U.S. youth a priority, but experience of Brooks, Acosta still matters
Little by little, the veterans for the U.S. men's national team are coming in from the cold.
For the entirety of caretaker manager Dave Sarachan's spell in charge, his emphasis has been on youth. It's an approach that is as logical as it is necessary: After the debacle of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, it was important to turn the page and begin to usher in a new generation of players.
The roster that Sarachan named for the upcoming friendlies against Brazil on Sept. 7 and Mexico four days later is consistent with that approach. Fourteen of the 24 players named are 23 or younger and include 16 players with seven or fewer international appearances. Included in that latter category is New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long, the only uncapped player on the roster.
The biggest absence, of course, is Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic, who is sidelined by a muscle injury that a U.S. soccer spokesperson characterized as "not significant," but there are a few returnees that Sarachan has opted to bring back, the most notable being Wolfsburg defender John Brooks and Colorado Rapids midfielder Kellyn Acosta.
Both players have the ability to be future mainstays. Whether they reach that level remains an open question.
Brooks endured an injury-hit 2017-18 club season with Wolfsburg that not only limited him to just 12 league and cup appearances, but caused him to miss the fateful last World Cup qualifier as well. Beyond his club struggles, Brooks' form with the U.S. has been all over the place and seems to hint at a player who doesn't travel particularly well. His best moments with the U.S. have come after lengthy camps such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Copa American Centenario. During shorter international windows, he's much been more inconsistent as well as prone to injury or illness, as evidenced by him missing the final four World Cup qualifiers.
A return to the level he showed at the Copa America, when the Americans reached the semifinals, would be most welcome for Sarachan and whoever succeeds him. The early returns this season are encouraging.
"To his credit, he put in a lot of work in the offseason, had a strong preseason and has also started off well in their opening game, contributing with a goal and playing 90 minutes in their win against Schalke," Sarachan said about Brooks. "Given all that, I'm pleased that he's able to be back with the group. Center-back is an important position and [Brooks has] proven that he's very capable at this level."
Acosta's performances with the U.S. have been steadier, although in a more limited role, mostly as the central midfield sidekick to Michael Bradley. But his play with FC Dallas earlier this year was so poor that he was eventually benched and then traded to the Colorado Rapids. The trade has had the desired effect in that it looks to have rejuvenated Acosta.
"[Acosta] is a consistent starter, logging 90 minutes and back to the strong form that we remember seeing during qualifying and the Gold Cup last year," Sarachan said.
One of the wild cards in the group is LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who broke his foot back in March of 2017 just minutes after scoring his first international goal against Honduras. His craftiness on the ball is something the U.S. has lacked at times. The fact that he played for Sarachan while the U.S. manager was an assistant in L.A. doesn't hurt either.
"Not only do I know him personally but professionally, I believe he has put himself back at a level to help contribute to the National Team," Sarachan said. "Having a guy like Sebastian gives us different options, and he offers a unique skill set to us in midfield."
Of course, the center of midfield has become a bit more crowded with the emergence of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams -- both of whom are on the current roster -- but there are no guarantees in terms of which players will emerge and who will fall by the wayside. The last cycle in particular saw far too many fall into the latter category. The more competition there is, the better.
Sarachan appears mindful of the progress of some of some of his younger players as well. While Paris Saint-Germain's Tim Weah was included, Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent wasn't.
"The decision to leave Josh Sargent off this roster was one made primarily because he is still getting integrated with Werder Bremen," said Sarachan. "I felt it was best to allow him to continue to train with the first team with the hope of getting minutes in friendlies during the international break."
In addition to Brooks, Acosta and Lletget, the likes of D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola and Columbus Crew forward Gyasi Zardes have also been recalled after long absences. But not every veteran has been welcomed back, although in some cases that seems a matter of time. Midfielder Michael Bradley told ESPN last month that there have been discussions between him and Sarachan; the U.S. manager seems open to his return for as long as he remains in his post. Jozy Altidore also still appears to have something to give to the U.S. even as both he and Bradley remain lightning rods for what took place during World Cup qualifying.
But experience will be needed at some point during this cycle, if only to pass the torch onto players like McKennie, Adams and defender Matt Miazga. The future will divulge exactly when that is.