Sixteen weeks after reaching the World Cup’s round of 16 and facing the mighty Netherlands, a three-time finalist ranked eighth by FIFA, the U.S. men’s national team will take the field in tiny Grenada (population: 125,000) for a match against the 173rd-ranked Spice Boyz.
That’s what it means to be one of Concacaf’s heavy hitters. Sometimes you share the stage with giants, and sometimes you’ve got to mix it up with minnows.
Two low-key January friendlies aside, a unique World Cup cycle kicks off for real on Friday in the West Indies. The first FIFA international window since the U.S. fell to the Dutch in Qatar will feature games against Grenada and El Salvador (Monday in Orlando). Those matches will decide Group D of the Concacaf Nations League, a secondary tournament of minimal value or prestige that the Americans are still taking somewhat seriously.
The U.S. doesn’t need the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and nine additional World Cup vets to handle Grenada, which the U.S. thumped, 5–0, last June. But there’s an interest inside the program in trying to maintain as much momentum as possible, especially considering the upheaval toward the top of the org chart. The head coach (Gregg Berhalter), sporting director (Earnie Stewart) and GM (Brian McBride) who shepherded the World Cup effort are all gone. With a busy summer and games that matter more on the horizon, and with a roster that still tilts a bit young, interim manager Anthony Hudson felt it was important to assemble a stronger squad.
“As great as the World Cup was, how good we all felt about it and how good we felt we did, it’s kind of [gone] away now. We don't dwell on the fact that we’ve been to a World Cup and it’s kind of the end of the journey. It was the start for a lot of us,” defender Antonee Robinson said Wednesday.
“Now, it’s looking forward to trying to retain trophies, and that starts with getting two wins this camp.”
Most World Cup cycles are dominated by preparing for, and then enduring, the grind of qualifying. This cycle, which ends with the massive, 48-team tournament in the U.S., Mexico and Canada in 2026, will be anchored by the next three summers. That’s when the Americans, who already have their World Cup place assured, will have the chance to play meaningful matches. There’s the Nations League final four and then the Gold Cup this summer, a 16-team Copa América in 2024 that’ll include world champion Argentina, and then another Gold Cup in ’25 that may feature several guests.
The U.S. lifted both the Nations League and Gold Cup trophies in 2021 with what was essentially two different squads. From that success, Berhalter and his staff, including Hudson, began forging the team that went to Qatar. This June’s Nations League semis and final, and then the subsequent Gold Cup, would present a similar opportunity (albeit on a smaller scale and under an interim coach.) But that opportunity isn’t set in stone. The Americans (1-0-1) have to place first or second in their three-team group to avoid a Gold Cup qualifying playoff, and they’ll have to finish above El Salvador (1-0-2) to make the Nations League semis in Las Vegas.
“It’s important because it sets us up for the rest of the year,” defender Tim Ream said. “It’s two games that we’re obviously looking to get two wins from and start us off this cycle on the right foot.”
The likelihood of getting those two wins, or at least an easy four points, is strong. The U.S. is a combined 23-1-7 all-time against Grenada and El Salvador, and likely won’t get much out of these two matches apart from points. That’s the primary problem with the Nations League, which was designed to offer more regular competitive opportunities to countries like Grenada. The U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica—Concacaf’s World Cup regulars—don’t need even more games against neighborhood middleweights and lightweights.
Concacaf will address that later this year as the third edition of the Nations League begins. The region’s top four teams will play in home-and-away quarterfinals instead of the group stage, thus halving their workload and allowing them to seek opponents from beyond Concacaf borders.
Meanwhile, the relative lack of competitive intrigue this month has made room for other narratives to dominate conversation. At the moment, what’s going on inside the U.S. team is more compelling than the prospect of facing Grenada.
Gio Reyna’s return to the fold following his fraught World Cup and the subsequent scandal involving his parents and Berhalter is fascinating, and it appears to be going well.
“He’s been a joy to be around,” goalie Matt Turner said this week.
Other noteworthy campers include Turner’s main rival for the No. 1 jersey, Zack Steffen, who was a surprising omission from the World Cup squad. Striker Ricardo Pepi, who’s been playing well in the Netherlands with Groningen, was another near miss in November. Center back Miles Robinson and striker Daryl Dike are back from injury and could be important contributors over the next few years, while Club América winger Alex Zendejas is on board after announcing his commitment to the U.S. last week.
Perhaps the most talked about player in Orlando isn’t even on the roster. Brooklyn-born, London-raised striker Folarin Balogun, withdrew this week from England's U-21 camp with an injury and has been posting photos of himself in Central Florida. Balogun, 21, is an Arsenal player on loan to Stade de Reims, where his 17 goals this season are third-most in Ligue 1.
He’s been on U.S. Soccer’s radar for a while and once played for the U-18 team, but a sense that he’s now considering switching from England permanently has been building recently (he's also eligible to represent Nigeria). When Balogun wasn’t named to England’s senior squad for this month’s Euro 2024 qualifiers, he posted, “In life, Go where your [sic] appreciated” on Instagram. He’d have to file a one-time switch with FIFA to play for the U.S., but may be in Florida to have an up close look at the program. Balogun plays a position of obvious American need.
“With Flo, all I’ll say is that there is open dialogue with him and his team, and that dialogue is continuing,” Hudson said last week.
“I’ve spoken to Flo,” said Turner, Arsenal’s back-up keeper. “We obviously had most of our preseason together and I knew going into it that he had some roots in the U.S., so him and I developed a relationship pretty quickly.
“He’d be a great addition to our national team. I think he’s done really well, obviously, for his club on loan, and we'll see,” Turner continued. “The decision has to come from the heart, because it’s not necessarily an easy task, always, to come and play in these Concacaf games. It’s a tough region at times. So for us, we’d be really grateful to have him, but his heart needs to be in it.”
A Balogun commitment would be the biggest prize possible this week. A spot in the Nations League semis can’t compare. Maintaining the “open dialogue” Hudson referenced, and trying to sell the program absent a sporting director or permanent coach, isn’t easy. Balogun’s apparent interest is a testament to the much-discussed youth, atmosphere and environment that’s persisted through the World Cup and beyond. The fact that all of this is happening alongside U.S. Soccer’s pursuit of a new sporting director, and while the team’s on-field leadership is in such flux, is significant and, like several other story lines, more compelling than the upcoming games.
All of it, on the field and off, is about taking small but important steps toward 2026, and the chance to get back to a stage like the one the Americans played on 16 weeks ago.
“[Hudson’s] been with us for a while. He kind of knows how the team plays and he knows how to set us up. There’s a couple new players, a couple who haven’t been in camp as much as some of the other lads, but just trying to integrate them and trying to get them to understand what we’re about, our philosophy, how we play. And I think [Hudson] is very capable of doing that,” Antonee Robinson said.
“In terms of having an interim manager, getting a full-time coach, it’s something that’s completely out of our hands,” he continued. “So that’s not really something we’re thinking about. We’re just thinking about going out and putting in all the effort we can in training and when it comes to game day, we’re all really competitive athletes. We want to win games as much as possible. So going forward, it’ll be nice when it's settled, but it’s not really something that's on the front of any of our minds.”