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Experimentation time is over. With only two friendlies left before the United States men’s national team begins World Cup play against Wales on Nov. 21, there’s no time left for coach Gregg Berhalter to waste on determining the final, mostly inconsequential roster spots.
For that reason, the 26-man roster he called in for the upcoming games against Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27) will serve as somewhat of a World Cup preview. The team is without potential starters goalkeeper Zack Steffen, left-back Antonee Robinson and winger Timothy Weah due to injuries, but outside of those three there isn’t much reason — barring more injury complications — to believe anyone else in the U.S. player pool remains in serious contention to contribute in Qatar.
Berhalter stressed otherwise Wednesday, saying other players can still make the final roster — he has no incentive to say anything to the contrary — but his selections are a clear message about how he views the team. The reality of the way this World Cup is structured requires these next two games to be used to help the team gel.
Let’s take a look at who’s in the team, and at whose expense.
In: Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Ricardo Pepi (FC Groningen), Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
Out: Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin), Haji Wright (Antalyaspor), Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati)
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Ferreira was the only near-lock at this position. The combination of his MLS form (18 goals in 30 games) and increased role with the U.S. in the past several months indicated as much.
So, that left the five others vying for inclusion, and what’s tempting to read into is how many players are on this roster. Mexico, for example, called in 31. There isn’t a limit. If Berhalter wanted to bring in another player or two, he had that option. He chose not to, citing the desire the mimic the amount the team can carry at the World Cup (26) and the lack of game time to get players on the field.
The most notable omission here is Pefok, who has started five of six games in the Bundesliga for first-place Union Berlin, scoring two goals. By Berhalter’s own admission, he’s been “tearing defenses up.” Contrast that with the inclusion of Pepi, who hasn’t scored since October 2021 and was so ineffective following a big-money move to FC Augsburg (currently 13th in the Bundesliga) that he was loaned out, and the logic is hard to follow.
Berhalter acknowledged Pepi has had a tough time since scoring three goals early in qualifying and that they are trying to get his confidence up. Maybe it pays off. Pepi has shown he can be a prolific goal scorer, but it’s certainly a gamble to use this period to get a young player’s confidence up ahead of the World Cup instead of going with a more proven, in-form option.
Playing out of position on the wing last year in the Premier League, Sargent’s opportunities with the U.S. became limited. But now that he’s playing at his natural No. 9 position following Norwich’s relegation, he’s regained his form with five goals in his past five league games (all wins). The question now becomes: How close is he to earning the starting job?
In: Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
Out: Tim Weah (Lille), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Konrad de la Fuente (Olympiakos)
This group is straightforward. Weah isn’t in because of injury, and if Berhalter elects to carry five wingers in Qatar, that likely means the final spot will be between Arriola and Morris, neither of whom figure to have a significant role.
Reyna’s return is massive. He’s slowly been worked back into form at Dortmund early this season after a disastrous year on the injury front that limited his involvement with the national team. When healthy, he can be the most impactful player on the roster. Both Reyna and Aaronson give the team some positional flexibility. They’re both in the mix to start on the right wing — opposite Pulisic on the left — but can also be effective playing in central midfield. After seeing how effective Aaronson has been for Leeds, it will be tough to keep him off the field.
In: Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Malik Tillman (Rangers), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC)
Out: Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Sebastian Lletget (FC Dallas)
Similar to winger, the midfield almost self-selects at this point. There is a clear starting trio with Adams, McKennie and Musah, with De la Torre, Acosta and Tillman clearly in a different tier.
The only player in this group whose World Cup roster spot doesn’t appear solid is Tillman, who is on loan at Rangers from Bayern Munich. “He’s done well but he needs to do better,” Berhalter said. “He needs to increase his level. Disappointed with his last couple performances against Ajax and Celtic but he’s got a ton of quality.” It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, which hints at that possibility that his spot is vulnerable upon Weah’s return (taking into account, again, Reyna and Aaronson’s flexibility).
In: Sergino Dest (AC Milan), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF), Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach), Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp)
Out: Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Shaq Moore (Nashville SC), George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld)
With Robinson, an established starter, out due to injury, it provides both Vines and Scally a chance to compete for the backup left-back spot. It seems unlikely either will factor in much in Qatar, but both are off to good starts with their club teams. Berhalter said Vines is “in the form of his life,” playing regularly in Belgium.
Dest is almost assured to start at the World Cup and the preferred pairing is with him on the right and Robinson on the left, but with Robinson unavailable it will be interesting to see Berhalter’s selections for the friendlies. Does he play Dest on the right to build chemistry with those he’ll most likely play alongside in Qatar? Or does he shift to the left, which he’s done in the past, to get Cannon or Yedlin on the field ahead of Vines or Scally? The inclination here would be to play Dest on the right because, to stress this point again, this should be as close to a dress rehearsal as possible.
In: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville)
Out: Mark McKenzie (Genk), Tim Ream (Fulham), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes), James Sands (Rangers), Matt Miazga (FC Cincinnati), John Brooks (Benfica)
In this calendar year, Berhalter has given minutes to six center-backs: Zimmerman (630), Miles Robinson (425), Long (305), Carter-Vickers (216), Richards (180) and Palmer-Brown (55). With Robinson out through injury and Palmer-Brown the least used of the group, the four roster selections were in no way surprising.
Still, there were other players that deserved strong consideration. Ream is captaining the 10th-place team in the Premier League, Sands is playing in the Champions League and McKenzie has locked down a starting spot for the second-place team in Belgium. Berhalter name-checked those three, plus Palmer-Brown and Miazga, noting that it made for difficult decisions. It remains bizarre that Brooks, who was on Benfica’s gameday roster in the Champions League on Wednesday, has fallen so far out of favor without a clear explanation, but that’s only barely still noteworthy.
In: Matt Turner (Arsenal), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Ethan Horvath (Luton Town)
Out: Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough)
Turner or Steffen? That’s been the main question for more than a year. They’re the only two who have really factored into the discussion about who should be the No. 1, and now neither of them are playing. As expected, Turner has been on the bench following his move from the New England Revolution to Arsenal, while Steffen is out with injury following a shaky start to his loan at Middlesbrough, where there’s speculation he’ll be on the bench upon his return to health.
It’s a problematic situation that won’t be solved by switching to Johnson or Horvath, who have two combined caps since the start of World Cup qualifying.
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