Well, we wanted youth. And for the most part, we got it.
On Tuesday, U.S. men’s national team interim manager Dave Sarachan named his squad for next week’s friendly against Portugal, and of the 21 players, 12 are 24 years of age or younger. Five have never played for the senior national team before. Only five members of the 23-man squad on that haunting night in Trinidad are in this one. The changing of the guard is underway.
But the roster isn’t entirely composed of kids, and that’s where the arguments begin. Alejandro Bedoya, 30, is still here. So is 30-year-old Tim Ream. And 28-year-old Eric Lichaj. And 27-year-old Danny Williams.
Bedoya and Ream will be 35 and, in all likelihood, out of the national team picture by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. So, the argument goes, why are they still in the picture right now? What’s the point?
On an individual level, Sarachan’s roster leaves a few of those questions unanswered. There are a handful of baffling inclusions that can and will be picked apart.
But on a broad level, the answer is simple: You can’t just call in 21 kids.
You can’t do so for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that there are not 21 kids currently worthy of a senior national team roster spot. Every tier of the player pool was whittled down by injuries and club responsibilities, leaving the roster already thin. The glaring omissions are few and far between. Christian Ramirez? He’s 26. Justen Glad? He had a relatively mediocre season for Real Salt Lake. Andrew Carleton? He’s played a total of four minutes of professional soccer.
There’s a youth-at-all-costs case to be made that Carleton and youngsters of his ilk should have been called in regardless of their national team readiness. That there is no use in seeing any more of Bedoya, who at this point in his career is a squad player at best. And that’s true. Whether Bedoya performs well in a meaningless friendly in Portugal is of little importance.
But Bedoya is useful in other ways. To make the camp a valuable experience for the 18-year-olds, players like he and Ream are necessary. First of all, they’re necessary in the game itself. Possible debutants like Tyler Adams can absolutely hold their own against Portugal. Somebody like Carleton might even be able to as well. He’s fearless. But if he’s in a midfield with three other teenagers against he No. 3 team in the world, the teenagers are going to get stomped. They’re not going to be able to hold the ball. Carleton wouldn’t be able to get on it in meaningful positions. That experience wouldn’t be beneficial to him.
To give the kids a beneficial on-field experience, one that accurately emulates the environment of a competitive international game, they need stability around them. If Adams and Carleton were thrown into a team alongside Bedoya and Kellyn Acosta, then they’d get that experience.
The most practical and relevant example is at the heart of the U.S. defense. Everybody is excited to see Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers. They could be the center back partnership of the future. But rather than throw them to the Portuguese wolves together, Sarachan can put them in better positions by pairing one with Ream for 45 minutes and the other with Brooks for the second 45.
For every newbie or two, there needs to be someone who knows what international success feels like and requires. Bedoya, Ream and others serve that purpose.
Plus, by most, if not all accounts, Bedoya is a great “locker room guy.” That’s an overused term, but it’s not irrelevant. He’s well-liked and widely respected within the team. He’ll probably captain it if he starts on Tuesday. He’ll be a great resource for the kids in the week leading up to the match, which is arguably more important than the 90 minutes themselves.
“We’ve tried to bring in a few veteran players who can lend leadership,” Sarachan said in a press release that accompanied the roster. “Guys that have been involved with the National Team and have played in what I would call higher profile games. [They’ll] give us a little leadership in this camp and for this particular game.”
Anybody who wants to kick Bedoya to the curb overlooks that angle. And anybody who wants to discard Bedoya, or Ream, or 28-year-old Jorge Villafaña also overlooks the many competitive matches the U.S. will play between now and December 2022.
This isn’t all about building for the next World Cup. There are Gold Cups to win. There might be not-yet-announced intercontinental tournaments to contest. And oh yeah, that World Cup has to be qualified for before it can be chalked up as a certainty. A 33-year-old Villafaña probably won’t be the U.S.’s starting left back in Qatar. But his U.S. career is far from over.
None of this is to say the U.S. roster is flawless. A few names are puzzling. If soon-to-be-29-year-old Eric Lichaj can’t crack a World Cup qualifying roster with everybody healthy, he has no place here. A Brandon Vincent or a Matt Polster should be in Portugal instead.
Likewise, the three forwards not named Josh Sargent are uninspiring. C.J. Sapong, MLS’s top American goalscorer this past season, deserved a shot. And maybe Juan Agudelo deserved a second (third? Fourth?) one. But Dom Dwyer, at 27, has never shown anything that suggests he can be a national team contributor. Somebody like Ramirez, or one of the under-20 stars, at least deserved a look.
The selection of Williams is debatable. Bruce Arena refused to turn to the German-American despite an obvious need in central midfield, and Williams’ on-ball ability has never screamed “national team regular.” But he was perhaps unfairly ignored by Arena, and his Premier League performances for Huddersfield recently merit attention.
And again, Weston McKennie is in camp. Adams is in camp. Lynden Gooch is, too. There’s only room for so many kids. Every additional teenager diminishes the value of each of their week-long international soccer indoctrinations.
Sarachan appears to have gotten the balance of the roster more or less right. Could it have used one or two more fresh faces in place of Lichaj or Dwyer? Sure. But the approach was the correct one.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.