The 13 U.S. debutants you need to know in January friendlies

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There’s no such thing as a meaningless, consequence-free national team match. It remains an honor for the players involved, there are a few FIFA ratings points on the line and have you seen Twitter during a U.S. men’s national team match? The existential dread gets all over the furniture even in the most mundane of settings.

That said, the coming friendlies for the men’s national team — against Serbia in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, and Colombia in Carson, California, on Saturday evening — are as close to consequence-free as it gets.

It’s a long time until the next World Cup, only two players on the 24-man roster belong to a club in Europe’s major leagues (Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina and Paxten Aaronson, whose respective journeys with Chelsea and Eintracht Frankfurt are only beginning), and only five players were on the U.S. roster in the recent World Cup in Qatar. The roster is made up primarily of players with MLS and Scandinavian clubs, and neither Serbia nor Colombia are bringing their respective A-teams to town either. Oh yeah, and the U.S. doesn’t have a manager at the moment. Maybe you’ve heard?

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Still, the friendlies are opportunities to watch some intriguing, younger players making their national team debuts and attempting to leave an impression for later. With respect to both veteran stalwarts like Walker Zimmerman, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola, and younger players looking to make their second appearances in a U.S. shirt (Cade Cowell, Jonathan Gomez, Paxton Pomykal), let’s focus on the debutants.

Thirteen of them are seeking their first caps in the coming days; let’s welcome them to the party. (Note: Within each position group, the players have been “ranked” in order of my own personal excitement/curiosity level.)


Forwards

Brandon Vazquez

When the camp invitations were announced last week, you could almost hear a chorus of American fans yelling “FINALLY!” in unison. Even with the U.S. struggling at the No. 9 position last year, Berhalter didn’t seem to give Vazquez, 2022’s breakout star in MLS, much of a look.

A late bloomer of sorts, the 24-year old scored 19 goals for FC Cincinnati, and while he strikes a profile similar to many American forwards — solid shot quality, iffy shot quantity, only a little involved from a passing standpoint — he’s been more proficient at that style than anyone else in the player pool of late. He’s 6-foot-2 and solid in the air (six of his 19 goals were headers, including two from set pieces), and after flirting with the idea of accepting an invitation to the Mexican national team if it came about, he finally gets his shot with the U.S.

Vazquez might be too old to be considered a genuine prospect, but he’s only now entering his prime and could command both a larger role with the national team and a role with a European club in the years to come.

Alejandro Zendejas

To date, Zendejas’ story has been punctuated by controversy. After making more than 30 appearances for U.S. junior teams, the El Paso-via-Juarez native made two appearances for Mexico in friendlies without filing for the requisite one-time switch. Mexico was recently fined and ordered to forfeit those two friendlies (no great loss, but still), and now it appears Zendejas is filing for a one-time switch back to the U.S. to make it worse.

It’s a muddy story, but Zendejas brings a bold presence to the national team. He has scored eight goals in 22 Liga MX appearances for Club America this season, and six of them have come from at least 13 meters out. He prowls the edge of the box, searches out dangerous opportunities — he’s got three assists from 27 chances created, and he’s drawn 49 fouls — and, if there’s an opening, launches one at the net.

The U.S. have loads of options on the wings, and many of them are younger than Zendejas. But he has blossomed over the past two seasons — he’s now got 19 goals and five assists since the start of 2021-22 — and he has a major opportunity to make an impression this week.

Emmanuel Sabbi

  • Position: Center-forward/right-winger

  • Club team: Odense (Denmark‘s Superliga)

  • Age: 24

His parents are from Ghana. He was born in Italy. He grew up in Ohio. He signed a youth contract in Spain. He has made his professional mark in Denmark.

Sabbi’s backstory is dizzying, but he has slowly crafted a solid portfolio. With first Hobro and then Odense, he has scored 23 goals with nine assists over about 98 90s in Denmark. He missed quite a bit of time because of injury in 2022 but returned to score twice and record two assists in just four matches in the fall. (The Danish Superliga halts play in mid-November and resumes in late February.)

Sabbi’s a bit of a tweener; he’s strong enough to play forward even though he’s only 5-foot-10, and he’s a good enough passer to play on the wing, but he might not quite boast the speed of others in the player pool. He’s intriguing all the same. And if or when he steps onto the field in California, he would become the 10th player from the American 2017 U-20 World Cup team to earn a cap.


Midfielders

Paxten Aaronson

With his combination of intensity and creativity, Brenden Aaronson, 22, earned both a steady role within Berhalter’s squad and made his Premier League and World Cup debuts over the last year. His little brother might somehow be more frantic, more bold and more creative.

In 450 minutes with the Philadelphia Union last year, mostly as a super-sub, Aaronson scored once and created five chances, but most of his work was done in pushing the ball into dangerous areas. He was a pressures machine, he completed 83% of his passes into the attacking third, and he made 63 combined progressive passes and carries — about 12.6 per 90 minutes. He’s a busybody, and he joins an Eintracht club who are both interesting and optimistic in attack.

It’s an exciting fit, but before he can make his Bundesliga debut, he will make his national team debut.

Alan Sonora

The “FINALLY!” chorus might not have been as loud about this one, but … finally! I have been personally curious about Sonora — the younger brother of another national team candidate, Joel — for a while. He might be the best free-kick taker in the U.S. player pool, and he’s a first-team member of the Try Stuff All-Stars.

Over the past two seasons with Argentina‘s Independiente, Sonora scored 10 goals with six assists from 63 chances created in league and Copa Sudamericana play. In nine shot attempts from direct free kicks, he put four on target and scored twice, from distances of 20 and 28 meters. He wasn’t asked to contribute much from the perspective of ball pressure, which makes him very much unlike the current first-choice U.S. midfielders, but he makes things happen, and he finally gets a chance to impress. (He might join an MLS team soon, too.)

Aidan Morris

  • Position: Defensive midfield

  • Club team: Columbus Crew (Major League Soccer)

  • Age: 21

Granted, he’s only 2½ years younger than Tyler Adams, but if you’re looking for a candidate to profile as the next Adams, Morris might be your guy. The Crew member turned 21 in November, and while he played an attacking role at times, he was mostly asked to cover massive ground, Adams-style, from a defensive midfield role.

He averaged about 6.0 ball recoveries and 12.3 defensive interventions per 90 in 2022 while completing 88% of his passes (89% in the attacking third) and creating 13 chances. Obviously the Adams role in the U.S. starting XI will be filled by Adams, when healthy, for the foreseeable future. However, Morris checks a lot of boxes and could end up playing a major role when Adams is unavailable.


Defenders

John Tolkin

The U.S. is loaded with exciting young fullbacks. Incumbents Antonee Robinson (25) and Sergino Dest (22) are only beginning to approach their prime, Borussia Monchengladbach‘s Joe Scally (20) should force his way into the next manager’s plans, and Arminia Bielefeld’s George Bello (21) has already made seven caps. But it might not be not too late for Tolkin to carve out a niche, too.

The Jersey-born Red Bull was a calming presence for a frantic team, averaging both 1.3 chances created and 13.3 defensive interventions per 90. He ended up with a goal and three assists, and the CIES Football Observatory just named him the most promising defensive left back in the game. Not bad.

DeJuan Jones

A bit of a latecomer to the national scene, Jones has done everything he can to make up for lost time. After a full four seasons at Michigan State, he aced the MLS combine ahead of the 2019 SuperDraft and was picked 11th overall at age 21. He recorded nearly 1,400 minutes in his rookie season, and his minutes have increased every year since.

Playing mostly on the left for the Revolution, he has scored four goals with 12 assists from 81 chances created over the past two seasons, and while his defensive numbers aren’t quite as strong as some of his peers — he’s more Raphael Guerreiro than Reece James at full-back/wing-back — his speed is noteworthy. And his versatility could make him attractive to the next U.S. manager, whatever style said manager attempts to establish.

Jalen Neal

Neal’s camp invitation was perhaps a bit of a reach considering he has played only four minutes for the Galaxy’s senior team, but he has been allowed to develop slowly for the Galaxy II team in the USL Championship. Despite his age and the general maturity requirements of the position, he has thrived.

Over three seasons and nearly 4,000 minutes, he has won 59% of his duels and 62% of aerials, and his passing numbers have been strong for the position. He’s 6-foot-3 with broad shoulders, though his 170-pound frame could hold a bit more weight. Regardless, his potential is blindingly obvious, and his invitation is an acknowledgment of that.

Sam Rogers

Like Sabbi, Rogers is a fun addition from the Scandinavian leagues. A product of the Seattle Sounders academy and the Tacoma Defiance, the 6-foot-3 Rogers played for the U.S. in the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and ended up on loan with second-division Norwegian club HamKam in 2021. After HamKam earned promotion, manager Kjetil Rekdal took the job at Norwegian heavyweight Rosenborg and brought Rogers along.

Rogers has blossomed in Trondheim, bringing both defensive intensity and solid passing to the table. The U.S. have a lot of high-potential center-backs around Rogers’ age — among others, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Miles Robinson are both only 25 — but his development has clearly been noticed.

Julian Gressel

The German-born veteran began his youth career with Greuther Furth in the German Bundesliga, but he elected to take an American path to the pros: He came to the U.S., played for Providence in college and has now played important roles for Atlanta United (2017-19), D.C. United (2020-21) and Vancouver (2022). He earned his American citizenship in November, and though he might be running a bit late in his trajectory — he’ll be 32 at the next World Cup — he gets a chance to make an impression.

Gressel is a safe defender who can play as either a right-back or in more of a wing-back role, and he pasted together a unicorn of a stat line for Vancouver last season: He was one of only 17 MLS players to produce at least two goals, nine assists, 140 progressive passes and 140 progressive carries. Of the 17, he was the only one with more than 290 defensive interventions. He was everywhere.


Goalkeeper

Gaga Slonina

Roman Celentano

The three goalkeepers Gregg Berhalter took to Qatar in November will turn 37 (Sean Johnson), 32 (Matt Turner) and 31 (Ethan Horvath) either right before or during the 2026 World Cup. Zack Steffen, with his 29 U.S. caps, will turn 31, too. Obviously goalkeepers age more gracefully than other players, but now’s a good time for the next generation of U.S. keepers to present itself.

Johnson was invited to January camp, but the two other keepers, Slonina and Celentano, are particularly intriguing. A former Indiana Hoosier, Celentano was solid for FC Cincinnati as a rookie in 2022, but Slonina, nearly four years his junior, has made more MLS appearances (34 for the Chicago Fire), earned a $10 million transfer to Chelsea and doesn’t turn 19 until May.

Slonina’s huge (6-foot-4) and aggressive, and while you don’t want your keeper having to make too many athletic, big-time saves, he’s more than capable.

He will turn 22 right before the 2026 World Cup, and one assumes that of any debutant on this list, he is the most likely to be a part of the U.S. roster when the World Cup rolls around. Matt Turner performed well in Qatar and earned his own big-club transfer (to Arsenal) recently, but Slonina will get a chance to displace him in the years to come.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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