What’s next for the USMNT?

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You know it’s over when your star midfielder is showing up courtside at Miami Heat games. Or the rumors of contract talks with the manager are heating up, while he tries to gain leverage by whispering about European club jobs. Time to call for the Lyft officially.

Whether Gregg Berhalter is in charge or not though, it feels like the USMNT are about to enter a desert of activity. There will be no World Cup Qualifying, most fans have come to realize the CONCACAF Gold Cup is pointless, and the Nations League even more so (even if we’ll always care about games against Mexico). If newer fans are jonesing to know when they can throw on the Pulisic or McKennie jersey again, it might be hard to convince them it’ll still fit by the time it’ll matter again.

But that’s not entirely true. At least it doesn’t have to be. What do the next couple years look like?

2023 Gold Cup

Ok, yes, it’s the Gold Cup, and no one cares. And whether Berhalter is the coach or not, there is next to no chance that any of the regulars will be called in. The European club season won’t end for most until late May, perhaps even early June. Combined with the World Cup, it makes for a very, very long season. If Berhalter is in charge, he’ll almost certainly do what he did in the summer of 2021, which is give all his top-tier players the summer off.

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That doesn’t mean the Gold Cup has to be a completely useless exercise. It would be an excellent time to prep the Olympic team and get them some time together. Sure, they could be spiced with players who didn’t do much in the World Cup and aren’t being used at their club teams much, say a Luca de la Torre or maybe Ricardo Pepi. Chris Richards or Miles Robinson (if he’s healthy again), that kind of ilk. Players who just missed out like Djordje Mihailovic or Gaga Slonina.

But the Olympic team should be the focus. Mainstream media always conflates the women’s Olympic competition and the men’s and use that misconception as a cudgel to beat the men’s side over the head, and they’re different. The men’s side only uses under-23 players, and clubs do not have to release their players for the tournament or any of the qualifying for it, which is why the US has struggled so much to qualify for the Olympics on the men’s side. 2024 in Paris will be the first time they’ve been to it since Beijing 2008. So your roster is mostly filled with young players who aren’t in the plans of their clubs for anything more than a periphery role and the clubs see the Olympics as a developmental opportunity. If a player matters to the club, chances are he’s not going to get to go to the Olympics.

But the Gold Cup is the regional championship, which means clubs do have to let their players go if they’re called up. Plus, the Gold Cup takes place right in the pit of the MLS season, when it’s a real slog, and teams are probably a little more willing to let players leave for a month.

Names like George Bello, Gianluca Busio, Slonina, Paxton Aaronson, Matthew Hoppe, George Campbell, and Aidan Morris are just some who could feature in Paris 2024, and the Gold Cup should be used as a bonus time to get some cohesion for the Olympic team. This is most likely what you’ll see, too. It’s rare that an Olympic team gets a practice tournament together, and this is the best way to use the Gold Cup.

Summer 2024

This is where it gets tricky. There’s been very little buzz about what Copa America 2024 is going to be. If you think it’s strange that South America’s regional championship doesn’t have a host site just a year and a half before it starts, clearly you’re not all that familiar with how CONMEBOL works.

Rumors are that the US is close to accepting an invitation to the tournament, has already accepted an invitation, or might even host the damn thing as a dry run for hosting the World Cup two years later. However it shakes out, there is a complication. Because the US would only be an invitee to the tournament, and it’s not their regional championship as the Gold Cup is, clubs do not have to release their players to the national team for it. The US got around this in 2016 when FIFA put it on the calendar and they hosted it, and maybe that’s the route again. If Peru steps up, as rumored, negotiations with clubs are going to be complicated.

Still, the US could grease the wheels a bit by not calling up anyone important for the Gold Cup and by pointing out there’s no qualifying cycle for the US. This would just about be the only national team obligation in a three-year span for players like Pulisic, McKennie, Musah, Adams, and whoever else you deem worthy of protection from their clubs. Again, it’ll be a tough sell, but not impossible.

Part of that sell will be who the US will call in as an over-ager for the Olympics. The Olympic roster is allowed to have up to three players who are over 23 called in, but again, clubs do not have to release that player for the tournament. If US Soccer promises that players used for Copa America will not participate in the Olympics, that will help get the full roster for the bigger tournament but also hamstring the Olympic roster a bit. However, the Copa America has to be the priority, a tournament where the US can eye up full Brazil or Argentina squads along with full squads from teams that are more on the US’s level like Chile, or Colombia, or Ecuador, or Uruguay.

The Olympics will follow, and no matter what that squad looks like, it’ll be a good audition spot for players who want to work themselves in the discussion for the 2026 World Cup. Players are unlikely to go from the Olympics to the starting 11 come the World Cup, but it can be a launching point to make the squad. Then again, the last time a U-23 team went to the Olympics it had Stu Holden, Michael Bradley, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, and Maurice Edu, who all became pretty important parts of the full team in a hurry. This USMNT squad is harder to break into than the aging one that the group broke apart, but it’s still a route. And as we just saw, depth roles on the full squad are still very much up for grabs and definitely need an upgrade.

If the US doesn’t participate in the Copa, first US Soccer should be launched into the sun as a whole, and second, the Olympic roster might look a little different. They’ll almost certainly still be unable to call in a Gio Reyna or Yunus Musah, but they might aim bigger on their over-ager picks. The Olympics butt right up against when most of the European seasons will start, so again, really tough sell, but depending on where players are and the influence they have with the clubs, you might see a really big name heading to Paris.

But let’s not get to that. Just go to the Copa America.

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