5 Players To Watch During January’s USMNT Friendlies originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The future is now.
The United States men’s national team is preparing for two international friendlies against Serbia and Colombia, but as they are not recognized by FIFA on their international calendar, the Stars and Stripes marquee players abroad will not be there.
Instead, the USMNT will be given the opportunity to analyze a new group of youth as the 2026 FIFA World Cup cycle begins.
From the 24 players were called up to the squadkeep an eye on these five:
GK Gabriel Slonina
The USMNT #1 goaltender is 28-year-old Matt Turner, a former New England Revolution Star, who is now producing quality performances with Arsenal in a backup role. Young goalkeeper development has been a theme of the program but there is hope that Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina could be one for the future.
The 18-year-old showed up for them Chicago fire the last two seasons, leading to a $15m transfer to Chelsea last summer (he stayed at Chicago on loan for the remainder of the season).
Last season, the 1.82m goalie kept 12 clean sheets in 32 games played and saved 64.6% of the shots he faced, a solid rate for someone his age. He could be one to keep an eye on if he’s included in the 2026 World Cup squad.
LW Cade Cowell
You can’t go wrong using fast wingers, especially those who are direct and looking to take on defenders in one-on-one situations. For example, think of Christian Pulisic, the nation’s best winger. Whenever he collects the ball on the left, he turns towards the goal and tries to play with his right foot. That’s essentially the form Cade Cowell has.
The 19-year-old forward is fast becoming a key player for the San Jose Earthquakes and has been rumored to be a move to Europe soon. What makes him alluring? He’s already 6’1″ and weighs over 170 pounds. Combine that with his blistering speed and there’s a unique profile in him that’s rare to find.
It is possible that with his physique he will eventually become a centre-forward. But right now, honing your skills and improving your end product is crucial. Whenever he has the ball, he gets you on your feet. January could be a crucial turning point in his development, especially considering his Mexican heritage meant he could have represented El Tri instead.
CAM Paxten Aaronson
If this last name sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is. Paxten Aaronson is the younger brother of Brenden Aaronson, who broke through last year thanks to his impressive play at USMNT when he joined Leeds United in the English Premier League.
Paxten still has a long way to go to crack the main US core, but he recently moved out PhiladelphiaUnion to Eintracht Frankfurt from the Bundesliga, a club that has a knack for polishing and nurturing young players under the radar.
The 19-year-old normally plays in a central attacking midfield role and is currently being praised for his playmaking skills. At 5-foot-9 and 139 pounds, Aaronson definitely has work to do, and figuring out his long-term position is another crucial step. The demise of the pure No.10 means he must clarify whether he is a winger, a false nine or a box-to-box midfielder, which is a similar identity crisis that Brenden is still going through.
ST Brandon Vázquez
The USMNT forwards’ woes ahead of the Qatar trip were a hot topic and have remained so since they failed to score. But maybe Brandon Vázquez can break this trend.
FC Cincinnati’s Vázquez ends the season of his life. The 24-year-old recorded 18 goals and eight assists in 33 appearances last season and played a big part in the side’s journey into the postseason.
He’s a classic No.9, a relentless finisher in the box. He ranked in the 90th percentile for goals without penalties and 89th for expected goals without penalties, per Soccer Reference, compared to other forwards outside the top five leagues in the world (England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France). If his teammates can take care of him in dangerous areas, assist output should follow.
LB John Tolkin
Antonee Robinson’s health ahead of Qatar was a serious concern for the USMNT, as the left flank looked much less dynamic without his energetic, overlapping runs to support the attack. Aside from him, USA didn’t have the same level as a left-back.
John Tolkin could change that. The 20-year-old left-back with the New York Red Bulls enjoyed another solid season with more playing time. In 31 games, he helped offensively with a goal and three assists on his runs to the last third and ranked in the 83rd percentile in shot-generating actions, per Soccer Reference.
Defensively, he ranked 99th in interceptions and 92nd in tackles, with his versatility allowing him to also perform as a full-back or defensive midfielder. It’s an intriguing profile as he continues his upward trend and perhaps we could be spoiled with Cowell and Tolkin both playing at left flank at the same time.
Let’s see if any of these five players can appear to become major international figures in the future.