U.S. emphasizes youth in naming 22-man squad for Paraguay friendly
The U.S. men's national team roster that was named Sunday by caretaker manager Dave Sarachan was expected to include a long-term absentee due to injury. Indeed it did, just not the one that was expected.
Kenny Saief, who is on loan to Belgian side Anderlecht from fellow Jupiler League club Gent, was named to Sarachan's 22-man roster. The past nine months have been quite the journey for Saief. He was part of Bruce Arena's Gold Cup squad last summer, but after one substitute appearance in a friendly against Ghana, he was forced to drop out because of a hernia injury. Surgery followed, but a complication in the form of an infection meant an even lengthier spell on the sidelines.
But now Saief is back playing again, having made nine league appearances for Anderlecht and scoring one goal, and he could very well see the field in the March 27 friendly against Paraguay in Cary, North Carolina.
"When we had [Saief] last for the Gold Cup, he unfortunately had an injury, and we didn't really get to know him," said Sarachan. "He's been on loan to Anderlecht in Belgium since January, where he is seeing consistent minutes and is an integral part of their first 11. We feel he's healthy, in good form and has a unique skill set that makes me excited to see him with us again, with the hopes he stays healthy and sees some minutes against Paraguay."
Alas, a national team return will have to wait for Werder Bremen forward Aron Johannsson. Injuries have plagued Johannsson practically from the moment he signed with Bremen. The worst of these was a hip injury that sidelined him for almost the entirety of the 2016-17 season. He was then so far down the Bremen depth chart that it seemed near impossible for him to crack the starting lineup. But Johannsson fought back and has seen the field on 12 occasions this season, scoring twice.
Such performances had Johannsson in line for a recall, but unfortunately, a minor leg injury has prevented him from taking part.
That of course leaves an opening for others, in this case Andrija Novakovich, who is on loan to Dutch second-tier side Telstar from English Championship side Reading. Novakovich has scored 18 goals so far this season, good enough for second in the Eerste Divisie.
"The forward position is a very important one, and I've always felt in general -- not just with our national team, but in our country as a whole -- that you can't have enough depth there," said Sarachan. "You always pay attention to players domestically and overseas who are scoring goals, regardless if it's in the first or second division. Being 6-foot-4, he's a different type of forward than some of our other players that we have in this camp and in the program. He's an intriguing one, and obviously he's young, so for me it's about getting him in and seeing what he's like now when he's put among the national team players in training."
At age 21, Novakovich is indicative of a youth movement that Sarachan has implemented since taking over on a temporary basis late last year. Given the U.S. team's absence from the World Cup this summer, it's the right move, as is the inclusion of some veterans to lend some experience. While Newcastle United's DeAndre Yedlin and Hamburg's Bobby Wood will provide a veteran presence, the future of the team looks set to be built around the likes of New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, Schalke's Weston McKennie and Vitesse's Matt Miazga.
The center of defense figures to be one area of focus for the Paraguay match. In addition to Miazga, Ipswich Town defender Cameron Carter-Vickers (on loan from Tottenham Hotspur) and Kortrijk defender Erik Palmer-Brown (on loan from Manchester City) were also called in.
"It's a huge position up the middle of the field, and watching both Matt and Cameron, each have been logging significant minutes and playing important roles for their clubs," said Sarachan. "Each made a good impression on me when we had them in our roster against Portugal last November, and I think this is just a continuation of giving these guys more minutes in a game in an important position for us. It's a great opportunity for them.
"In Erik's case, he's had less time playing in a new situation playing on loan with Kortrijk in Belgium. He's a player I don't know as well, but someone who has a great pedigree, captaining our U-20 national team at the World Cup last summer. I'm looking forward to getting to know him throughout the week as well, knowing that he's a good young prospect at that position."
Timothy Weah is one of five players getting his first look in a senior national team camp. And given his famous father George Weah -- who is not only a former FIFA World Player of the Year, but the president of Liberia as well -- he figures to get plenty of attention. But Weah has progressed well with Paris Saint-Germain, and Sarachan is eager to get a glimpse of his talent.
"He's a versatile player than can fit in at a couple different positions, and when you have speed and technical ability combined as a young kid, I think he's an interesting prospect to offer an opportunity to," said Sarachan of Weah.
It's worth noting that Sarachan opted to leave Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent with the U-20s. He explained that considering Sargent is not yet playing professional games with the club, he's taking a slower approach.
"He's still an important player for that age group," said Sarachan of the decision. "I felt because of the timing it made better sense for him to get full games with the U-20s for this particular friendly date. For our next set of games, the idea then would be that he'd have more of an opportunity to be a part of our senior team."
There will plenty of eyes on the midfield as well to see if Adams and McKennie can build on their respective performances against Portugal last November. The future of the U.S. midfield seems set to include these two, provided they continue to progress.
The Paraguay match will provide the next data point.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.