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USMNT's first post-World Cup roster includes players you've never heard of — and exciting ones, too

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 07: Alejandro Zendejas of America looks on during the 1st round match between America and Queretaro as part of the Torneo Clausura 2023 Liga MX at Azteca Stadium 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 newbies and a few players you've likely never heard of.

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

There's the typical sprinkling of MLS veterans, of course, including a few who were in Qatar last month, but this squad, more than most, comes from everywhere and nowhere.

It will play Serbia (Jan. 25) and Colombia (Jan. 28) next week in the USMNT's first two games since the 2022 World Cup. They'll occur amid coaching uncertainty and outside an official FIFA window, meaning clubs weren't required to release their players to national teams. With U.S. stars increasingly populating European clubs, therefore, many were unavailable — as they are every year for this annual January camp, colloquially known as "Camp Cupcake."

But the camp, which will be led by caretaker coach Anthony Hudson while incumbent coach Gregg Berhalter is under investigation, is an opportunity for the stars of the next generation to emerge.

It will welcome Gabriel "Gaga" Slonina, the 18-year-old goalkeeper expected to someday challenge Matt Turner for the USMNT's No. 1 gig.

It could offer debuts to Paxten Aaronson, the brother of Brenden, and Alejandro Zendejas, a Mexican American dual national who has been excelling for Club América in Liga MX. Despite the Mexican league season overlapping with the USMNT's January camp, América agreed to allow Zendejas, a regular club starter, to participate in one of the two games.

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

There are 24 players in total, some of whom might never see the field for the USMNT after this month. But several surely will.

The full USMNT roster

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)

Forwards (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 América)

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 the Chicago Fire to Chelsea for an eight-figure fee at age 18. He was in the mix for a 2022 World Cup roster spot. He and his former Fire teammate, 18-year-old Chris Brady, are considered the USMNT goalkeepers of the future.

The most notable inclusion in this squad, though, is Zendejas, an attacking midfielder who has been the subject of a controversial recruiting battle between the U.S. and Mexico. He was born in Ciudad Juárez, then moved to Texas as a child. He played alongside Christian Pulisic and other current USMNTers with the U.S. under-17s, including at the 2015 U-17 World Cup — but later played for Mexico U-level national teams as well.

He accepted a Mexico senior-team call-up in 2021 and debuted for El Tri in a friendly, and that's where his situation got messy. To play for Mexico, per FIFA rules, he would have needed to file a one-time switch of association away from the U.S. He apparently never did. With the 2022 World Cup approaching and Zendejas presumably a candidate for El Tri's roster, the Mexican soccer federation reportedly asked Zendejas to sign a document "renouncing" his affiliation with the U.S.; he reportedly declined.

Amid the confusion and controversy, he established himself as a regular at Club América. He has now accepted his first USMNT call-up — though his international soccer future won't be tied to the U.S. until he appears in a competitive senior game, the first of which could be in March.

Hudson said in a Q&A published by U.S. Soccer that the USMNT staff "didn't think" they'd get Zendejas for the January camp and expressed "huge appreciation" to América for allowing him to join. Hudson said Zendejas is "going to play [for América on Jan. 21], that day that camp starts but they're going to let him fly in and play [for the U.S.] against Serbia." He'll then fly back to Mexico City and play for América on the 28th instead of staying with the USMNT for its second match of the week against Colombia, a team spokesperson confirmed.

The other players with the brightest futures are Aaronson, a 19-year-old attacker who joined Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt from the Philadelphia Union this month; John Tolkin, an adventurous 20-year-old left back for the New York Red Bulls; and Cowell, another Mexican-American dual national who has burst onto the scene with the San Jose Earthquakes as a teen. Cowell debuted for the USMNT in a December 2021 friendly.

Other notable call-ups include Brandon Vazquez, a breakout MLS striker who'll attempt 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, a top-flight Argentine club, in 2021 and 2022, and has been linked with a move to MLS.

Then there are the out-of-nowhere inclusions: Sam Rogers is a 23-year-old Seattle Sounders youth product who started his pro career in the USL before moving to HamKam and then Rosenborg in Norway. Emmanuel Sabbi is an Italy-born product of Ohio and Chicago-area youth clubs. He then moved to Las Palmas in Spain as a teen and has spent his first-team career with Hobro and Odense in Denmark.

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

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

The following year, though, January granted opportunity to players such as Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson, and that, precisely, is the point. Even if just a few someday make a meaningful impact, the week in Southern California will have been worthwhile.

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