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Slonina, Zendejas and the players to watch during the USMNT's January friendlies

8:00 PM MYT 24/01/2023
Slonina Zendejas GFX
After an encouraging World Cup and a tumultuous fallout, the U.S. return to the field this week, albeit with an inexperienced roster of players

The start of the United States men's national team's road to the 2026 World Cup begins this week in Los Angeles. Well, kind of.

The U.S. is in LA for the annual January Camp, a gathering of MLS stars and young up-and-comers looking to push into the national team pictures. In some ways, it's a typical January Camp, which is an event that has served as a launch point for plenty of USMNT regulars in recent years.

However, with the coaching situation still in flux, it's a camp lacking the direction and purpose that most of these gatherings have. USMNT assistant Anthony Hudson is in charge, bringing some continuity from Gregg Berhalter's staff, but we still don't know if that staff will even be around when the U.S. next gathers.

Even so, there's reason to look forward to these games against Serbia and Colombia, which could see the debuts of some legitimate stars of the future. There are several players in this camp with the potential to make a difference on the road to 2026, and there are a few that could certainly surprise us by using this camp as a springboard to more USMNT appearances.

So here's a look at who to watch out for in this USMNT January Camp:

  • Brandon Vazquez FC Cincinnati 2022

    Is Vazquez 'the guy'?

    By the end of the World Cup, there were still more questions than answers when it comes to the USMNT striker position.

    Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Jesus Ferreira were the players brought to Qatar, but none truly asserted themself as 'the guy'. Sargent was the standout with some good hold-up play, but it's safe to say that none of the players made a convincing case to be the go-to option going forward.

    Enter Brandon Vazquez, a player that many thought should have been in Qatar and a player that will now get his chance to show why. The FC Cincinnati forward scored 18 goals in MLS season, making him very much the man in form throughout 2022, even if his sudden surge came too late for him to make the World Cup squad.

    He will now get his first taste of the senior international game, and though the 24-year-old striker may or may not be an option for the U.S. going forward (especially given he could yet choose to represent Mexico), it will be good to see how he fares at this level as he looks to join the likes of Sargent, Wright, Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike and Jordan Pefok among the options up top.

  • Paxten Aaronson 2022

    Another Aaronson arrives

    Brenden Aaronson is already a key part of the USMNT, but can his brother become one too?

    Little brother Paxten Aaronson is with the senior team for the first time, having moved to Eintracht Frankfurt this winter.

    Like his brother, Paxten came up through the Philadelphia Union academy, which has become a legitimate conveyor belt of talent. And, like his brother, Paxten has the talent to be a USMNT regular for years to come.

    The little brother, however, is a different player than the big brother. While Brenden is more of an all-energy pressing midfielder or winger, Paxten is a more comfortable attacking midfielder that is a bit more of a No.10.

    The younger Aaronson is further ahead in terms of his attacking ability than his brother was at the same age, and he told GOAL in 2022 that it was because he was able to watch his brother's early-career struggles and use them to prepare.

    It's a long way away, but could we see two Aaronsons on the field in 2026? What a story that would be.

  • Gabriel Slonina Chelsea unveiling 2022

    Slonina's start

    Many see Gabriel Slonina as the USMNT goalkeeper of the future. And while World Cup veteran Sean Johnson is also in camp, there's still a pretty good chance we get a glimpse of that future this week.

    Slonina, who was the only goalkeeper to make the NXGN 2022 list of the best teenage footballers in the world back in March, is as promising as it can get. He's been compared with Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer and, when speaking to GOAL last year, he admitted that he truly believes he can get to that level.

    The Chelsea star obviously has a long way to go, but with 43 first-team appearances at just 18 years old, he already has more experience than most his age.

    Considering the fact that he's just a teenager, Slonina still has plenty of maturing to do. He's likely to go out on loan at some point soon, which makes sense since there isn't much playing time to go around at Chelsea. This camp, meanwhile, gives him a chance to get a game or two for the first time since the fall, when the Chicago Fire were eliminated from the MLS playoffs.

    Slonina has been with the USMNT before, having joined trained with the squad ahead of the World Cup last year, but the opportunity for a first cap is an exciting one for a player that should be a part of the program for the next two decades.

  • Hoppe USMNT 2021

    Can Hoppe get on track?

    There was a point where Matthew Hoppe looked like he could very well play himself into the World Cup picture. After his incredible breakthrough at Schalke, he featured six times for the USMNT in 2021, scoring once as part of the team that won the Gold Cup.

    Since then, it's fair to say that life has been tough for the striker. He moved to Mallorca but featured just seven times in a season defined by injuries. Then, less than a year after joining the Spanish side, he moved to the Championship with Middlesbrough, where he's played just six times so far.

    The fact that Middlesbrough released Hoppe to join this camp indicates that the club doesn't really have a plan for him right now, which isn't good. What could be good, though, is this camp, which could help Hoppe regain his confidence after some difficult moments.

    The hope is that Hoppe uses this camp to get into a new environment, clear his head and, eventually, get on the field for an opportunity he wouldn't get at his club. Who knows what will happen at Middlesbrough, but having a good camp in LA would be a solid start to a year that Hoppe will hope goes better than 2022.

  • Alejandro Zendejas 16:9

    Zendejas' future

    Perhaps the most interesting player in camp is the one that will only be there for part of it.

    Alejandro Zendejas, a Mexican-American dual national, was released by Club America for the Serbia game. Zendejas has legitimate promise and has been pretty good for Club America, one of the biggest teams in Mexico. In fact, Zendejas was spectacular in his last game against Puebla on Saturday before flying to Los Angeles for camp.

    What makes Zendejas so interesting, though, is the tug-of-war that is already going on. He's played for Mexico, albeit illegally, prompting a hefty fine and several forfeits from El Tri for their part in all of this. Now, he's back with the U.S., for whom he played as a youth player before representing Mexico.

    The 24-year-old winger will only play one game before rejoining his club, and it'll be tough to assess him in just one game alone, but it'll be interesting to see how he does as the U.S. assess new options heading into the 2026 cycle.

  • Anthony Hudson

    What does this all mean?

    January Camps are, by nature, a bit different. Most of the big stars aren't involved as they continue their European season, so generally it's a camp for young players and MLS mainstays, most of whom are getting a first look at the national team setup.

    That part rings true this time around. Most of these players are young and inexperienced, but the national team setup isn't anything like what it will look like even a few months from now.

    With no permanent coach, the U.S. doesn't really have a direction. And, with no permanent coach, these players are in a camp looking to impress who exactly? In a few months time, it's likely that there will be an entirely new face in charge of the U.S. that won't have had anything to do with this camp.

    So what does it all mean? We'll find that out down the road. Can a player or two use this camp to push for a permanent place? Will a younger star's first experience at this camp help them acclimate for when they join the A-team down the line?

    We'll figure that out long after what promises to be a strange January Camp comes to an end.