp.
The team’s dedication to helping Long get back to contributing is understandable. Prior to the injury, the veteran center back earned the second most caps of any player during Berhalter’s tenure and took on a leadership role, captaining the team in five matches.
Even if he doesn’t make it on this month’s roster, the Long payoff could come during the team’s last qualifying window in March.
“He looks great,” Berhalter said of Long. “His progression from Cincinnati to December to now has been right in line. For us it’s about having fit players, having guys in rhythm available. I’m not sure he’s going to get there, but hopefully he’ll be close. Then he goes back to preseason with his team and he plays games there at the start of the season and hopefully in March we’re having different conversations.”
Hometown Lennon Making a Play for Qualifying Roster
Atlanta United right back Brooks Lennon has long been on Berhalter’s radar, but for varying reasons didn’t get into a USMNT camp with the head coach until last month. The 24-year-old finally earned his senior team debut in the win against Bosnia and was one of the few new players from December to earn a recall for this month’s camp.
While the depth chart at right back is very deep, Lennon can make a case to be included in the squad this month. Even if he doesn’t, there are more possibilities for players like Lennon to contribute later in the year.
“Brooks has done a good job. It was nice seeing him in camp and nice working with him. We thought he played reasonably well against Bosnia and now it’s a chance to validate that in this camp. We’re going to play three scrimmages; it’ll be nice to see how he progresses and see if he can make this qualifying roster.
“One thing I’ll say is that we have 20 guys in camp and if they don’t make the roster for the January qualifying window, it’s not a final determination. We know where these guys are at, we know what we need for this window and there will be opportunity enough as the year goes on.”
With six qualifiers left, the USMNT (4-1-3; 15 pts.) sits in second place, just one point back of Octagonal leaders Canada (4-0-4; 16 pts.). While in good position, the USA has just one more point than Mexico and Panama (both 4-2-2; 14 pts.), leaving little room for error through the final six matches.
With two of the three remaining home games occurring during the upcoming window, Berhalter’s side recognizes the massive step that could be taken towards qualification this month.
“I know if we continue with this points-per game [rate], we’ll qualify for the World Cup. For us it’s about closing this out. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I think one important lesson we learned from the September qualifying window is taking one game at a time. Things change very quickly. We’re just over halfway there and after this window we’ll be 78 percent of the way there, so we’re getting closer. For us it’s about being steady, taking one game at a time and preparing to win that next game.”
For now, all focus is towards that first match against El Salvador on Jan. 27 in Columbus.