MLS hopefuls show there's more to USMNT than Champions League stars McKennie & Dest

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While a group of European-based stars excelled in the Champions League, some of MLS' finest sent a message of their own in a big win over El Salvador

If there's one big takeaway for the U.S. men's national team from what has been a disjointed 2021, it has to revolve around pure quality.

This team, this player pool, has top-end talent like never before. A total of eight Americans will take part in the Champions League knockout stages and, knowing what clubs they'll be competing for, there's a solid chance one could even lift that trophy come the end of the season.

As 2021 looms large, quality won't be enough. There are simply too many games, too many competitions, and Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie can't play in all of them. World Cup qualifying, Nations League, Gold Cup, Olympics – it's a year that will provide a great test for the USMNT, who will march into it after playing just four matches in 2020.

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However, if Wednesday night's 6-0 battering of El Salvador is any indication, it's that the USMNT is currently made up of much more than a little bit of top-end quality; there's some pretty damn good quantity there too.

The U.S. crushed an overmatched El Salvador team featuring a squad loaded with new faces, blitzing their CONCACAF foe with five goals in a 10-minute span.

It was a memorable night for players like Chris Mueller, who fired a brace in his first international game at any level to earn Man of the Match honors, and Paul Arriola, who scored a goal in only his second game since February after recovering from an ACL tear.

By and large, the final score doesn't matter. El Salvador isn't a team that should be testing the USMNT, and they certainly didn't on Wednesday.

What does matter, though, is the performance from an MLS-heavy team that played like they had a point to prove after seeing their European counterparts make a statement of their own last month.

"I really saw a determination from the group to perform, and that was what was important," head coach Gregg Berhalter said. "Everyone was watching the games in November, so when this group came in, they were very determined and they knew a bar's been set and they need to maintain that bar."

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He added: "I think that guys are pushing. People are saying, 'If we have a top group, I want to be part of it', and I think you can see that on the field when you look at performances like Aaron Long or Sebastian Lletget or Paul Arriola. These are guys that are saying, 'I want to be starters on the team', and I really like the mindset from the whole group."

Even with Wednesday's performance, the European-based contingent almost certainly remains near the top of the depth chart.

Players like Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest are starting regularly for some of the biggest teams in the world and, when World Cup qualifying comes around, the U.S. will do everything possible to have them on the field together.

But 2021 is about so much more than World Cup qualifying. If everything goes to play, the U.S. could very well need three entirely separate teams next summer.

Berhalter could easily go with a different group for the Nations League, Gold Cup and the Olympics because, if he doesn't, he runs the risk of pushing some of these top players past the 50- or 60-game mark with qualifiers looming.

It remains to be seen which of those competitions the U.S. will prioritize but, regardless, Berhalter will feel comfortable with selecting from what is now an expansive player pool. A total of 62 players were called into camps over this chaotic campaign and, having gone through that campaign unbeaten, few will have harmed their chances of earning another chance.

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Some did better than others, sure. Mueller shined, as he looked like an absolutely perfect fit in Berhalter's system. Arriola was strong as he continues to offer both attacking and defending in equal measure out wide.

Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie built on breakthrough seasons with strong efforts of their own, while both Long and Walker Zimmerman very much remain in the competition for centerback.

The saying says that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that tide has certainly changed the look of an evolving player pool.

"That's what you want on a national team," Arriola said, "having guys fight for spots, really have to make their mark and stay a part of it at the end of the day.

"I think everyone in this country wants us to field the best players that we have, and our goal is to win a World Cup and we have to do that with the best players and the highest of quality that we have. I think everyone is really trying to race to that level."

But Berhalter, while optimistic, certainly remains cautious. This is a team that is still built on potential, and potential doesn't get you to a World Cup. It is also true that Berhalter still hasn't quite seen his best team, and he probably won't get the chance to until World Cup qualifiers start in September.

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"We still have to give this group time," he said. "It's still a young group, so we can't rush it. We need to support them, we need to keep believing in them, and I think the sky's the limit. But the first thing is giving the group time.

"Next year is going to be a really busy year for us, we're going to need a lot of players and that's why this camp was so important: to get more players in, evaluate more players and see how we can divide it up next year."

He added: "We know right now that none of these results are going to help us in 2021. 2021 is a different game. And I think the team has confidence, but we still have to go out in the field and play the game, and every game is different. We'll prepare as hard as we can to put the team in a position to win those games."

It remains to be seen when the U.S. will return to the field again. There's hope for a January camp, but the timing remains in flux at the moment as U.S. Soccer awaits an official start date for the next MLS season.

So, once again, the focus will turn towards the European group, who continue to raise the bar in ways the U.S. has never seen. Their quality will be on full display in the coming months as MLS moves into its offseason, but, as the USMNT moves towards 2021, the competition is just beginning.

"A really special moment during this camp was when we're watching on TV together as a team. A lot of players are there and it's Barcelona against Juventus, and it just made me think that there was no other time where you can watch two Americans playing [at that level].

"You're in national team camp and you can be watching two Americans compete. And I know all those guys are thinking. 'That's where I want to be, that's what I aspire to be.'

"So, what I think now is that you have possibilities. You have guys saying, 'If I do this, I can get there' and that's really important to have that optimism in soccer."

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