USMNT roster breakdown: Depth, talent means high expectations for World Cup qualifiers

Despite the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup, it begins 2022 World Cup qualifying next week with significantly heightened expectations. In the nearly four years since the USMNT didn’t punch a ticket to Russia, the player pool has experienced an unprecedented amount of breakthroughs in the sport’s biggest leagues. That influx of talent helped the team to a pair of trophies over the summer, which included wins against rivals Mexico in the Nations League and Gold Cup finals.

– USMNT roster: Pulisic, Reyna lead the way for qualifying
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Here is a look at the 26-man roster Gregg Berhalter has called in for the upcoming qualifying window, which features games at El Salvador (Sept. 2), home against Canada in Nashville (Sept. 5) and at Honduras (Sept. 8). Ten of the players are slated to takes part in the UEFA Champions League, only six have taken part in past World Cup qualifying campaigns and all but two took part in the Nations League or Gold Cup triumphs this summer.

(Editor’s note: players are listed below with name/club; U.S. caps/goals)


Forwards

Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg/AUT; 7/3), Konrad de la Fuente (Olympique Marseille/FRA; 1/0), Jordan Pefok (BSC Young Boys/SUI; 6/1), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas; 0/0), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 38/16), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 8/4), Josh Sargent (Norwich City/ENG; 16/5), Tim Weah (Lille/FRA; 13/1)

Though Christian Pulisic is on the roster, his availability during the window remains unclear after he tested positive for COVID-19 last week. It would obviously be a massive loss if the Chelsea winger isn’t able to play, but it’s still an intriguing group of attacking players, five of whom (including Pulisic) will be participating in the Champions League group stage this season.

If Berhalter was looking to field a true first-choice XI, it would probably have Pulisic, Josh Sargent and Gio Reyna across the front, but the need to rotate in the compact window — with three games in eight days — will likely lead to multiple combinations. Should Pulisic be unable to play then Brenden Aaronson, who is off to a fantastic start with Salzburg, would be in line for an increased role and, either way, figures to see key minutes on the wing.

Considering his option to play for Mexico, Ricardo Pepi’s commitment to the U.S. and subsequent inclusion is the most noteworthy part of the entire roster. He slots in at No. 3 on the striker depth chart behind Sargent and Jordan Pefok, but with three games in seven days, the FC Dallas prodigy should see playing time. Aside from Pepi, winger Konrad De La Fuente is the only other player on the roster who didn’t take part in either the Gold Cup or Nations League over the summer. His transfer from Barcelona to Olympique Marseille in France provided a stage to impress and he took advantage, showcasing a dynamic ability to take players on 1-on-1 that is rare within the pool.

On the flip side, it’s a bit surprising that Matthew Hoppe wasn’t included considering he was one of the team’s better players at the Gold Cup, but Berhalter acknowledged Hoppe is one of the players (along with defenders Reggie Cannon and Shaq Moore) that has not been playing for their clubs after missing preseason time due to national team obligations. Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike were unavailable due to injury.

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Gab & Juls feel off the pitch issues could end up seeing Weston McKennie depart Juventus.

Midfielders

Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids; 37/2), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 14/1), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy; 29/7), Weston McKennie (Juventus/ITA; 24/7), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders; 25/0)

On paper, the team is carrying five midfielders, but players like James Sands and Reyna can easily slide into the midfield. Adams, though, is the most important of the group. He’s far-and-away the best No. 6 in the pool, and his ability to defend in transition will be especially important in qualifying considering the bulk of CONCACAF opposition will likely defend and counter against them.

For McKennie, who has been the subject of transfer rumors away from Juventus in recent weeks, qualifying represents a huge opportunity to further establish himself as one of the faces of this exciting young generation.

Kellyn Acosta’s reemergence with the national team was one of the most positive developments of the summer, and his positional flexibility is a key asset within the midfield. He can play as a No. 8, as he does for the Colorado Rapids, and showed he’s capable at the No. 6 with the U.S. this summer. Lletget and Roldan aren’t necessarily the types of talents who can help the U.S. breakthrough on the global stage, but they’re still capable of making an impact within CONCACAF.

It would have been exciting to see Yunus Musah in an official competition, but injury meant the Valencia midfielder was unavailable. A midfield trio of him, Adams and McKennie is something to look forward to.

Defenders

George Bello (Atlanta United; 3/0), John Brooks (Wolfsburg/GER; 43/3), Sergino Dest (Barcelona/ESP; 11/1), Mark McKenzie (Genk/BEL; 6/0), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 45/1), Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG; 12/0), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United; 9/3), James Sands (New York City FC; 6/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray/TUR; 64/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 17/2)

Berhalter’s decision to carry six central defenders indicates he’s at least prepared to play three at once — an experiment that, at times, had encouraging results during the summer. John Brooks is the one clear starter, while strong cases can also be made for Mark McKenzie (started during Nations League), Miles Robinson (strong showing at Gold Cup) and Walker Zimmerman (Gold Cup starter before injury, strong on set pieces). If they play with three central defenders, Sands becomes a good option to play in the middle, while Tim Ream’s continued inclusion feels like a need for a veteran presence.

With two natural left-backs (Antonee Robinson and George Bello) and two natural right-backs (Sergino Dest and DeAndre Yedlin), it appears Berhalter will use Dest primarily on the right. It’s appealing to have Dest on the left, where he has the ability to combine with Pulisic, but the downside is that when he pushes up it can put Brooks in a tough spot on the counter, where he’s not at his best. Having Dest on the same side as Robinson should give him much more freedom to join the attack without the same level of concern about getting caught out of position.

The exclusion of Bayern Munich‘s Chris Richards makes the case for him to seek another loan move away from the German giants while the transfer window is still open. He was very good during a loan spell at Hoffenheim over the second half of last season and likely would have been in line for a call up had he been playing consistently to start this season. He’s in a strange spot: Richards is talented enough to be consistently in the matchday squad for one of the best clubs in the world, but hasn’t quite developed into a regular contributor at the international level.

Goalkeepers

Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 7/0), Zack Steffen (Manchester City/ENG; 23/0), Matt Turner (New England Revolution; 7/0)

There were no surprises here as Zack Steffen, Matt Turner and Ethan Horvath were the obvious choices to fill the roster. Where it gets interesting is when discussing the depth chart, as all three have valid claims to the No. 1 job and, intriguingly, Berhalter didn’t commit to anyone when discussing the roster on Thursday.

Let’s start with Steffen. He’s long been considered the de facto starter, has a long history with Berhalter and there is a level of credibility attached to his name the others don’t have because he plays for Manchester City. “If he’s good enough for Pep Guardiola to have on his roster…” so the argument goes. Steffen’s club situation also means he doesn’t get much playing time given that Ederson, a Brazilian international, is the locked-in starter. Reps matter, so while Steffen has been mostly good with the USMNT, it’s hard be confident how sharp he’ll be with just over 1,000 competitive minutes for City in the 2020-21 season.

If Steffen doesn’t start, the nod will likely go to Turner, who has seen his reputation skyrocket over the past year first for the New England Revolution, and then in this summer’s Gold Cup. In six tournament matches, Turner didn’t allow a goal from open play and because he’s an everyday starter for his club, there are no questions about his form.

Horvath also faces questions about consistent playing time after moving from Club Brugge to Nottingham Forest in the English Championship. However, he was sensational coming off the bench to preserve the win against Mexico in the Nations League and is deserving of more opportunities.