Through the summer, American soccer has trained its eyes on the men’s domestic scene — the MLS season and a CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign anchored by players from the top-flight league. But with overseas circuits revving their engines and the U.S. World Cup qualifying effort nearing a pivotal stretch, attention has expanded to England and Germany, Netherlands and Belgium.
In three weeks, Bruce Arena will open national-team training camp ahead of qualifiers against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., and away to Honduras four days later. A minimum of three or four points is necessary to bolster hopes of an eighth consecutive invitation to the sport’s quadrennial party.
Before they gather in northern New Jersey, candidates will continue plying their trade for clubs here and abroad. Arena has a very good idea who he’ll summon for the 23-man squad, but until he finalizes the list, he and his staff will monitor performances, take note of playing time and watch for injuries.
For the most recent set of qualifiers, in early June, Arena called up the best available group, a mix of MLS and non-MLS players. For the Gold Cup, which fell in the middle of summer break for his European-based regulars, he leaned, for the most part, on players from MLS and the Mexican league.
That three-week tournament, won by the United States on July 26, afforded Arena the opportunity to evaluate several secondary candidates aiming to prove their value for the World Cup qualifiers.
At this point, Arena has more than 40 players filling his depth chart. Realistically, he’s looking at 30 options for the qualifiers.
The English Premier League won’t occupy much of his time when the season opens next weekend. Only two U.S. regulars are in the mix: Stoke City defender-midfielder Geoff Cameron and Newcastle defender DeAndre Yedlin. Both are projected to start in the qualifier against Costa Rica.
For the first time in more than 25 years, no U.S. goalkeepers are playing in England’s top two tiers. Tim Howard (Colorado) returned to MLS last year and Brad Guzan (Atlanta) came back this summer. They’ll occupy two of Arena’s three goalkeeping slots.
Two U.S. defenders in England’s second flight, known as the Championship, are on the radar: Fulham’s Tim Ream and Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj. They opened league play this weekend.
The largest concentration of Americans abroad is in Germany. From the Bundesliga, which opens in two weeks, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic, Moenchengladbach’s Fabian Johnson, Wolfsburg’s John Brooks and Hamburg’s Bobby Wood are sure bets for the qualifiers.
Pulisic, 18, began the 2017-18 campaign in style by scoring an early goal Saturday against Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup. He played 90 minutes in a match that required extra time and penalty kicks, won by Bayern, 5-4, after a 2-2 draw.
Before Pulisic is due to report to the U.S. squad, Dortmund will have a German Cup match, a friendly and two Bundesliga games.
In all, about 25 Americans are employed in Germany’s top three levels.
One Belgian-based player is under consideration for U.S. duty: Ethan Horvath, a 22-year-old goalkeeper for Club Brugge. He and D.C. United’s Bill Hamid, 26, appear to be vying for the third-string job behind Howard, 38, and Guzan, 32. In the past two weeks at Brugge, Horvath has started both league matches and both Champions League qualifiers.
In the Netherlands, Matt Miazga, a 22-year-old defender, is entering his second season on loan to Vitesse from English champion Chelsea. He’s a long shot to crack Arena’s qualifying roster after starting one of six Gold Cup matches.
In Mexico, three Gold Cup members — Pachuca’s Omar Gonzalez, Santos Laguna’s Jorge Villafaña and Tijuana’s Paul Arriola — are strong candidates for U.S. selection.
From MLS, Arena has about a dozen players in mind, including a foundation of regulars: Howard, Guzan, Michael Bradley (Toronto), Clint Dempsey (Seattle), Jozy Altidore (Toronto), Darlington Nagbe (Portland) and Gold Cup hero Jordan Morris (Seattle).
Defender Matt Besler (Kansas City) and midfielders Kellyn Acosta (Dallas), Dax McCarty (Chicago) and Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia) — all of whom contributed to the Gold Cup effort — have strong cases, as well.
“I think I know who the top 44 players are,” Arena said of the player pool during the Gold Cup. “I now understand our core teams, so we can put together and build a depth chart to take us through the rest of the year.”