News Live Scores
United States

USMNT's MLS stars must raise their game with McKennie and Co. shining in Champions League

14:00 GMT 09/12/2020
Brenden Aaronson Jordan Morris Philadelphia Union Seattle Sounders MLS USMNT GFX
With other important figures like Pulisic and Dest setting the tone in Europe, players all over the U.S. pool face a difficult challenge to break in

As Gregg Berhalter began his pregame press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the first question thrown his way wasn't about his current U.S men's national team. It wasn't about an upcoming game against El Salvador or budding positional battles at centerback or striker. 

Instead, it was about Weston McKennie, a player that had scored a show-stopping goal an ocean away just moments earlier. Such is the current state of the USMNT, a team that, at this moment, has one eye constantly fixed on what's going on in Europe.

And for good reason. The fact of the matter is this: the USMNT's best players are currently playing in Europe. If the U.S. were to kick off a World Cup qualifier today, Berhalter's team would look a lot more like the one that assembled in Wales last month than the one gathered in South Florida this time around. 

So, as this MLS-heavy squad prepares to take on El Salvador, there's even more at stake on an individual level. These players in this camp aren't just competing with the guy next to them; they're competing with the guys playing for Juventus, Barcelona, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund on their TV screens.

So where does that leave a squad loaded with MLS players? Has the USMNT reached a point where you need to be starring overseas to lock down a spot?

"I don't know if it's harder," said defender Aaron Long when asked if things are more difficult these days for players in MLS. "Gregg's gonna pick the best guys. It doesn't matter you know which team they're playing for.

"There's a lot of guys that are doing amazing right now in Europe, and we're super happy for them. This group's really tight knit, and we all keep in touch. We are watching Weston and Sergino [Dest] downstairs right now. We're just happy for each other.

"I think in terms of making an impression, any chance you get to come to these camps and play a game, you know that it's your time to make a mark."

Long is a player that has had his chance to go to Europe himself, only for that chance to fall the wayside for reasons beyond his control. The 28-year-old defender was reportedly the subject of a bid from West Ham this past winter, but that bid was shut down by the New York Red Bulls, who weren't eager to lose their star defender.

And now Long finds himself as one of several centerbacks currently battling for a starting role. While Wolfsburg star John Brooks has all but locked down one centerback spot, there's plenty of competition to claim the one next to him. Long will compete with guys like Matt Miazga, Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie and Walker Zimmerman. 

Zimmerman's success has made him a real contender in this competition as well, having emerged as the MLS Defender of the Year this season after being traded to Nashville SC. That trade was executed after Zimmerman stated a desire to move to Europe although, having found a home in Nashville, he sounds less determined to push that move through. 

But he does understand that, with the way the USMNT is currently assembled, players do need to test themselves at a higher level than ever before.

"I always wanting to challenge myself and play at the highest level as possible," he said. "Yes, I am always interested in playing overseas. I wouldn't say that I grew up saying I have to go to Europe to say that I've made it, although it has been on the radar, wanting to go.

"But Nashville has been great. It's been awesome. I have no complaints. I'm very happy. But again, if the right opportunity comes up, if the right thing presents itself, I'm always open to evaluating all those options."

Zimmerman and Long are two of the squad's older players, and this team does have several young stars that are bound for Europe sooner or later.

Brenden Aaronson is set to join Red Bull Salzburg in January, having emerged as a star with the Philadelphia Union.  Aaronson's now-former teammate McKenzie looks like he'll follow in the near future, having been heavily linked with Celtic over the summer and with Union sporting director Ernst Tanner recently revealing that Premier League and Bundesliga clubs are also in the mix.

But the player that is perhaps the USMNT's most important MLS-based player isn't in this camp. That title likely lies with Jordan Morris, who has been in incredible form for so long that it's very much beginning to look like something much, much more than a run of form.

Morris has been in the USMNT picture for six years and, all these years later, his decision to turn down an offer to play in the Bundesliga still remains a talking point. In some ways, that decision has been validated, though, as Morris remains in the USMNT picture and his hometown Seattle Sounders are on the precipice of a dynasty-cementing third MLS Cup in five seasons.

But all that success creates questions, including one big one: Has Morris accomplished all he can in MLS?

"When I think about Jordan, the question isn't for me to answer. It's for Jordan to answer," Berhalter said. "It's a very personal feeling. He has to think about his own career goals and where he wants to go with his career and evaluate it and think what's going to get them to that place.

"Major League Soccer has done a fantastic job of becoming a league of choice, becoming a league that players want to play in and he's a guy that opted for MLS and has done a great job here. His next step is going to depend on him."

Several young players will have to answer those questions in the coming months and years as this USMNT squad continues to evolve. With someone like Aaronson already on his way to Europe, the midfield competition will only get more fierce, as will others up and down the pitch.

Before Aaronson makes that move, though, he's in South Florida for this camp. He's a player that Berhalter speaks highly of, with the USMNT boss admitting he expects the once-capped 20-year-old to truly stake his claim sooner rather than later. 

On Wednesday, though, in the hours before taking the field against El Salvador, Aaronson's gaze will, at least temporarily, move towards Europe. The midfielder will learn on Wednesday whether or not he'll join the record-breaking number of American stars featuring in the Champions League this season as Salzburg, managed by American Jesse Marsch, face Atletico Madrid with a spot in the knockout rounds on the line. 

So Aaronson, like several of his USMNT teammates, will have his eyed glued to the television, keeping a close eye on a group of European stars that are demanding that each and every player in the pool raise their level higher than ever before.

"I'm definitely going to watch the game, but that's something that won't really bother me for the game later," Aaronson said. "I think that I'll for sure tune into that and I'll be really excited to see if they can win that game and clutch another Champions League spot to go into the next round. I think that would be amazing if they did so. But right after that, all my focus goes right to the national team."

He adds: "For the core group of young guys, you can see them and they're doing fantastic in Europe. Even in MLS you see all these young guys coming up now. It's awesome to be, hopefully be, a part of that group and I want to be part of that for the future."