Yesterday, the United States Men’s National Team announced Gregg Berhalter’s roster for an international friendly against El Salvador on Dec. 9. Since this isn’t a part of a FIFA international break, stars from European clubs, including Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, and others, weren’t available for selection, opening the door for several Major League Soccer stars — unless they’re still in the playoffs — including Orlando City’s Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller.
The pair of attackers had been firmly on the USMNT’s radar with their exceptional MLS campaigns. Mueller played well during his first two professional seasons, with eight goals and 11 assists, but he was outside of the national team picture. His breakout 2020 season (10 goals, seven assists) has skyrocketed Mueller’s profile in the league and with the national team. As for Dike, he was a complete unknown to anyone who doesn’t follow college soccer, with no substantial attention from the youth national teams. After coming in for the Lions in August, however, Dike has become one of the best young American strikers in MLS and is a legitimate option for Berhalter. Orlando’s golden boys have earned this opportunity, but it’s undeniable that a big reason they got called up is the absence of the European-based players. So what does the international future of these two look like?
It’s hard to say where Mueller fits into the USMNT puzzle. He’s a winger by trade with the ability to play more centrally, but that position has plenty of depth already. Pulisic and Jordan Morris have been the two best national team players as of late, and they certainly get the start ahead of the Money Badger. Behind them sits golden boy Gio Reyna, prospects Konrad de la Fuente and Uly Llanez, and D.C.’s Paul Arriola. Best case scenario for Mueller, he could become a viable bench option like Arriola. Personally, I could see him functioning as a poor-man’s Pulisic, working on the wing and inside, using his dribbling to create chances. Obviously Mueller’s nowhere near the Chelsea star in terms of on-ball ability — to be fair, few players in the world, not just with the USMNT, can match Pulisic off the dribble — but his game is similar enough that he could be a viable understudy.
If Mueller continues to progress and can become a bona fide MLS superstar, or potentially a good player in Germany or another good European league, he will undoubtedly play a role in the 2022 cycle and maybe the 2026 cycle as well. He’s young enough to still have a future with the national team, but he has to keep up with his development. As for this upcoming year, one featuring Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup, and World Cup qualifying, as well as the U-20 World Cup qualifying and tournament, and Olympic qualifying and tournament, Mueller will likely play a backup role. I expect him to be a star on the Gold Cup team, assuming it’s an MLS-heavy roster, and to potentially play a role in Nations League or even WC qualifiers.
As for Dike, his options are far more open. He is one of many young strikers in the player pool vying to fill the shoes of an aged-out Jozy Altidore and good-not-great Gyasi Zardes up top. While it looks as if Josh Sargent of Germany’s Werder Bremen is the likely answer, he has yet to definitively prove he deserves it, opening the door for the likes of Dike and others.
While the competition is stiff, Dike’s played as well as anyone. Among MLS options, only Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola — also in the December camp — scored more goals in 2020, while Dike’s total goals plus assists total — eight and four, respectively — is only behind Zardes for American strikers. It’ll be interesting to see how he gets on with Berhalter and the USMNT program, and how he fits what they do on the field. Ability-wise, he’s already at a good place, and with his physical tools, has limitless potential, so he could well earn a spot on the team.
While he could feature on the senior national team in 2021, I expect a majority of his international time to come with Olympic qualifying, and hopefully the tournament. Clubs aren’t required to release players for the Olympics, and it’s likely that the big European clubs won’t allow many of the young U.S. stars to play in the tournament, putting more of the onus on the youngsters in MLS, including Dike. It is possible that he could establish himself as the starting striker for the U-23s this summer, something that could springboard into a spot with the senior team.
However, it’s important to know that Dike’s international future’s not set in stone. Even if he plays against El Salvador, he’ll still be eligible to represent Nigeria. I don’t know who he’ll eventually end up representing — he probably doesn’t know either — but if he can keep on his current upward trend, the options will be there. While I’d love to see Dike suiting up for the USMNT, the prospect of a thunder-and-lightning strike partnership between Dike and Napoli starlet Victor Osimhen for Nigeria would be incredible.
One player not called up whose future could still lie with the USMNT is Benji Michel. He’s been involved with the U-23s in the past, though he’s yet to make an international appearance at any level. If he can continue to improve the way he did in 2020, then he could absolutely squeeze his way into the picture. While he’ll likely never be a key figure at a World Cup, though it’s not impossible, he could become a solid fringe player that features in Gold Cups and friendlies. He’ll still be eligible for the Olympics in 2021, and could make a serious impact with that team. Maybe Benji isn’t at this level, but he absolutely deserves a chance to make a name for himself with the national team. Michel is also eligible to play for Haiti, and he declined a call-up to the Haitian National Team for a Concacaf Nations League qualifying match against Cuba in 2019.
Whatever happens for Dike and Mueller, and potentially Michel, in their international careers, it’s always great seeing our lads in purple represent their countries. Hopefully this is the start to long and successful international careers for Orlando’s rising stars.