After winning two trophies, both at the expense of rival Mexico, the extended U.S. men's national team player pool has ample reason to feel quite good about everything. The Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup triumphs were exercises in validation and momentum-building, and things couldn't have unfolded more productively for coach Gregg Berhalter over the course of the two competitions.
Now, the stakes get even higher and that expanded pool will shrink a bit.
The U.S. is month out from World Cup qualifying, with the compressed road to Qatar beginning in El Salvador on Sept. 2 and hardly slowing down through the end of qualifying on March 30. The point of the Nations League and Gold Cup, aside from competing to win, was to find out who could crack it in the high-intensity environments where winning and losing had ramifications far greater than they do in friendlies. The nucleus and Europe-based core of the U.S. competed in the Nations League final four, while a more MLS-heavy contingent took the baton for the Gold Cup, and both wound up succeeding despite differing levels of chemistry, cohesion and expectations.
Late goals and heroics emerged as a theme for both groups over the course of the last couple of months. There was Jordan Siebatcheu's 89th-minute diving header vs. Honduras to secure the U.S.'s place in the Nations League final. There was Weston McKennie's immediate answer to Diego Lainez's go-ahead goal in the 82nd minute of that final to push it to extra time. And it was in that added 30 minutes that Christian Pulisic scored on a penalty kick and Ethan Horvath sensationally kept Andres Guardado's out to secure the trophy.
After a Gold Cup group stage in which the U.S. actually rode early goals to victory for a change, the knockout stage displayed its knack for coming through late again. Matthew Hoppe's 83rd-minute goal eliminated Jamaica in the quarterfinals, while Gyasi Zardes's 86th-minute strike vs. Qatar punched the ticket to the final. There, Miles Robinson's 117th-minute header clinched the U.S.'s seventh title and capped his phenomenal tournament on both sides of the field.
As Berhalter said in his post-final team talk, "Again, 80-plus minute, that's our time, baby. That's when we get it done."
Now it's time to see who can get it done on Concacaf's new-look qualifying stage, where eight teams enter the octagonal and only three emerge with tickets to Qatar (a fourth will go to an intercontinental playoff for another place at the World Cup). Over the last two competitions, 43 players were used. Of the 23 on the Nations League squad, four carried over to the 23-man Gold Cup squad, and one injury replacement was made (Henry Kessler for Walker Zimmerman) over the duration of the competition.
While the Nations League and Gold Cup squads had to be capped at 23, there is no such limit for World Cup qualifying. Matchday squads will be limited per usual, but Berhalter can call in as many players as he'd like to camp and whittle down for each match from there, which gives the manager a bit more leeway—something that will come in handy in this compressed version of qualifying, where four of the five windows feature three matches apiece. Figuring that each camp will total about 26 to 28 players or so, here's what the first group could look like for September, using all of the data points provided by the last two months:
Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Steffen is still almost certainly the No. 1 and the most likely candidate to start vs. El Salvador on Sept. 2, but it's not as cut and dry as it once might have seemed. Horvath's heroics coming off the bench cold vs. Mexico won't soon be forgotten, and Turner was an absolute rock in the Gold Cup en route to winning top goalkeeper honors in the competition. What once looked like a group with questionable depth now appears to be one with three very viable and reliable options, and Turner's ascent likely contributed to Real Salt Lake's David Ochoa—the third goalkeeper on the Nations League squad—reportedly opting to switch international allegiances to Mexico.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (NYCFC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)
The answer of who should start alongside Brooks in central defense became a bit more clear. McKenzie bounced back from a Nations League gaffe to show his mettle and prove his worth, while Robinson was arguably the biggest winner from an individual standpoint at the Gold Cup. Beyond them, Richards, who missed the Nations League with a hamstring injury, needs to sort his club situation for the season—another loan from Bayern seems likely—while Sands showed glimpses of what makes him so highly touted in the Gold Cup. Aaron Long's Achilles injury will keep him out for the foreseeable future, while Zimmerman's hamstring status also jeopardizes his availability.
On the outside, there are some choices to make. The right back depth chart is stocked, with Dest, Cannon and Yedlin topping it and Shaq Moore and Roma's Bryan Reynolds not too far behind. Moore, in particular, proved he's worthy of return call-ups after a three-year stint in the international wilderness. The left still doesn't have a clear-cut starter that would keep the versatile Dest on his preferred right, and, subjectively speaking, Sam Vines didn't show enough on the defensive side of things to thrust himself fully into the conversation—evidenced by the relatively untested George Bello being preferred to start the Gold Cup final.
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
You can pencil McKennie and Adams into a U.S. starting lineup as long as they're healthy, but beyond that, some discussions could be had.
An injury to Yunus Musah, suffered during Valencia preseason, threatens to keep him out of contention for the first three qualifiers and also opens up more room in the center for Roldan and Williamson, who showcased what roles they can fill during the Gold Cup in terms of winning the ball and pushing things forward. Acosta, however, was the big winner given his participation in both the Nations League and Gold Cup and the role he played in securing the trophy in the latter. His gamesmanship, leadership and veteran guile proved to be useful, and his set-piece service to Robinson for the Gold Cup winner was sublime.
Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Matthew Hoppe (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Pulisic and Reyna should man either side of a front three, while Berhalter himself has said that Aaronson is pushing for a starting berth there. Hoppe, who has featured centrally for Schalke but transitioned extremely nicely to a wide area on the Gold Cup squad, also brings tools, an eye for goal and moxie that should be useful. Aside from what is quantifiable, something about him just looks the part. He does, however, need to sort his club situation and ensure a smooth transition, with reports of a move from Schalke swirling.
The one question that remains unanswered is at center forward, but it's hard to argue against Siebatcheu. He has started the new season for Young Boys (under German-American manager David Wagner) with two goals in league play and another in Champions League qualifying, and nobody else has emerged to make a compelling case otherwise. Daryl Dike could well wind up as a star in that role. He possesses all the tools to inherit it, and he was given multiple opportunities in the Gold Cup to seize it, but a shoulder injury suffered vs. Canada looked to be limiting. He could play his way into a more certain place over the next few weeks with Orlando—or elsewhere should a move abroad transpire. Depending on how big of a squad Berhalter wants to take, he could yet be included in the September group.
While the roster may be expanded, this group can only feature so many components. Beyond Dike being on the cusp, there's Nicholas Gioacchini, who provided a consistent spark off the bench in the Gold Cup, and Paul Arriola, whose veteran experience and abilities on the wing have been valued by Berhalter. Should injuries or other factors come into play, they're the next men up. Given that that's what the theme of the Gold Cup wound up being for the U.S., they should have no problem answering the bell.
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