Major League Soccer players get chance to impress USMNT coach in friendly vs. El Salvador

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It didn’t take long for Brenden Aaronson to bounce back after he was cut from the United States’ Under-20 national soccer team’s roster.

A year later, Aaronson is arguably the most improved player on U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter’s radar.

Aaronson earned his first international cap in January and is coming off a stellar Major League Soccer season in which he made 23 starts and led the Philadelphia Union to the league’s best record.

“When I think back to January when he made his national team debut to now, he’s had a fantastic season of improving his performance almost weekly so I think he’s done a great job,” Berhalter told reporters this past week.

Aaronson is part of a youth movement on the current U.S. roster camped in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in preparation for Wednesday night’s friendly against El Salvador at Inter Miami FC's stadium. USA is 17-1-5 all-time against El Salvador and is unbeaten in the series since 1992, but El Salvador is fielding a much more experienced roster than the U.S., averaging 27 international caps per player.

Brenden Aaronson (8) competes with Costa Rica's Ronald Matarrita for the ball during the USMNT's 1-0 win on Feb. 1 at Dignity Health Sports Park. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

Berhalter, a former defender on the U.S. national team during the 2002 World Cup who became USMNT coach in December 2018, put together a roster with 22 of its 24 players having played on MLS clubs this past year.

The average age of players in camp is 22.5 years, and 14 players are eligible for the 2021 U.S. Under-23 Olympic team.

Players such as Aaronson and 23-year-old Jackson Yueill, a midfielder for the San Jose Earthquakes who played 90 minutes in the USA’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Feb. 1, are among the crop of domestic-based players hoping to impress enough to land a spot during World Cup qualifying next September and perhaps for Qatar in 2022.

“I think that going into every single training session you want to impress coaches with the way you play, but I think playing together as a team is something you want to show this coaching staff,” Aaronson said.

Berhalter spoke about MLS performance when mentioning several of his choices for the current squad that will face El Salvador.

Midfielder Frankie Amaya was replaced on the roster by Andres Perea after testing positive for COVID-19. Berhalter said it would depend on Amaya's continued success with FC Cincinnati as to whether he’d get another call back to the national team.

He also credited D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid for being “the cornerstone of that organization year after year.”

Paul Arriola, a 25-year-old winger for D.C. United since 2017 who played for Mexican club Tijuana for four years prior, is coming off a knee injury and one of the veterans in camp that Berhalter values for his experience.

Former coaches such as Jurgen Klinsmann often preferred European-based stars or European players with ties that made them eligible to play for the U.S.

Berhalter, who became the USMNT coach in December 2018 after brief stints by Bruce Arena and Dave Sarachan, appears to be putting more stock into MLS performances than in recent years, which players like 27-year-old defender Walker Zimmerman said is a sign of the growth of the league.

“MLS has gotten a lot better as a league in the eight seasons I’ve been a part of it and you’re seeing a lot of the younger players able to step up and earn more minutes and really grow,” said Zimmerman, who has 12 caps on the United States team and plays for Nashville SC.

“Guys that are in this camp have gotten a ton of minutes by the time they’re 21 years old. It’s important for those guys to be able to do that and to see that happen in a league that is improving is also really important.”

Walker Zimmerman (5) was the 2020 MLS defender of the year. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

Under Klinsmann, the U.S. entered the 2014 World Cup with 10 of its 23 players based on MLS teams.

Although the U.S. did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Arriola, Darlington Nagbe, and veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore – all of whom played on MLS teams at the time of qualifying – were expected to be on the national team.

Of the 38 players that have been called up to the national team by Berhalter in the past calendar year, 13 are currently on MLS clubs and seven others have played for MLS clubs in the past.

There are plenty of mainstays expected to be in Qatar that are standouts for international clubs like Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and Juventus’ Weston McKennie.

But Aaronson, and dual-national players in camp such as Daryl Dike (Nigeria), Ayo Akinola (Canada), Efrain Alvarez (Mexico), Julian Araujo (Mexico) — should they choose to play for the U.S. side down the road — could shape a younger U.S. roster with several players that began their senior level careers in MLS.

“It’s exciting to see the talent that we have coming up through Europe and the MLS,” Arriola said. “We have amazing young players and I think the country should be excited for what’s to come with the national team. The talent we have will push everyone to raise it another gear.”

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