Before the U.S. men's national team begins life in the Nations League, there are two intriguing friendlies on the docket.
Gregg Berhalter's squad, fresh off a runner-up performance in the Concacaf Gold Cup, will face Mexico in a Gold Cup final rematch on Sept. 6 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, before heading to St. Louis's Busch Stadium for a showdown with Uruguay. The South American power initially called in a full-strength squad, but recent injuries to Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez could result in a less dynamic opponent for the Sept. 10 matchup.
There are a few factors in play for the U.S. for this window in terms of its roster construction. Some injuries will shape the squad, with Tyler Adams still recovering from the ailment that kept him from the Gold Cup and the start of RB Leipzig's season, Duane Holmes just coming back from an injury of his own, DeAndre Yedlin yet to play for Newcastle as he recovers from groin surgery and Tim Weah just suffering a fresh knock. The friendly dates are likely too soon for all. There's also the MLS schedule, which shouldn't take priority over official FIFA dates, but Berhalter could wind up being sympathetic to MLS teams that are in the midst of a battle for playoff spots and not pull their top players for games that are ultimately of no real consequence. Finally, there's the simultaneous U-23 camp and pre-Olympic qualifying tune-up vs. Japan on Sept. 9 that could dictate where some of the younger talents go.
As always, a national team squad isn't necessarily based on merit. It's based on a manager's choices and preferences. With a large enough sample size of Berhalter's past choices to go off, here's who the manager could have in frame for the upcoming friendlies:
Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Sean Johnson (NYCFC)
This would appear to be Berhalter's favored trio, though Horvath losing his starting spot to former Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet does not bode well for his future outlook, and the Nations League is perhaps a chance to get a look at some other candidates who have been on the fringe and could perhaps supplant him should he remain a backup at the club level. With NYCFC playing on Sept. 7 and 11, perhaps Berhalter does the club a favor and leaves Johnson behind, which would open the door for someone else like, perhaps, LAFC's Tyler Miller.
Regardless, Steffen remains the unquestioned starter after starting both of Fortuna Dusseldorf's opening Bundesliga matches: a 3-1 win vs. Werder Bremen and a 3-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Sergino Dest (Ajax), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Matt Miazga (Reading), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic)
Brooks has gotten off to a strong start to the Bundesliga season, and he's healthy after being forced to miss the Gold Cup with an injury. In theory, he's the anchor the U.S. defense truly needs, but the inability to count on him over the past couple of years has threatened his status and opened the door for others. Here's a chance, against two very good attacking opponents, to prove once and for all that he's atop the depth chart.
Behind him, there's the likes of Long, Miazga and Robinson, the latter of whom has been sensational for Atlanta and a big part of the club's successful rebound after a shaky start to the season. LAFC's Walker Zimmerman, who was preferred at the Gold Cup, remains an option, too. On the outside, Cannon proved his worth at the Gold Cup, and while Ream is not a long-term solution at left back, he's shown to be Berhalter's top choice in a position that needs an upgrade. Robinson, who has started all five of Wigan's games so far, could get yet another opportunity to show he's up for that challenge. Dest, meanwhile, has started to get his chances with Ajax's senior squad and could be poised to do so internationally after showing well at the U-20 World Cup as well. This grouping leaves the U.S. thin on the flanks, especially the left, but such is the state of the player pool.
Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Pulisic has appeared to settle in well at Chelsea and headlines this group along with McKennie, with the two able to reprise their tandem No. 10 roles in the heart of the lineup. Behind them, Bradley and Trapp remain the preferred options for Berhalter, though with Toronto FC hovering on the playoff line and having two games during this window, maybe Bradley is left behind to captain his club at a crucial time. Yueill, who started a pre-Gold Cup friendly vs. Jamaica despite not being on the USA's preliminary Gold Cup squad, is a candidate to perform here or with the U-23s. Same goes for FC Dallas's fantastic Paxton Pomykal.
The way Darlington Nagbe has been performing for Atlanta United, one might expect him to get a look, potentially in Bradley's place even, but he said recently that there hasn't been much communication with Berhalter, and he just may not be favored by the manager, who is entitled to have his reasons.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Altidore has been on fire (five goals in eight matches) since returning to action with Toronto after the Gold Cup final in which he missed a clear look that would've put the U.S. in the driver's seat. He remains Berhalter's top striker, but, as is the case with Bradley, perhaps he's left behind to help his club in its home stretch. Arriola and Boyd can man the wings, while Zardes, who enjoyed a two-goal performance vs. FC Cincinnati over the weekend and has four goals in his last four appearances, would be the choice up top if Altidore isn't selected.
Josh Sargent, who was left out of the Gold Cup team, is another clear option to lead the line, provided he isn't sent to U-23 duty. Given that he figures to be a centerpiece of the Olympic qualifying efforts, that's not an unlikely scenario.