Alexander: As World Cup approaches, U.S. roster taking shape

It is one of the peculiarities of soccer, the difference that sets it apart from other sports: You’ve got to know how to adjust to different sets of teammates almost instantaneously, especially if you are accomplished enough to play for both your club team and your national team.

If you play for the United States, especially on the men’s side, that means different sets of mates within the larger national team player pool. The adjustment period had better take minutes, not hours or days or longer – especially this year, and especially for the European-based players who will wear Our Boys’ colors.

The opening match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a shade more than two months away, just 2½ weeks after the MLS Cup championship is decided and right in the middle of the club seasons everywhere else in the world. The final preparation window is this week’s camp in Germany, leading into exhibitions against Japan on Friday in Duesseldorf, Germany and against Saudi Arabia next Tuesday in Murcia, Spain.

The 26-man roster called in by head coach Gregg Berhalter for this camp – which is by no means necessarily the final roster but probably provides a solid glimpse of the coach’s thinking – has already changed because of injuries.  It includes eight MLS-based players, including LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta and former LAFC defender Walker Zimmerman, and 17 based in Europe.

Soccer players learn, early on, that they’d better be adept at shape-shifting, adapting to different surroundings, teammates, conditions and ambitions.

“I come into camp and I greet everybody just like, it’s amazing seeing them, you know?” said Brenden Aaronson, a midfielder for Leeds in the Premier League, during a U.S. Soccer Zoom session Monday. “I feel like it’s just such a close-knit group.

“The personalities here, I think that’s what kind of brings it all together. He (Berhalter) has done a good job of picking the guys who have great personalities and are willing to do it for the team. Everybody’s willing to work for each other.”

This player pool, in a sense, brought the men’s national team program back from the abyss after its failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. They won two CONCACAF championships in 2021, the Gold Cup and Nations League, and were uneven at times in qualifying earlier this year but punched their ticket fairly easily, earning one of the region’s three guaranteed spots over Costa Rica thanks to goal differential.

Matt Turner’s status as one of the goalkeepers in this camp (with Zack Steffen sidelined with a knee injury), is an example of why it’s sometimes risky to depend on European-based players who are good enough to be on rosters in the world’s best leagues but find it hard to get playing time.

Turner is on Arsenal’s roster but has yet to play a Premier League match this season, though he did get a start for the Gunners in a Europa League match and beat FC Zurich, 2-1. (Lest we forget, one of the main reasons MLS was launched in the summer of 1996 as a first-division league was to prepare and develop U.S. players for international play.)

In that situation a player’s level of sharpness, he said on Monday’s Zoom call, “depends on how you approach training, I’d say. If you’re in it (for) just a stroll about and you don’t think that you can change your situation no matter what you do, then you’ll lose a lot of that sharpness. But … that’s not really the kind of way that I operate.

“I want to continue to get better. I know that my ceiling has not yet been reached. And it’s going to take some hard work and obviously some risky career moves at the end of the day. But if I want to get to where I want to get to, I need to get outside of my comfort zone a little bit. And that’s going to help my sharpness every single day and my approach to the game in general.”

Aaronson is certainly not in a situation where the manager has issues with American players.

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A former homegrown signing with the Philadelphia Union in 2018, Aaronson moved to Red Bull Salzburg last season to play for former New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. He played well enough to earn a $30 million transfer to Leeds United – and was reunited with Marsch, who had become Leeds’ manager last March and helped the club avoid relegation from the Premier League.

Since then, with Aaronson and USMNT Tyler Adams playing key roles and Marsch in charge, Leeds has created enough interest on these shores and earned enough TV time on NBC/Peacock’s Premier League coverage that they might as well be America’s Team. And Aaronson has become a favorite of that team’s fans in just a little over a month.

“Honestly, (it’s been) a whirlwind,” he said. “Going in for preseason, you don’t really know what to expect. You know, you’re taking the next step and you’re kind of going in, you’re like, ‘Oh, am I at this level?’ I think I was just able to just kind of click with the team, click with the coach, click with the players, and it felt like just a seamless fit for me.”

His ultimate goal? “I just want to keep getting better and better,” he said, “become the best player I can be and hopefully be a legend for the club at some point.”

But what’s better, to potentially be legendary for your club or your country?

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