Rumors abound regarding the imminent cancellation of this summer’s already-delayed Olympic Games. With this news, fringe US Men’s National Team players wonder how many opportunities they’ll see in 2021.
What’s Up For Grabs For The USMNT?
Gregg Berhalter’s squad now gears up to only contest this summer’s Gold Cup and this fall’s CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. The New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long and Kyle Duncan will be breathing a collective sigh of relief. Manager Gregg Berhalter called both into his 25-man squad for an upcoming friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Inclusion in this squad, however, comes with a caveat: it is exclusively comprised of MLS players, leaving out the ever-swelling numbers of American men’s players competing across European leagues. MLS won’t resume its season until April 2. Europe’s top five leagues suffer from a bloated and frenetic fixture list. Berhalter will have no choice but to use this opportunity to take stock of the domestic talent at his disposal.
For Long and Duncan, the ultimate goal has to be competing in the World Cup Finals in Qatar at the end of next year. The groundswell of talent coming out of North America is genuinely exciting for long-suffering USMNT fans, but competition for positions is at an all-time high.
Aaron Long’s Prospects At Center-Back
The fates of Long and Duncan seem to be as divergent as their origins. Aaron Long was long a forgotten quantity in American soccer. He began as a holding midfielder and floundered in the youth ranks of the Portland Timbers. He was never capped at any level of the youth national team, and if you had asserted six years ago that he’d be in contention for the number one center-back job in two World Cup cycles, you’d be laughed out of the room.
The Red Bulls sensed a diamond-in-the-rough and took a chance on Long and signed him to their USL affiliate, New York Red Bulls II, in 2016. He promptly won “Defender of the Year” and earned a promotion to the senior team the following season. He anchored the backline with fellow American Tim Parker in 2018 as the Red Bulls clinched yet another Supporters’ Shield title and set the record for points earned in a 34-game season. In the wreckage of the USMNT’s disastrous 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Long got his chance internationally, and never looked back.
With his calm and passing acumen, Long is a regular on Berhalter’s team sheet. He’s served as captain, made 18 appearances, and chipped in three goals in two short years since making his first appearance. Long seems a shoo-in for the roster heading toward Qatar, but this line of thinking perhaps betrays the reality of the newly hyper-competitive USMNT.
A Higher Bar for US Internationals
It’s no secret that Europe’s top-five leagues present a higher level of competition than MLS. By this logic, overseas Americans are more accustomed to playing the fast, physical, high-intensity soccer necessary to have success at the international level. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna certainly won’t see their positions lost to MLS attackers. This is the common logic that is so enchanting for USMNT fans, but so dire for MLS-based players.
Long, despite having been a rock in Berhalter’s backline, has a strike against him when it comes to the level of competition in his domestic league. The national team depth chart boasts a slew of center backs playing week-in, week-out across Europe. This could spell disaster for Long, whose own high-profile move to the Premier League’s West Ham United was stymied at the last minute at the start of 2020.
Lukewarm CB Competition at Best
However, the fact that none of his Europe-based contemporaries seem to be playing very well is a boon for Long. Fulton’s Tim Ream began the season as the first choice for the Cottagers but has since been relegated to Scott Parker’s bench. This has coincided, unfortunately for Ream, with an improved run of form for the west London side.
Former Red Bull Matt Miazga has been decent for Belgian club Anderlecht. He remains a young option but is endlessly plagued by nerves and skittishness, while someone like Aaron Long exudes calm. Erik Palmer-Brown plays on loan at Austrian club Austria Wien, and while his performances have earned him rave reviews, it’s important to note that many learned soccer pundits hold the opinion that the Austrian Super League and the Belgian First Division A are actually of lower quality than Major League Soccer.
Long’s potential partner in crime, Wolfsburg’s John Brooks, is an established international with World Cup experience. He’s fresh off a clean sheet against Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga. All signs indicate that he seems to have all but tattooed himself on the starting lineup for Qatar.
Kyle Duncan: Soccer Pedigree but Uphill Battle
The road to the World Cup seems slightly more trying for Long’s fellow Red Bull, Kyle Duncan. Duncan, a New Jersey native, comes from a more traditional soccer background. His uncle is the former Ballon D’or winner and current president of Liberia, George Weah. Tim Weah of Ligue 1’s Lille (and fellow fringe-USMNT player) is his cousin. As a teenager, Duncan spent time in the academy of French club Valenciennes. He never made a senior appearance for the Ligue 2 side and returned stateside in 2018. The Red Bulls were short at right-back after the departure of Panamanian right-back Michael Murillo in late 2019. Duncan took his chance and solidified his role in RBNY’s backline, making forty starts and chipping in four goals.
Duncan is fast, physical, and good on the ball. These traits seemingly fit well in Berhalter’s possession-based system. Berhalter frequently requires his wing-backs to pinch into the midfield when the team has the ball.
Unfortunately for Duncan, the American team is veritably loaded at right back. Some of the most exciting US players in generations play in exactly that spot on the pitch. Duncan counts himself among the most talented American right-backs in MLS, but the global picture complicates his situation.
World-Caliber Right Back Competition
Notably, Duncan finds himself up against Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest. Dest, Dutch by birth, Dest is a dynamic fullback who sprang into Ronald Koeman’s starting lineup earlier this season due to injuries. His form has dipped of late, and he attributes it to a lingering injury and a lack of confidence. That said, it’s hard to imagine Kyle Duncan overtaking a man who starts alongside Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann each week in La Liga. However, Duncan might see a glimmer of hope in that Dest has expressed his willingness to play on the left for his country.
Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin, Boavista’s Reggie Cannon, and Eric Lichaj of Turkey’s Fatih Karagumruk round out Duncan’s competition at right-back. That would represent an impressive array of talent for any national team. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see the Red Bulls man suit up for the Stars and Stripes in December 2022.
Aaron Long will surely be a mainstay through qualifying, barring injuries. It’s a far cry for Kyle Duncan. He’ll need to prove his worth in the upcoming friendlies with solid defensive and attacking performances. Then, he’ll hope that Berhalter sees enough in him to give him a shot at the 2021 Gold cup.
For now, Red Bulls fans can allow themselves a moment of pride. No other MLS club boasts two members of their vaunted backline starring on the international stage with the USMNT.