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USMNT's January roster includes players you've never heard of - and some exciting ones too

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 07: Alejandro Zendejas of America assists during the 1st round match between America and Queretaro as part of the Torneo Clausura 2023 Liga MX at Estadio Azteca 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 U.S. Men’s National Team roster of the 2026 World Cup cycle features 11 rookies and even some players you’ve probably never heard of.

There is a defender whose professional career spans the entire United Soccer League and the Norwegian Eliteserien. There is a recent US citizen and a 25-year-old winger who plays in Denmark. There is even a Major League Soccer teenager who has never played a Major League Soccer first team game.

There are the typical MLS veterans, of course, including some who were in Qatar last month, but this team, more than most, comes from everywhere and nowhere.

He will face Serbia (January 25) and Colombia (January 28) next week in the USMNT’s first two games since the 2022 World Cup. They will take place amid manager uncertainty and outside of an official FIFA window. , meaning that clubs were not obliged to release their players for national teams. With US stars increasingly filling European clubs, many were unavailable – as is the case every year for this annual January camp, colloquially known as “Camp Cupcake”.

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

It will host Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, the 18-year-old goalkeeper who is expected to one day challenge Matt Turner to the first USMNT show.

It could offer firsts to Paxten Aaronson, Brenden’s brother; and Alejandro Zendejas, a Mexican with dual nationality who has been making a name for himself with Club América in Liga MX. Despite the Mexican league season coinciding with the USMNT’s January camp, América agreed to allow the club’s regular starter Zendejas to participate in one of the two games.

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

That’s 24 players in total, some of whom may never see the field for the USMNT after this month. But many certainly will.

The complete list of the USMNT

Goalkeepers (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)

Advanced (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 America)

The Most Exciting 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 18 for an eight-figure fee. He was even in contention for a spot on the 2022 World Cup roster. He and former Fire teammate Chris Brady, 18, are considered the USMNT’s goalkeepers of the future.

The most notable addition to this squad, however, is Zendejas, an attacking midfielder who has been the subject of a controversial recruiting battle between the United States and Mexico. He was born in Ciudad Juárez, then moved to Texas as a child. He played alongside Christian Pulisic and other current USMNT players with the US U-17s, including at the 2015 U-17 World Cup – but later played for the Mexico national teams as well.

He accepted a call-up to Mexico’s 2021 senior squad and debuted for El Tri in a friendly, and that’s when their situation got complicated. To play for Mexico, as per FIFA rules, he would have to make a single change of membership from the United States. Apparently, that never happened. With the 2022 World Cup looming and Zendejas presumably a candidate for El Trifrom the player list, the Mexican soccer federation allegedly asked Zendejas to sign a document “renouncing” his affiliation with the United States; he would have refused.

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

Hudson said in a question-and-answer session published by US Soccer that the USMNT staff “didn’t think” they would sign Zendejas for the January camp, and expressed “huge gratitude” to América for allowing him to join. Hudson said that Zendejas will “play [for América on Jan. 21]that day the camp starts but they will let him fly and play [for the U.S.] against Serbia.” He will then fly back to Mexico City and play for América on the 28th instead of staying with the USMNT for their second match of the week against Colombia, a team spokesman confirmed.

The other players with the brightest futures are Aaronson, a 19-year-old striker who joined Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt from Philadelphia Union this month; John Tolkin, a 20-year-old left-back adventurer for the New York Red Bulls; and Cowell, another dual national Mexican-American who came into his own with the San Jose earthquakes as a teenager. Cowell debuted for the USMNT in a friendly in December 2021.

Other notable call-ups include Brandon Vazquez, an MLS forward who will look to establish himself as a potential No. 9 throughout the 2026 cycle; and Alan Soñora, a New Jersey-born midfielder who has spent most of his life in Argentina. He played regularly for Independiente, an Argentine first division club, in 2021 and 2022, and is linked with a move to MLS.

Then there are the inclusions out of the blue: Sam Rogers is a 23-year-old for the Seattle Sounders 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, Spain as a teenager and spent his first-team career with Hobro and Odense in Denmark.

The Danish and Norwegian leagues, like the MLS, do not play during the winter months, allowing these players to join the January camp. Others like Slonina, Jonathan Gomez and Matthew Hoppe, meanwhile, are available as they are not regulars at their respective clubs.

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

The following year, however, January gave opportunity to players like Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson, and that’s precisely the point. Even if just a few will ever make a significant impact, the week in Southern California will have been worth it.

The games will be played at the homes of two MLS clubs in Los Angeles, the Banc of California Stadium and Dignity Health Sports Park. They begin Jan. 25 at 10:00 pm ET (HBO Max, Universo, Peacock) and Jan. 28 at 7:30 pm ET (TNT, Telemundo, Peacock).