By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSocccer.com Editor

The specter of COVID-19 continues to loom over the U.S. men’s national team as it prepares for the winter World Cup qualifying window.

That’s why head coach Gregg Berhalter named a 28-man roster for the three games and has an emergency plan of stand-by players just in case the Omicron variant breaks out throughout the team.

Berhalter has realized given how quickly Omicron can spread, it is a wildcard for his team.

“We have to be very cautious with COVID during this window,” he said during a Zoom media call from the team’s Phoenix, Ariz. training camp on Friday afternoon. “It’s spreading like wildfire, and there’s a chance that anyone in that is coming into camp can potentially be excluded based on that. We already had one player have to drop off the roster because of it.”

That was midfielder Gianluca Busio, the former Sporting Kansas City midfielder who plays for Venezia in Italy’s Serie A.

“He was called in and he got COVID and that’s unfortunate,” Berhalter said. “He was part of the roster and we had to make changes.”

So, as a precaution, Berhalter brought in a large camp.

“When I look at the threat of COVID and how quickly this new variant has been spreading, we can expect guys to come into camp and test positive,” he said. “That’s just the nature of it. So we need some protection on that.”

The USMNT (4-1-3, 15 points) starts the window in the Concacaf Octagonal against El Salvador (1-4-3, 6) in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday. The second-place Americans travel to Hamilton, Ontario to take on group leader Canada (4-0-4, 16) on Sunday, Jan. 30 before returning home to face Honduras in St. Paul, Minn. on Feb. 2.

Just in case COVID-19 breaks out and sidelines several players, Berhalter has a Plan B. He said that the USA has “alternates that are ready to go.”

“We also purposely brought a larger number of players from this group here because we know we’re in the bubble here. We know that we’re safe. We’re going to be traveling over to Columbus privately. So we know that’s going to be a closed environment. Then it’s just about having the rest of the group on standby in case we need [them].”

But Berhalter was hopeful he won’t have to use any alternates.

“We think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said, adding that he brought more players into training camp, it could become unmanageable.

“When you start going over 30 it starts getting to be difficult to manage training and training participation.

“We think we’re pretty well covered. We just have to hope for the best. There are instructions going out to the players about how to travel over here and to make sure they’re wearing in RN-95 [masks] and being really cautious because everyone knows how the COVID has been spreading. We just have to be careful.”