The United States men's national team officially kicks off the 2026 FIFA World Cup cycle on Wednesday.
However, the friendly match against Serbia will be more of an afterthought compared to situations off the field involving the USMNT.
Manager Gregg Berhalter was out of contract at the end of 2022, although he was still considered a possibility to return. Further questions were raised, though, when U.S. Soccer hired an independent law firm to investigate Berhalter after he announced publicly that he kicked Rosalind Berhalter, his now-wife, in the legs during an argument in 1991.
Berhalter said he made the announcement publicly because an individual contacted U.S. Soccer with information that could "take [him] down" during the Qatar World Cup, where his team was eliminated in the round of 16. It was then revealed that the person who contacted U.S. Soccer was Danielle Reyna, mother of current USMNT player Gio Reyna and wife of former USMNT player Claudio Reyna.
Danielle told The Athletic's Paul Tenorio she was upset after Berhalter made public comments criticizing an unnamed USMNT player's conduct during the World Cup, which many presumed to be Gio Reyna after he featured sporadically.
Neither Reyna nor Berhalter will be present for the annual January camp, which typically features players based in Major League Soccer or younger players who have not broken into their respective first teams in Europe, such as Reyna for Borussia Dortmund.
Former Colorado Rapids and New Zealand manager Anthony Hudson, who was an assistant for Berhalter in the last World Cup cycle, will be in charge of the USMNT for Wednesday's meeting with Serbia and the clash with Colombia on Saturday in southern California.
World Cup participants Walker Zimmerman, Kellyn Acosta and Jesus Ferreira headline the USMNT's squad for the January matches, but they have not been talked about as much as new arrivals like Alejandro Zendejas.
Zendejas has played at the youth level for the United States, but he is also eligible to make a one-time switch to Mexico. The Club América midfielder will only be available for Wednesday's game before he returns to the Liga MX club.
The 24-year-old will be one of a few national-team prospects to keep an eye on inside BMO Stadium in Los Angeles against Serbia's "B" team, featuring young players and two MLS-based players.
USMNT vs. Serbia Info
Date: Wednesday, January 25
Start Time: 10 p.m. ET
Live Stream: HBO Max
Top Storylines to Watch
Alejandro Zendejas' Fit With USMNT
The January camp typically serves the purpose of identifying young or domestic talent and how they fit into the national team picture ahead of the qualification campaign.
But the USMNT resides in a new position this January because it does not have to qualify for the 2026 World Cup on home soil. It also does not have a manager to implement his system on the group.
The USMNT should hope for some individual talents to shine on Wednesday, though, and Zendejas may be the most important of those players expected to be on the field.
The 24-year-old has not committed to the USMNT or Mexico yet. El Tri fielded him in two friendlies in 2021 and 2022 despite not filing the official one-time switch between federations with FIFA.
The former U.S. youth international discussed his situation during the preparation for the match, per ESPN's Cesar Hernandez.
"I'll probably focus on the future once we get to that standpoint," Zendejas said. "I'm enjoying the moment, I'm enjoying the present. I'd rather live day-by-day. Once the moment comes to choose, or the future, I'll decide on that later."
Zendejas likely will not make his commitment any time soon because of the uncertainty surrounding the USMNT manager. His goal on Wednesday should be to gain chemistry with the attacking players on the field. That would at least give Berhalter, if he returns, or a new coach some sort of foundation to work with.
Zendejas' presence does bring some excitement to what is usually a bland fixture because of the lack of high-profile names that are busy playing in Europe. The FC Dallas academy product has six goals and three assists in 19 games for Club América this season.
An impressive performance would generate some buzz within the USMNT fanbase about what Zendejas could look like in red, white and blue in the future.
Future USMNT Stars On Display
The younger players in January camp with either zero or a small amount of USMNT caps should be the focus of the two upcoming friendlies.
Goalkeeper Gaga Slonina, who signed for Chelsea from the Chicago Fire in August, and midfielder Paxten Aaronson, who recently moved to Eintracht Frankfurt from the Philadelphia Union, are two of the prospects worth watching most.
Slonina had 12 clean sheets for the Fire in 2022 before he moved to England, while Aaronson gained European attention after his performances at the Concacaf Under-20 Championship. Aaronson's older brother, Brenden, plays for Leeds United in the English Premier League and featured at the World Cup for the USMNT.
New York Red Bulls full-back John Tolkin, 20, and San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell, 19, are a few of the MLS-based prospects worth watching to see how they perform at the senior level.
Hudson may choose to use Zimmerman, Acosta, Ferreira and Aaron Long in the game to provide some veteran presence and to help those players regain fitness with the MLS season on the horizon.
But the primary focus of Wednesday's game should be to integrate new players into the squad.
Newly minted American citizen Julian Gressel, who can play at full back or on the wing, is another one to watch, while 18-goal scorer for FC Cincinnati in 2022 Brandon Vazquez and 23-year-old Sam Rogers, who has developed into a reliable starter with Rosenborg in Norway after five years in the USL Championship, should also get a chance to impress.
Prediction: USMNT 2, Serbia 0
Do not expect a world-class match.
The USMNT is in flux, and Wednesday's game is more about individual development than the final score, and their opposition is unlikely to provide the toughest of tests. New England Revolution goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic and L.A. Galaxy forward Dejan Joveljic are the most recognizable players on Serbia's roster.
The USMNT should create a handful of decent chances regardless of which players start up top, and the experience of Zimmerman and Long will be relied upon to limit Serbia's opportunities in the final third.
The individual performances should mean more in the long run than the result, but it never hurts to win a game, even if it is a friendly with no head coach in charge.