USMNT January roster includes players you’ve never heard of – and some interesting ones too

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 07: Alejandro Zendejas of America looks on during the first round match between America and Queretaro as part of the Torneo Clausura 2023 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium on January 07, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Alejandro Zendejas will likely play his first game for the USMNT next week. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

The first roster of the US men’s national team in the 2026 World Cup cycle includes 11 newcomers and even a few players you’ve never heard of.

There is a defender whose entire professional career spans the United Soccer League and the Norwegian Eliteserien. A newly minted American citizen and 25-year-old player is playing in Denmark. There is even a Major League Soccer teenager who has never played a first team game in Major League Soccer.

The usual litter of MLS veterans, of course, includes a few who were in Qatar last month, but this team, more than most, comes from everywhere and anywhere.

He will play Serbia (January 25) and Colombia (January 28) next week in the USMNT’s first two matches of the 2022 World Cup. They take place amid coaching uncertainty and outside the official FIFA window, meaning that clubs did not have to release their players to national teams. With the US stars increasingly crowded in European clubs, therefore, few of them were available – as they are every year for this annual camp in January, called “Camp Cupcake.”

But the camp, which will be led by caretaker coach Anthony Hudson while current coach Gregg Berhalter is under investigation, is an opportunity for the next generation of stars to emerge.

He will welcome Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, the 18-year-old goalkeeper expected to challenge Matt Turner for the USMNT’s No. 1 gig.

He could debate Paxten Aaronson, Brendan’s brother; and Alejandro Zendejas, a dual Mexican American national who has been outstanding for Club América in Liga MX. Despite the Mexican league season overlapping with the USMNT camp in January, América agreed to allow Zendejas, a regular club starter, to participate in one of the two games.

Eight players, including Slonina, Aaronson and Cade Cowell, will be eligible to represent the United States as under-23 participants at the 2024 Olympics, in men’s soccer’s first appearance at the Games since 2008.

There are 24 players in total, some of whom may not see the field for the USMNT after this month. But there will certainly be several of them.

The full USMNT schedule

Keepers (3): Roman Celentano (FC Cincinnati), Sean Johnson (free agent), Gaga Slonina (Chelsea)

Defenders (8): Jonathan Gómez (Real Sociedad), Julian Gressel (Vancouver Whitecaps), DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution), Aaron Long (LAFC), Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy), Sam Rogers (Rosenborg), John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville)

Midfielders (6): Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Alan Soñora (free agent), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)

Next (7): Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Matthew Hoppe (Middlesbrough), Emmanuel Sabbi (Odense), Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati), Alejandro Zendejas (Club América)

The most interesting USMNT newcomers

Among the 24 players, Slonina is the biggest name. The Illinois native turned pro at age 14, and moved from Chicago Fire to Chelsea at age 18 for an eight-figure fee. He was even in the mix for a 2022 World Cup roster spot. He and his former Fire teammate, 18-year-old Chris Brady, are considered the USMNT’s goalkeepers of the future.

The most notable inclusion in this team, however, is Zendejas, an attacking midfielder who has been the subject of a contentious recruiting battle between the US and Mexico. He was born in Ciudad Juárez, then moved to Texas as a child. He played alongside Christian Pulisic and other current USMNTers with the USA under-17s, including the 2015 U-17 World Cup – but later played for Mexico’s U-level national teams as well.

He accepted the call of the Mexican senior team in 2021, and debuted for El Tri amicably, and that’s where his situation got crazy. To play for Mexico, according to FIFA rules, he would have to make a one-time transfer of association from the U.S. It seems he never did. With the 2022 World Cup approaching, Zendejas appears to be a candidate for El TriRoster, the Mexican soccer federation reportedly asked Zendejas to sign a document “refusing” to join the U.S.; he reportedly refused.

Amid the confusion and controversy, he established himself as a regular at Club América. He has now accepted his first USMNT call-up – although his future in international football will not be tied to the United States until he appears in a highly competitive game, and could the first of which will be in March.

Hudson said in a Q&A published by US Soccer that the USMNT staff “didn’t think” they would get Zendejas for the January camp, and expressed “a lot of gratitude” to América for letting him go in Hudson said Zendejas is “going to play [for América on Jan. 21]that day that camp starts but they are going to let him fly in and play [for the U.S.] against Serbia.” He will then return to Mexico City and play for América on the 28th instead of staying with the USMNT for their second game of the week against Colombia, a team spokesperson confirmed.

The other players with the brightest futures are Aaronson, a 19-year-old forward who joined Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt from the Philadelphia Union this month; John Tolkin, a bold 20-year-old, left back for the New York Red Bulls; and Cowell, another dual Mexican-American national who has burst onto the scene with the San Jose Earthquakes as a teenager. Cowell was capped for the USMNT in a friendly in December 2021.

Other notable calls include Brandon Vazquez, an MLS forward who will try to establish himself as a potential No. 9 throughout the 2026 cycle; and Alan Soñora, a midfielder born in New Jersey who spent most of his life in Argentina. He played regularly for Argentinean premier club Independiente in 2021 and 2022, and has been linked with a move to MLS.

Then there’s inclusion out of nowhere: Sam Rogers is a 23-year-old Seattle Sounders youth product who started his professional career in the USL before moving to HamKam and then Rosenborg in Norway . Emmanuel Sabbi is an Italian born product of Ohio and Chicago area youth clubs; He then moved to Las Palmas in Spain as a teenager, and spent his first team career with Hobro and Odense in Denmark.

The Danish and Norwegian leagues, like MLS, do not play during the winter months, allowing these players to enter camp in January. Others like Slonina, Jonathan Gomez and Matthew Hoppe, meanwhile, are available because they are not managers for their clubs.

Many will be fringe players at best for the USMNT going forward. Of the 27 players sent into the January 2019 camp, only one (Walker Zimmerman) started games and two played minutes at the 2022 World Cup.

The following year, however, January gave players like Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson a chance, and that, of course, is the point. Even if only a few make a significant impact someday, the week in Southern California will have been worthwhile.

The games will be played at the homes of two MLS clubs in Los Angeles, Banc of California Stadium and Dignity Health Sports Park. They start on January 25th at 10pm ET (HBO Max, Universo, Peacock) and January 28th at 7:30pm ET (TNT, Telemundo, Peacock).

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