“Right now, it’s not about reinventing the wheel. It’s just fine-tuning.”
That’s one of the recent comments that head coach Gregg Berhalter made about the U.S. men’s national team. With less than 200 days until their first World Cup group stage game, the United States shouldn’t have to make any major changes to their team structure, tactics, or roster. The core ideas are in place. The core players are too, even if they’re a bit injury prone.
There are only two international breaks left before the World Cup starts: one in June and another in September. Because the September window is so close to the start of the World Cup, the U.S.’s roster for the two games in that window is likely to be almost identical to their eventual World Cup roster.
What does that mean for June? Well, it means if there are going to be some small experiments – ones that still fall under the “fine-tuning” umbrella – they’re likely going to need to happen next month.
On the personnel front, there are holes in the USMNT’s depth chart. Miles Robinson’s recent injury opened up a starting center back spot. There’s a giant question mark behind Antonee Robinson at left back. Central midfield needs some padding. And let’s not forget the No. 9.
As we’ve established, June is the right time (and maybe the last time) to plug those holes. So let’s talk about a handful of faces who didn’t play in qualifying who could, or even should, join the USMNT next month to address some of those roster issues.
CAMERON CARTER-VICKERS, CB, CELTIC
Berhalter already tipped his hand on this one. Even before Robinson’s injury over the weekend, the U.S.’s head coach mentioned that Cameron Carter-Vickers is in his plans for the June window.
It makes sense. With Robinson injured and John Brooks out of the picture for some unknown reason, there apparently aren’t any center backs in the player pool who are locks to go to Qatar outside of Walker Zimmerman. Of course, Carter-Vickers won’t be the only center back competing for Robinson’s starting spot. Chris Richards (if he’s healthy), Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, and potentially others could be in camp in June, too.
Unlike all of those players, though, CCV didn’t feature in World Cup qualifying. He only has one appearance for the USMNT under Berhalter and that was a pre-Gold Cup friendly back in June of 2019. But while he’s been away from the national team, the center back has been doing some impressive things at club level.
Though he’s technically still a Tottenham player, Carter-Vickers has had real success this year for Celtic in the Scottish Premiership. The 24-year-old is an every-game starter under manager Ange Postecoglou. CCV isn’t playing at the highest European level, but he does play in a system that could translate quite well to the USMNT. Under Postecoglou, Celtic use possession to smother their opponents. They’re averaging a league-leading 69.3% possession, which is an extremely high figure.
Playing as the right center back in a flexible 4-3-3 shape, Carter-Vickers has become an active and skillful passer. Now, he often has a ton of time and space to hit passes because teams are afraid to step up and press Celtic.
But the U.S. is looking for someone to replace Brooks’ passing and while CCV doesn’t quite have that same level of on-ball ability, he could be an asset for the USMNT against a low block.
DJORDJE MIHAILOVIC, CM/W, CF MONTREAL
Djordje Mihailovic is having himself a year up in Montreal. He’s been the best player on a very fun CF Montreal team.
Mihailovic doesn’t just stand out relative to his Montreal teammates. He also stands out when you look at him within the context of MLS as a whole. According to FBref, Mihailovic ranks 15th in MLS in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes among players with at least 500 minutes this season. The 23-year-old is over-performing his underlying numbers, but even so, his underlying numbers are excellent.
Like Carter-Vickers, Mihailovic has a bit of experience with the U.S. under Berhalter. He was involved in Berhalter’s first-ever national team camp back in January of 2019 and has played in a total of six games for the United States over the last three years. Mihailovic wasn’t in Berhalter’s plans for World Cup qualifying, however.
Maybe the season he’s having under Wilfried Nancy in Montreal will change things. Nancy uses him in a hybrid role in Montreal’s 3-4-3/3-5-2 shape: Mihailovic is part left-sided central midfielder and part left winger (although he’s more winger than midfielder).
If he’s called up to the national team in June, it’s not clear what his position will be. Mihailovic could work as one of the No. 8s in Berhalter’s 4-3-3, moving off the ball to receive passes between the lines and pulling some of the attacking strings from central areas. He could also work as a winger, drifting inside to create in the halfspaces. Mihailovic doesn’t have elite speed and he’s not an elite presser, which could hurt his chances of fitting into the U.S.’s aggressive defensive system.
Overall, though, Mihailovic’s smart off-ball movement and his ability to create and finish off chances makes him an intriguing option to help ignite the USMNT’s attack.
KEATON PARKS, CM, NYCFC
Okay, I’ll be honest: Keaton Parks isn’t going to be on the U.S.’s roster for the June window. That’s not me sharing any sort of insider knowledge, it’s just me using my brain. Parks has one cap for the USMNT (back in 2018 under Dave Sarachan), but has never played for the United States under Berhalter. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to change any time soon.
That’s a shame, given how unbelievably good Parks has been with the ball for NYCFC over the last few years. He’s one of the best ball progressors in MLS, getting the ball upfield and through pressure to his attacking teammates. Parks plays a lot of simple, but effective line-breakers and has very quick feet. You can see that in this compilation.
According to American Soccer Analysis, Parks has added more value with his passing than all but four other central midfielders in the league who have played at least 500 minutes in 2022.
It’s not just his on-ball work that makes Parks an excellent midfielder. He’s also smart with his work off the ball. Among players with at least 500 minutes this year, Parks is the 4th best central midfielder in MLS at adding value with his pass receiving. He’s the only central midfielder in the league who’s in the top five for both passing and receiving in ASA’s Goals Added metric on a per 96 minute basis.
Parks is a fantastic presence in possession, but he lacks speed. Looking at his usual central midfielders, Berhalter appears to want players who can cover ground defensively to help the U.S. win the ball. Even though he can’t do as much of the defensive work, having a quality possession player like Parks as an option in central midfield would diversify the U.S.’s squad.
Casting a wider net in central midfield could be worthwhile, especially given the lack of quality No. 8 options outside of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, and Luca de la Torre.
BRANDON VAZQUEZ, ST, FC CINCINNATI
I dare you to name a better duo than “the USMNT” and “needing a quality No. 9”. It’s just not possible.
At this point, Berhalter has handed international debuts to eight different strikers: Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike, Nico Gioacchini, Sebastian Soto, Ayo Akinola, Christian Ramirez, and Jesus Ferreira. Why not add a couple more names to that list?
Haji Wright, who plays for Antalyaspor in the Turkish Süper Lig, is the forward currently getting the most national team buzz and it sounds like he’ll be on the U.S.’s June roster. I’d like to see FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez in that squad too.
So far this season, Vazquez has been one of the best strikers in MLS. He’s scored six goals and has some awesome underlying numbers as well. Per FBref, Vazquez is third in the league among players with at least 500 minutes in non-penalty xG per 90 minutes. The 23-year-old is even slightly ahead of the Galaxy’s Chicharito and Ferreira, who may be the USMNT’s first-choice No. 9.
Vazquez’s movement in the box has been great this year. You can see the latest example of that movement on the goal that he scored against Minnesota United over the weekend. His cut to the front post to meet Calvin Harris’ cutback was perfect.
Vazquez is dangerous in the box, he’s a threat in the air, he can hold up the ball, and he has fairly soft feet. Will he solve the U.S.’s striker problem? Who knows. But I sure would like to see him get a look with the USMNT.
DEJUAN JONES, LB, NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
Instead of me telling you why DeJuan Jones may be in line for a call-up in June, I’m going to let Berhalter do the honors.
“Left back could be a position where the reserves haven’t established themselves yet,” the U.S. manager said back in March after the United States officially secured their spot in the World Cup.
After Antonee Robinson, there isn’t anything set in stone on the left back depth chart. George Bello has mostly been a bench option for Arminia Bielefeld since moving over to Germany and Sam Vines has been in and out of Antwerp’s starting lineup since the new year.
Jones isn’t a game-breaker, but he is one of the best fullbacks in MLS. According to FBref, Jones is in the 80th percentile or higher among MLS fullbacks in expect assists, shot-creating actions, progressive passes, and progressive carries all on a per 90 minute basis. He’s a threat with his skill and his directness on the left wing, which you can see in this clip:
It’s interesting to note that Jones is right-footed, which you can see that on the goal up above. Because he plays on the side of his non-dominant foot, Jones doesn’t function exactly like a transitional left back. That said, he still gets forward and provides width on the left wing.
Given how impactful Jones is for the New England Revolution, he should be in consideration for the USMNT’s backup left back spot.