We are three weeks away from the final three World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. men’s national team to secure its place at the 2022 World Cup, and Gregg Berhalter is facing some difficult challenges as he prepares for the crucial clashes in Mexico, against Panama, and in Costa Rica.
Weston McKennie’s broken foot has left the USMNT without arguably its best player for the most important matches the Americans have played in five years, but adversity is nothing new for a team that has not had the luxury of fielding a full-strength team at any point in the Octagonal.
Replacing McKennie is only one of the areas of concern for the U.S. team heading into the final qualifying window. The team’s striker pool is an unsettled bunch, with Ricardo Pepi in the midst of a goal drought, but with Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok gaining momentum as they push to regain their places on the USMNT.
Goalkeeper has suddenly become an area of concern, with both Zack Steffen and Matt Turner currently dealing with injury issues. Neither has been ruled out for qualifiers just yet, but the uncertainty surrounding their injury situations will have USMNT understandably nervous.
Plenty can still change in the next two weeks, before the USMNT squad convenes ahead of the trip to Mexico on March 24, but for now it is time to take stock of where the current player pool stands, and to consider the options most likely to make Berhalter’s squad for these all-important matches.
Here is the 27-player roster we could see Berhalter calling up for the March World Cup qualifiers:
Projected USMNT World Cup Qualifying Roster
Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath
There are some serious question marks surrounding the goalkeeper position due to injury issues being faced by the top two options in the pool. Matt Turner and Zack Steffen have both missed matches in recent weeks, and with the first March qualifier against Mexico just three weeks away, Gregg Berhalter could find himself facing some tough decisions.
Turner is dealing with a foot injury which he may have picked up during the USMNT’s qualifying win against Honduras in early February, while Steffen is battling a shoulder injury. It remains if clear if either will be available when the USMNT convenes ahead of the March qualifiers, and there have been few details made available about the severity of their injuries.
The good news in the goalkeeper department is that Ethan Horvath has made consecutive starts for Nottingham Forest in place of suspended starter Brice Samba. Horvath has not allowed a goal in either start, and is due at least one more start before Samba returns from suspension. Could the run of matches push Horvath back into Berhalter’s plans, and could it be enough to earn him a start or two in qualifying? The memories of Horvath’s Nations League heroics against Mexico last summer are still fresh, but Sean Johnson remains a good candidate to start at some point in the qualifiers.
For the purposes of this projection, we will leave Turner out due to the growing rumors that he could be sidelined for a while. That said, if he returns to action for the New England Revolution in the next two weeks, then he should be in the squad and could be the starter against Mexico.
Missed the Cut: Matt Turner, Gabriel Slonina, Bill Hamid
Sergiño Dest, Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson, Reggie Cannon, Chris Richards, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin
The big question here is whether Berhalter is ready to bring back Brooks, and the reality is there is no good reason not to call him back for the March qualifiers. Mark McKenzie has been the preferred choice over Brooks in recent windows, but McKenzie’s playing time has disappeared with Genk while Brooks is playing at a consistently good level for Wolfsburg these days.
Berhalter could turn to Tim Ream, who is playing well for Fulham, and who Berhalter started against Mexico in last summer’s Nations League final. Aaron Long is still working his way back to full fitness and isn’t likely to be ready for March qualifiers.
At fullback, Sergiño Dest has hit an excellent run of form, and may be the most in-form American player in Europe at the moment. If Berhalter brings two other right backs along with Dest like he did for the January-February qualifiers then we could see a Reggie Cannon-DeAndre Yedlin tandem again, with Dest joining Antonee Robinson as the left back options.
Sam Vines is the best left back option if Berhalter decides he needs another left back to go with Robinson. George Bello has struggled for minutes since his move to Arminia Bielefeld while Vines has returned to the starting lineup for Royal Antwerp.
One player who has fallen out of the picture is Joe Scally, who has lost his starting spot with Borussia Moenchengladbach. The teenager hasn’t started in six weeks, all but eliminating him from consideration for the March qualifiers barring some serious changes in the next three weeks.
Missed the Cut: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, Sam Vines, James Sands Joe Scally, Brooks Lennon, Shaq Moore, Cameron Carter-Vickers, George Bello, DeJuan Jones
Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Luca De La Torre, Sebastian Lletget, Gianluca Busio, Cristian Roldan, Kellyn Acosta
Weston McKennie’s absence due to injury leaves a huge hole in the USMNT midfield, and Berhalter will to call on multiple players to help him fill that void. Luca De La Torre’s stock is soaring after his strong showing against Honduras, and his continued good form with Heracles. Whether he gets the starting nod or not could depend on whether he can hold off Gianluca Busio, who should return to the fold after missing the January-February qualifiers due to Covid-19.
Berhalter could also be tempted to shift Brenden Aaronson into a central midfield role, where he plays regularly on the club level. Aaronson has been used mostly as a winger for the USMNT, but given McKennie’s absence, turning to the Red Bull Salzburg midfielder, who is in excellent form, could be the answer.
Kellyn Acosta is another option to start, particularly against Mexico, which he has faced multiple times, including in qualifying at the Azteca in 2017.
Missed the Cut: Weston McKennie, Djordje Mihailovic, Tanner Tessmann, Christian Cappis, Jackson Yueill
Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Ricardo Pepi, Paul Arriola, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent, Paul Arriola, Jesus Ferreira
The USMNT striker situation is a bit of a worrisome one, with Ricardo Pepi having gone five months since his last goal for club or country (his two-goal effort against Jamaica in October being the last goals he scored). His acclimation to Augsburg hasn’t been the easiest, and his contributions in recent qualifiers have been a shadow of what they were earlier in the Octagonal.
All that said, Pepi should be one of the two strikers, with Josh Sargent poised to make his return to the group. Sargent has fought to earn a starting role for Norwich City, and has registered two goals and two assists in his past five appearances.
Berhalter’s recent preference for Jesus Ferreira should earn the versatile FC Dallas attacker another call-back, even if Sargent gets the nod. Sargent’s steady run of games playing as a wide forward for Norwich City could boost his chances of getting on the field, potentially in a wide role if he isn’t deployed in his traditional target striker role.
Jordan Pefok is another player Berhalter has to at least consider given his club form with Young Boys. He has scored four goals in his past six matches, but even that run isn’t likely to get him past Pepi, Sargent and Ferreira, though he shouldn’t be that far from a call.
On the wings, Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah give Berhalter a trio of good options, with Gio Reyna looking unlikely to be healthy for the March qualifiers. If by some chance Reyna can get back on the field and play enough in the next three weeks to
Missed the Cut: Gio Reyna, Jordan Pefok, Gyasi Zardes, Daryl Dike, Jordan Morris, Matthew Hoppe, Konrad De La Fuente, Nicholas Gioacchini
What do you think of this group? Who made the cut that you were happy to see included? Who missed out that you feel should have made the team?
Share your thoughts below.