Three wins and a draw wasn’t bad for a limited U.S. men’s national soccer team season in 2020.
If you ask USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, their biggest victory was seeing indicators both at home and overseas of their program’s increased depth.
“This is still a young group,” Berhalter said. “But the sky’s the limit. Next year is a big year and we need a lot of players.”
In Europe, Weston McKennie (Juventus), recently voted as U.S. Soccer’s Male Player of the Year, Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) and Sergino Dest (Barcelona) all had notable performances on three of that continent’s premier clubs.
And earlier this month, a primarily MLS-based squad with nine players making their international debuts routed El Salvador 6-0.
Julian Araujo, one of those young debutants, assisted on one of fellow first-timer Chris Mueller’s two goals in the match.
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Plenty of roster decisions remain for Berhalter to make ahead of a busy 2021 calendar which will include two friendlies in March, Concacaf Nations League in June, Gold Cup in July, World Cup qualifying in late August/early September and the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Berhalter’s hope is Araujo and other dual-national players remain roster options on the road to Qatar.
Araujo, a 19-year-old defender for the L.A. Galaxy whose parents are Mexican, didn’t address his long-term plans earlier this month. Araujo has been contacted by Mexico coach Tata Martino, but did say playing for the U.S. would be “something to check off my goals.”
“It’s a tough decision and one that’s really hard for me,” Araujo said before making his debut. “I just want to grow as a player and get better each and every day.”
Araujo showed his potential in the match against El Salvador with an ability to create chances as he did on multiple rushes up field and his pinpoint cross that set up Mueller’s successful diving header.
Araujo made 17 starts for the Galaxy during the 2020 MLS season, posting a goal and three assists and attended the U.S. camp in January.
“He’s learning and being able to adapt and understand,” Berhalter said. “Our staff has a set expectation for us and as a player you have to be able to adapt. I think we saw a real progression in Julian’s game. I let him know don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We all have each other’s backs. All the fullbacks were releasing early to win the aerial balls and he was great.”
Along with Araujo, 20-year-old Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola, has ties to Canada and Nigeria. Akinola gave a glimpse of his talent on his finish of a 3-on-1 scoring chance resulting in his first international goal.
And then there are others the U.S. has yet to see on its squad for an international match.
Efrain Alvarez, an 18-year-old midfielder for the Galaxy, would have to apply for a one-time switch since he played for Mexico’s under-17 team. Alvarez had previously played for the U.S. under-15 squad in 2016.
“(Alvarez) is a guy that you want around the ball,” Berhalter said. “I could see him in an attacking midfielder or winger role and even a 9 role.”
Orlando City midfielder Andres Perea, 20, wasn’t on the field either since he is in the same situation as Alvarez having played for Colombia’s under-20 team.
Daryl Dike (Nigeria), a 20-year-old forward for Orlando City, couldn’t play against El Salvador due to injury as was the case with 19-year-old former Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa (quadriceps strain), who is of Mexican descent. FC Cincinnati 20-year-old midfielder Frankie Amaya (Mexico) tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the match.
“With Daryl, he showed us a lot of potential,” Berhalter said. “He’s an example of that, as is Andres. He has really good range and can cover ground. A very interesting young player in the league. Ayo has great movement off the ball and is able to find space. (Amaya) is very aggressive defending. He can win tackles and you can fit him into what we do. It would be interesting to get him in and start working with him.”
A total of 38 players have made their international debuts during Berhalter’s two years in charge — a record for a U.S. head coach.
If most or all of the aforementioned talents choose to play for the U.S., it could make the difference in qualifying as well as on the field should they reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
For now, all Berhalter can do is present their case.
“They’re still young players,” Berhalter said. “They still have the world in front of them, and all we want to do is bring them into our environment and show what our environment is about. And then it’s going to be up to them to make a decision in the end where they end up committing to and we’ll be fine with whatever they decide.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT courting dual-nationals ahead of hectic 2021 campaign
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