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McKennie Returns; Pulisic, Reyna Out Injured for USMNT's October World Cup Qualifying Squad

World Cup qualifying resumes on Oct. 7, and the U.S. will be without two of its top stars for matches against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica, though one of its midfield leaders returns after being kicked off the team in the opening window.

At least the U.S. men's national team can plan ahead for the attrition this time around.

The first 2022 World Cup qualifying window was a crash course in what can go wrong in a compressed camp during these uncertain pandemic times. Key players were lost to injury and COVID-19, while a leading figure was booted from the team in the middle of camp. Amid all of that, the U.S. drew twice and won its final match with a convincing 45-minute display. Now, it looks ahead to the October window, knowing full well what adversity and limitations will be put on the side for home matches against Jamaica in Austin (Oct. 7) and Costa Rica in Columbus (Oct. 13) that sandwich a road bout vs. Panama (Oct. 10).

Those limitations include not having the services of attacking stars Christian Pulisic (ankle) and Gio Reyna (hamstring), who were injured in the opening window, have not played for their clubs since and were omitted from the 27-player roster revealed by U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter on Wednesday. Their absences aren't the only hurdles to overcome, though. According to U.S. Soccer, the U.K.-based players won't be permitted to join the team in Panama, due to Britain's "red list" for travel restrictions. That had been expected for some time, and unless exceptions are made or those restrictions are rolled back in the coming days, that means three players on the current squad—Man City's Zack Steffen and Fulham's Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream—will not be available for the second match of the window.

Weston McKennie returns for the USMNT

Weston McKennie, who was at the center of the most spectacular part of that September attrition, is back, though. After being held out for the second match of qualifying vs. Canada and then being kicked off the team and sent back to Juventus ahead of the window finale in Honduras for breaking team protocol in Nashville, the 23-year-old returns to help fortify the midfield. He is one of four players entering camp carrying a yellow card, however, putting him one away from being forced to miss another match. Tyler Adams, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are in the same boat.

Despite all that went wrong in the opening window, the U.S. finds itself on rather steady footing as it relates to achieving its ultimate goal. After the first three of 14 qualifying matches, it's tied with Canada and Panama for second place in Concacaf's Octagonal, with the three teams all on five points, two behind first-place Mexico. With a successful window—and with two home matches, the U.S. should be targeting nothing less than a six-point haul—all of that early attrition could be put in the distant past and relegated to footnote status. 

“We are excited to get the group back together for this next round of World Cup qualifiers,” Berhalter said in a statement. “This squad represents a diverse group of talent, and we will need to rely on each and every team member to navigate through these three games. Our focus now is Jamaica and preparing to win that game.”

Here is a closer look at the U.S. squad that will look to turn that—and two positive results after that—into reality:

GOALKEEPERS

Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

Turner was a bright spot in the opening window and could well resume his duties as the No. 1 despite Steffen's return to action for Man City following back spasms and a positive COVID-19 test that ruled him out for the first three U.S. qualifiers. Turner's pivotal save against Honduras that kept the match at 1–1 before the U.S. rattled off three more goals could wind up being an under-appreciated yet vital moment on the qualifying road. As for Johnson, he was called in as a late roster replacement for Steffen last camp and would figure to be the backup in Panama, where Steffen, at least for now, will not be joining the team. Ethan Horvath, the Concacaf Nations League final hero, misses out entirely after getting off to a rocky start at Nottingham Forest. He wouldn't have been able to travel to Panama, either.

DEFENDERS 

George Bello (Atlanta United), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Shaq Moore (Tenerife), Tim Ream (Fulham), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)

The big new addition here is Richards, who is getting regular minutes again after securing a second loan from Bayern Munich to Hoffenheim and is now suited to be part of the evolving center back picture. Brooks's shaky play in the opening window cast a brighter light on Miles Robinson, while McKenzie and Ream fill out the picture in the middle.

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In terms of center backs who were not included, James Sands and Walker Zimmerman, who were part of the September squad, have been omitted, while there's no space for Matt Miazga, who is playing regularly now for Alavés in La Liga after securing a loan from Chelsea.

Out wide, there's no place for Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, two right backs who aren't getting time for their respective clubs—though that same affliction didn't impact Moore from getting recalled following his strong play at the Gold Cup. This also has not proven to be the time for Joe Scally's first call-up. The 18-year-old fullback has been a revelation at Borussia Mönchengladbach this season and can operate on both sides, but he's yet to be capped at the senior U.S. level. It'll be another month at least before that happens, with Dest, Antonee Robinson, Yedlin and Bello taking up the responsibility on the outside. Berhalter did say that Scally would play a role for the U.S. in the future.

MIDFIELDERS

Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

The major headline here is McKennie's return after he was banished from U.S. camp during the opening window. His importance to the team on the field is obvious, and he's long been considered one of the leaders of this young generation off of it as well, but his actions and infractions cast his status in a different light. Berhalter evidently feels that the proper consequences were suffered and that it's time to move on, as he had hinted would be the case recently.

There are some other significant developments in the midfield, too. Busio returns after getting some exposure to Serie A with Venezia, while Musah is also back in the fold after getting some more consistent minutes at Valencia and could finally be cap-tied after committing his future to the U.S. in the spring. There's also the arrival of the 23-year-old de la Torre, who has been a starting lineup fixture for Heracles in the Eredivisie but has just two caps since 2018, both coming in a pair of March 2021 friendlies.

Adams's inclusion despite his recent muscle injury became more apparent when he took part in RB Leipzig's Champions League match vs. Club Brugge on Tuesday. That's a huge relief for the U.S. given how indispensable Adams has proven to be. He was one of two players (Miles Robinson being the other) to go all 270 minutes in the opening window.

FORWARDS

Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Matthew Hoppe (Mallorca), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)

With Pulisic and Reyna both out and Konrad de la Fuente not called in, the onus falls on Aaronson, Weah and Arriola—the latter two both missed the first camp with injuries—to provide quality from the wings. In speaking to the media following the roster release, Berhalter left the door open to call in both Pulisic and Reyna at some point in camp, but he did add that it was very unlikely either would be brought in late due to the fact that they're not match fit and still on the mend. Pulisic, if the travel restrictions remain in place, wouldn't be able to play in Panama anyway.

In the center, Pepi, the unexpected hero in Honduras, is back in the fold and would appear to have a more significant role lined up, with other center forwards such as Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent and Daryl Dike not called in. Zardes, who was hurt prior to the last window, is back, while Hoppe, who has acclimated to life at Mallorca after his summer transfer, can offer quality either in the center or out wide, as he showed at the Gold Cup in his first look under Berhalter.

It's a genuine surprise, at least on the surface, that Pefok is not included. Not only is the U.S. light on true center forwards, especially those adept at getting onto the scoring end of set pieces, but he's been on fire for Young Boys, with goals in three straight games, including a match-winner against Manchester United in the Champions League. If the U.S. struggles in the final third, then his omission will look even more curious. Berhalter indicated that it was a product of how he sees the trio of games playing out and how the U.S. will look to play that Pefok was not included.

There's also no room for Nicholas Gioacchini, who has proved useful as a substitute for the U.S. and has played sparingly for Montpellier off the bench after securing a summer move to the Ligue 1 side.

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