In many ways, the U.S. World Cup qualifying team announced Thursday morning is the product of nearly four years of evolution, work and planning. It represents a long-awaited rebirth.
But the list of 26 men unveiled by coach Gregg Berhalter, like most national team squads, also is a reflection of a single moment in time. Short-term health, availability and form are always going to be a factor. New talent is often emerging. That’ll be especially relevant during the upcoming qualifying campaign, which features 14 matches across seven months and an unprecedented quartet of three-game, weeklong windows. It’ll be a test of resilience and depth.
That reality was amplified last week when Christian Pulisic, the UEFA Champions League winner who’s become the renewed U.S. national team’s most influential player, tested positive for the coronavirus. Vaccinated and symptom-free, the Chelsea forward still made the qualifying cut and so appears to have remained healthy and negotiated all required protocols. Berhalter said later Thursday that Pulisic is expected to fly to the U.S. this Sunday as long as he continues to test negative during and after clearing quarantine. But his potential arrival won't necessarily mean he's ready to play.
“It’s really too early to tell if he’ll be available for [any of the games]. We just don’t know right now. So it’s going to be a wait-and-see type of thing,” Berhalter said. “This is a COVID situation and there’s a lot of tests he needs to go through before he arrives. And then, even then, everyone handles it differently. Everyone responds to it differently. Everyone recovers from it differently, and that’s going to be the process that we’re looking at.”
Berhalter had no choice but to expect the unexpected, so he also left room for newcomers. Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old FC Dallas striker without a senior or U-23 cap, obviously missed out on all the buildup. But he’s got nine goals in 20 MLS matches, plays a position where Berhalter could use some help and is eligible for both the U.S. and Mexico. Waiting may not have been an option. Konrad de la Fuente, 20, is another somewhat unexpected inclusion. He had slipped toward the edge of national team picture after failing to find first-team minutes at Barcelona, but he’s made an impressive early impression at Olympique Marseille and surged back into contention.
The qualifying roster features 24 players (apart from Pepi and de la Fuente) who took part in the national team’s wildly successful summer, when it won the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup titles with almost entirely separate squads. That gold medal pedigree will be boosted by 10 men whose clubs have qualified for the group stage of this season’s UEFA Champions League, including Pulisic. But this U.S. team is still young, keeping with the theme of Berhalter’s rebuild. The average age is just a few days over 24, with 13 players 23 or younger. Only six have previous World Cup qualifying experience.
Now ranked 10th in the world by FIFA, the U.S. will gather in Nashville to begin training next week before flying to El Salvador, where it will open Concacaf’s eight-team, round-robin gantlet against La Selecta on Sept 2. The Americans then will return to Nashville to play Canada on Sept. 5. The window will close with an away game against Nations League semifinal foe Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Sept. 8. Only 23 players are eligible for each game-day roster.
The top three finishers in the Octagonal will qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The fourth-place team will enter a two-team intercontinental playoff for a final berth.
“We have spent the last two years building the foundation and culture of the team for this moment,” Berhalter said early Thursday. “World Cup qualifying is a grueling challenge that demands a complete group effort in order to be successful. We are confident in our ability to respond to the challenges that are presented along the way.”
Berhalter took the job in December 2018 and has managed 35 games (winning 26) in seven countries, including three regional finals (winning two). He’s fielded nearly 100 players. It’s all led to this. Here’s the list of men who will start the process to get the U.S. back to the World Cup:
Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
These three were the obvious choices for the squad. But the starter isn’t.
For a while, Steffen appeared to have the No. 1 shirt locked up. He’s the most experienced goalie toward the top of Berhalter’s depth chart and has played (occasionally) and trained at a high level at Manchester City.
But Horvath made a significant statement with his Nations League heroics, and Turner has been brilliant week-in, week-out for New England. While Steffen and Horvath rested this summer, Turner backstopped the U.S. to the Gold Cup crown, yielding just one goal (a penalty kick) across six outstanding games. To top it off, he was named MVP of Wednesday night’s MLS All-Star Game after saving two Liga MX penalties in the shootout.
Who starts, and whether one goalie gets the call in all three games, will be one of the central questions of this qualifying window. The slight favorite might be Turner. He’s the one in form.
George Bello (Atlanta United), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (New York City FC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
The U.S. is pretty deep at center back, especially after Robinson cemented his Concacaf bona fides with an MVP-worthy Gold Cup performance (Mexico’s Héctor Herrera snatched the official honor). He could be Berhalter’s first choice to start alongside the veteran Brooks.
It’s unlikely the same pairing will be used three times in seven days, however, so expect Zimmerman to see the field. Ream, McKenzie and Sands, another Gold Cup revelation, provide depth and add to Berhalter’s options if he chooses to deploy only three in back. He tried that look multiple times this summer. Bayern Munich’s Chris Richards is probably the most significant omission.
There appear to have been a couple of tougher choices at outside back, and there’s less depth in those areas of the field. The absence of Reggie Cannon (Boavista) and Shaq Moore (Tenerife), who played well at the Gold Cup, suggest that Dest will stay on the right side. Yedlin is another option there. Fulham’s Robinson and Bello, who’s just 19, can play on the left.
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
There’s no experimentation here. These are the midfielders who’ve earned Berhalter’s long-term trust, and they’ll be asked to shoulder a significant load. Acosta and Lletget are the only two players on the qualifying roster who were part of both the Gold Cup and Nations League triumphs.
Adams and Acosta are the top choices to play the central defensive role, with Sands available in a potential emergency. McKennie hasn’t played since the Nations League final and has endured an awkward start to the 2021–22 season. Transfer rumors are swirling, and he missed Juventus’s opener through suspension. But McKennie is a massive figure in Berhalter’s setup and likely will play a major role over the next two weeks.
Among the missing are promising Valencia prospect Yunus Musah, who’s been dealing with an ankle injury, as well as Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), Jackson Yuiell (San Jose Earthquakes) and Gianluca Busio (Venezia).
Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Konrad de la Fuente (Marseille), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), Tim Weah (Lille)
Berhalter has a lot of options here, especially on the wings. But it’s still not clear when and whether a first-choice finisher will emerge.
With 16 caps, the 21-year-old Sargent has the most experience up top. His five goals aren’t a bad return, especially considering his age, but his last U.S. goal came back in November 2019. Berhalter has praised Sargent’s work rate and effort off the ball, and that may be enough considering the attacking talent behind and beside him. But goals would be nice. His pair for Norwich in Tuesday’s 6–0 EFL Cup rout of Bournemouth is a good sign.
Pepi and Pefok are additional options at striker. Columbus Crew veteran Gyasi Zardes, traditionally one of Berhalter’s go-to guys, is out with a hamstring injury, and Orlando City’s Daryl Dike also has been hurt. Matthew Hoppe, who made his U.S. debut at the Gold Cup and played well (usually in a wider role), is in limbo at Schalke 04 and also was omitted.
Pepi very well may get some minutes. Even if he does, however, he won’t be cap-tied to the U.S. The El Paso–born son of Mexican parents, Pepi actually could play in all three qualifiers and still have the option to switch thanks to recently enacted FIFA regulations. From the sound of it, though, he's made his choice.
“I want to start by saying that I am a Mexican-American and that I am super proud of my heritage,” Pepi told FCDallas.com. “It’s something that will never be taken away from me, no matter what national team I play for. I made this decision because I felt the USA trusts me and I think that’s due to [USMNT coach] Gregg Berhalter and how he emphasized this to me. I had good talks with Gregg and I feel I can make an impact with the USA and help this national team really do something special now and in the future.”
Pepi has attended junior national team camps in both the U.S. and Mexico and was on the American squad at the 2019 U-17 World Cup.
The U.S.’s attacking strength is on the wings, with Pulisic and Reyna leading the way and Aaronson enjoying an excellent start to his season in Salzburg. The 20-year-old already has two goals and two assists for the Austrian champions.
The injured Paul Arriola (D.C. United) and striker-winger Nicholas Gioacchini (Caen), a Gold Cup reserve, didn’t make the squad.
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