Atlanta United refused the call-ups of Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon and Brad Guzan to the USMNT January camp. They are right to do so. Here is why.
That old friction between club and country. It is something that has swept throughout the footballing world in recent years. As the domestic game grows in finance, size and significance, the international game is pushed to the sidelines, often seen as an afterthought unless a major competition is underway.
In U.S. soccer, however, there has always been a strange unification around the national team. It might be down the patriotism of the people or the acceptance that the American domestic game is not nearly as strong as other leagues around the world, but the national team has often come first.
It might be difficult for Americans steeped in American-only sporting culture to understand, but from an English perspective, the unification around the national team, even at the extent of your own club, is admirable. There is an unspoken focus on the betterment of U.S. soccer as a whole that is not present in many other footballing cultures.
So, then, it was a shock when Atlanta United refused the call-ups of three players: goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defenders Brooks Lennon and Miles Robinson. U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter wanted to name all three in his January camp squad, but Atlanta United refused, likely wanting the trio to remain for preseason training ahead of February’s CONCACAF Champions League.
This growing rift between Atlanta United and the USMNT might go back to Robinson’s injury that kept him out of last season’s playoffs. Robinson pulled his hamstring while on duty with the USMNT. Atlanta blamed the USMNT. In fact, head coach Frank de Boer did not hold back in his criticism:
"“We already communicated that we didn’t want him to do too much because he had a long season, he’s not used to playing that many games, and that he’s doing well, but take care of him. And he did — in my point of view — too much after the match. Maybe also he would have [suffered the same injury] in one of our games. But we especially said ‘just take it easy with him.’ They didn’t do it.”"
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De Boer also stated that discussions would be had between club and country regarding future selections:
"We have to have a really serious discussion with the federation that it doesn’t [happen] again <…> So we have to have a good conversation like adults and say ‘If we say this, you have to respect it.’ We’re not saying for [no reason] that he has to take a little bit off, because it’s already a very tough season for him.”"
Like with the playoffs last season, for Atlanta United, the CCL is one of the premier competitions of their season. February and March is a crucial period for the Five Stripes, one that de Boer wants to be best prepared for after disappointing in their first appearance in the competition last season. To be best prepared, de Boer chose to keep Guzan, Robinson and Lennon at the club. The same decision was also made with Ezquiel Barco and the Argentina under-23 team.
This may seem like Atlanta United choosing club over country, and to some extent it is, but Robinson and co. will be playing at a higher level in the CCL than they would be in the January camp. Not only are Atlanta within their own rights to prioritise their own prospects; they might be helping the development of these players.
In reality, the January camp has little bearing on the future of the USMNT. Most of the key players are not present. Atlanta, then, are quite within their own rights to refuse the call-ups of their players. Perhaps Seattle should have done the same.