USMNT World Cup qualifiers: How COVID-19 impacts camp, Canada

The U.S. men's national team's MLS-based contingent continues to prepare for three World Cup qualifiers, the first of which is two weeks away from Thursday. And while more will come into focus in the coming week about what that squad will look like in full, the omnipresent coronavirus wild card continues to loom.

Upon arrival screening in Phoenix, there were a small number of positive tests, though manager Gregg Berhalter has had mostly a full complement of the 20 players he called in for this portion of camp, which runs through Jan. 21, available before the abroad-based players arrive. No cases have been contracted at camp itself, and Saturday will be the first time that all 20 players will be on the training field together, U.S. Soccer confirmed. But the threat of more cases, as the omicron variant continues to spread and as players from abroad travel back to the U.S., will be a factor as the coach ponders the size of his squad that'll face El Salvador on Jan. 27 and travel to Canada for a Jan. 30 bout before returning home ahead of a Feb. 2 clash with Honduras.

"COVID has hit us in this camp," Berhalter said earlier this week. "There have been some cases of guys entering camp with COVID. Fortunately, most are asymptomatic and it's just about a little bit of a waiting game. But that's our reality, that's what all sports teams are dealing with. So we'll be ready to adapt. We will have a contingency plan in place. We're not exactly sure how many players extra we'll take, but we're going to be thorough and make sure we have a roster that can compete. Because from all indications, this thing spreads quickly, although people aren't necessarily—at least what we've seen—there hasn't been a ton of sickness, but it has been spreading."

The U.S. has already endured some pre-omicron, COVID-19-related instances, with Zack Steffen testing positive ahead of a September World Cup qualifier in Honduras. Christian Pulisic (Aug. 2021), Weston McKennie (Oct. '20) and Sergiño Dest (Dec. '21) are among those who have previously tested positive as well, with Dest returning to training for Barcelona and joining the club in Saudi Arabia for the Spanish Super Cup.

There is also the matter of how protocols abroad impact the proceedings. While the U.S. will play in the friendly, if not frigid, confines of Ohio and Minnesota in the first and third matches of the upcoming qualifying window, the second one takes place in Canada, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just deemed a level-four, very-high-risk destination.

That won't impact the U.S.'s travel plans, though, U.S. Soccer confirmed, with the only caveat being that players–and all personnel–must be fully vaccinated in order to make the trip, as per Canadian regulations. As of now, boosters are not part of the language, and Sports Illustrated understands that the overwhelming majority of the national team player pool is fully vaccinated. But for those who may not be and are called into camp anyway, travel to Canada will be a nonstarter.

Another way protocols could impact the match is crowd size. Current rules regarding the stadium capacity at Tim Hortons Field (currently 50%) in Hamilton, Ontario, expire three days before the U.S.'s match there, leaving the degree of home field advantage for the first-place Canadians very much unclear. As with most things these days, the situation for the Canadian Soccer Association remains fluid.

The U.S., which faced USL Championship's Phoenix Rising in a scrimmage Thursday, will also face Grand Canyon University and Sporting Kansas City with the current batch of players before the next phase of camp begins.

As it relates to two of the U.S.'s most influential talents abroad:

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Dest's destiny

The author of one of the U.S.'s most important goals in World Cup qualifying is in a bit of a quandary. He hasn't played for Barcelona in over a month, with his last appearance ending in a halftime substitution against Bayern Munich in the club's Champions League group finale (an injury and COVID-19 have played a part in that). That 38-year-old Dani Alves is getting the call over him surely isn't a confidence-builder, and neither is being left out of Barça's squad altogether for Wednesday's thrilling Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid. With the transfer window open, the rumor mill is abuzz, with the latest suggesting a loan to Chelsea, where he would theoretically team with Pulisic, could be in the works. With the window closing during the FIFA international window, it could make for an intense few days for the versatile fullback. However it works out, Dest has Berhalter's backing.

“He's a competitor and he's a guy that I can see waiting for an opportunity, and when he gets his opportunity, performing well,” Berhalter said this week. “He's resilient, and he has the right mindset to do it. He's been working hard. He had a little injury setback at the end of the year with his back, but he's committed to making it work.”

Reyna still not ready

Gio Reyna hasn't played for club or country since injuring his hamstring in the U.S.'s first World Cup qualifier on Sept. 2, and despite returning to training with Borussia Dortmund, he's not going to be in uniform for Friday's Bundesliga match vs. Freiburg, coach Marco Rose said. 

That leaves awfully little time for Reyna to get into match shape for three intense qualifiers. Berhalter said earlier in the week that it was "too early to tell" whether Reyna and Tim Weah (thigh injury), would be called in. If neither is, it would deplete the options on the wing considerably, with Weah filling in so admirably and vitally for the U.S. in the fall.

Dortmund has one more match, in the DFB Pokal vs. St. Pauli next Tuesday, before Berhalter names his squad, but it could very well be the case that the U.S. finds itself without one of its key attacking stars for another set of qualifiers.

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