McKennie's revival, transfer chaos and five things to watch in the USMNT's January World Cup qualifiers

Weston McKennie - USA
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The U.S. faces three vital games in what will likely be chaotic conditions as they march towards Qatar

In his opening comments during Friday's press conference, Gregg Berhalter admitted that this next set of World Cup qualifiers were coming at a weird time.

But such is the world we now live in, with the Covid-19 pandemic having turned CONCACAF's qualifying cycle into a chaotic sprint towards the finish line in Qatar.

Over the next week or so, the U.S. hosts El Salvador in Columbus, the team's spiritual home, before heading north of the border to face a dangerous Canada team.

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And then they wrap up against Honduras in Minnesota, in a game that threatens to conjure up memories of the infamous Snow Clasico against Costa Rica, with that match in particular promising freezing temperatures that will border on inhumane.

To navigate that window, Berhalter has called in 28 players, and there's a chance he'll have to use many of them in the difficult days to come.

However, with two or three wins, the U.S. will all but assure their spot in Qatar. On the flip side, with two or three bad results, that path gets much more perilous.

So, here's a look at some of the factors that will define this crucial round of World Cup qualifiers for the USMNT...

McKennie's revival

Pulisic McKennie USMNT

When a young player makes a mistake, all you can ask for is that they acknowledge it and learn from it.

Weston McKennie has done just that, with the midfielder in the form of his life just a few months after his big life lesson.

Heading into this camp, McKennie has blossomed into a key player for Juventus, becoming an all-action, box-to-box midfielder, one that is changing games on both the defensive and attacking ends for a team that is still far, far away from the peak of its powers.

After a dire start to the season, the resurgent Bianconeri are now up to fifth in the Serie A standings, with their American dynamo having scored goals in consecutive games earlier this month.

Things could have gone either way for McKennie following his dismissal for violating USMNT rules, so he deserves credit for having taken his game to another level.

"He's playing at a really, really high level and that's good to see as we move into qualifiers," Berhalter said.

"I think that, again, if we have to revisit this, when it happened (his expulsion), it was a momentary lapse. It wasn't a reflection of his character, who he is, and I think that the treatment he got from the outside world was a little bit too harsh.

"We know Weston. We know he's a good guy. He cares for his teammates, he cares for the team, he cares for United States soccer and, for him, it was a matter of just getting refocused and bouncing back."

McKennie sure has bounced back and, because of that, there may not be a more exciting player to watch in action for the U.S. right now.

Reyna headlines notable absentees

Reyna USMNT 2020

It's been nearly four months since Gio Reyna has played in a match for the USMNT, as the Borussia Dortmund star remains out with a hamstring injury.

In years past, that absence would have been catastrophic. Reyna is legitimately a world-class talent, a player that can play at the highest level right now, rather than one for the future.

Ask Borussia Dortmund how important Reyna is, and they'll almost certainly tell you that their season would look much, much different with the American playmaker in the lineup.

However, while the Germans are already out of the Champions League, and six points behind Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich, Ryen's absence hasn't been felt too much by Berhalter's side, which is testament to the depth of the U.S. player pool.

Brenden Aaronson has stepped into Reyna's role and arguably even made it his own. As rumors swirl around the RB Salzburg star's future, he looks set to be a key figure once again despite the fact that he may not be fully match fit due to the break in his club season.

As things stands, though, the U.S. has plenty of attacking options, with Aaronson, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah all playing big roles so far this cycle. Add in Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris and you have an overwhelming amount of attacking firepower.

So, the U.S. won't be too worried about Reyna's absence, at least for this month. But the hope is that, next month, the Dortmund star can rejoin what is an incredibly strong group of wide players.

What's next for Brooks?

Brooks USMNT 2021

When John Brooks was left out of the USMNT's rosters during the last international break, Berhalter said it was down to form. Brooks would be back, Berhalter insisted, but, at the time, he needed to play his way back into the picture.

It appears that not much has changed in the months that have followed because, for the second time in as many windows, the Wolfsburg star isn't in the USMNT squad.

"He has the opportunity to play a role with us in the future," Berhalter said of his decision to leave out Brooks once again and instead call upon Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Mark McKenzie and Chris Richards, who are beginning to look like the chosen quartet for Qatar.

"We decided based on how we're looking at these games, and the strengths of our opponents, that he wouldn't be the best fit for this particular window. We're hoping that he regains his form for Wolfsburg and that they can start winning games to move up the table.

"So, this isn't stuff that's written in stone. Just because a player is not in this camp, it doesn't mean he doesn't have a future with the program."

But the question remains: what is Brooks' future with this program? If Brooks isn't a fit for these games, which games is he a fit for?

He's one of few players left in the pool with World Cup experience and, for years, he was one of the first names on the team sheet.

However, Robinson is now the USMNT's go-to centerback, while Zimmerman has replaced Brooks as the veteran asked to lead the way. McKenzie and Richards are only going to get better, making it harder and harder for Brooks to earn his way back into a meaningful role.

Have we seen the last of Brooks in a USMNT shirt? Probably not. Can he still play a part in this qualifying campaign and, possibly, in the World Cup? Most definitely.

But it appears that Brooks is falling further and further behind as the USMNT heads towards the last few hurdles on the road to Qatar.

Questions remain at striker

Pepi USMNT 2021

Last window, Berhalter truly showed his faith in Ricardo Pepi by bringing him in as the only out-and-out striker in the squad.

He's made a similar statement this time around, selecting Pepi and veteran Gyasi Zardes as the striker unit.

If the message wasn't clear before, it is now: Pepi is the USMNT's No.9.

The newly-signed Augsburg star is still just a few months into his international career, but he's already leading the race for that World Cup starting spot. Although he hasn't scored in any of the USMNT's last five matches, Pepi's clearly Berhalter's guy.

So, there's no room in the current squad for Daryl Dike, who is now dealing with an injury at West Brom, or Josh Sargent, who is finally off the mark at Norwich with two very good goals. Matthew Hoppe and Jordan Pefok didn't make the cut either.

This is a big and bold move by Berhalter, who could easily pick Pepi to lead the line in all three qualifiers, though could also turn to Zardes, or even someone like Weah or Morris, should the need arise.

But Pepi remains the key man, and his ability to control play up top will likely be key to the success of this window.

Transfer chaos incoming?

Aaronson USMNT 2021

At least a half-dozen USMNT players have been linked with moves in recent weeks. Several others, like Ricardo Pepi, Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget, have recently changed clubs.

So, with the January window heading into its final weeks, there's a chance that a USMNT player or two could be on the move as part of a life-changing transfer.

It remains to be seen if Aaronson heads to Leeds or Matt Turner gets a move to Arsenal. Sergino Dest's future remains very much up in the air.

McKennie has been linked to Tottenham in recent weeks, while Miles Robinson's future remains a talking point in Atlanta. You can also add in DeAndre Yedlin, who has been linked to both the Championship and with an MLS return.

That's a lot of outside noise leading up to a big run of games.

"It's important to support the players, to listen to the players," Berhalter said. "I'm always here to help them and to have a conversation.

"I look at my role as a sounding board rather than someone that's trying to influence any type of player movement or where they go. I just want to support them and hear from them and perhaps offer some advice and that's about it.

"But I think as players as professionals, so they're used to compartmentalizing it and saying 'Okay, this is my focus now and then, when I'm off the field, I can move some focus into this area.'

"I understand that there are transfer rumors with some of our guys and that's part of it. That's always going to be part of it.

"But our greater goal and our goal as a group is to qualify for the World Cup, and we're going to be extremely focused on that in this window."

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