Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Biggest takeaways from the USMNT World Cup qualifying roster 

It’s been four long years since Couva. Everything that’s happened since then — a new head coach, an almost entirely new player pool, a couple of shiny new trophies — has been in service of putting together a US men’s national team capable of righting the self-inflicted wrongs of the last cycle.

And so here we are, a week away from the first set of World Cup qualifiers. Gregg Berhalter has made his calls and filled out his roster for what will hopefully be a 14-game redemption tour that culminates with a trip to Qatar next autumn.

Here’s who he’s bringing:

  • Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
  • Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
  • Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest)

As I wrote in my previous column, these three guys pick themselves. I also wrote that I think there’s a battle for the No. 1 kit, though there really shouldn’t be.

  • Antonee Robinson (Fulham)
  • George Bello (Atlanta United)

Robinson has the most experience of the left-back corps, though it’s again worth noting that Berhalter didn’t trust him enough to play him vs. Mexico in the Nations League final. He did, on the other hand, trust Bello enough to start him in the Gold Cup final vs. El Tri, and the kid acquitted himself well there.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that Bello outperformed Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp) over the course of the Gold Cup, but Vines is a very north-south LB option, just as Robinson is. Neither looked comfortable unless they had chalk on their boots.

Bello can go north-south as well, but unlike both Vines and Robinson, he’s able to pinch inside to create central overloads. In fact, he’s very good at it and functioning as a possession fulcrum is a differentiator in terms of skill set.

It’s also worth noting that Bello has put together the best month of his career since the Gold Cup triumph, while Vines has struggled in his first bows in Belgium.

I don’t think this means we won’t see Vines in future qualifiers, but this feels like a very understandable decision from Berhalter.

  • John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg)
  • Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
  • Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
  • James Sands (NYCFC)
  • Tim Ream (Fulham)
  • Mark McKenzie (Genk)

This is just about as expected. Brooks is the obvious centerpiece, and I’ll go ahead and offer my opinion that Robinson is just as obvious a starter at this point.

But there are three games this window, not two, and so there will need to be a good deal of squad rotation (it would be crazy to ask the oft-injured and often-melts-in-extreme-heat Brooks, in particular, to play 90 minutes three times in six days in Concacaf conditions). Zimmerman is an easy answer there — he matches up well against most Concacaf sides given both his experience and his dominance on set pieces.

Sands will probably make every gameday roster but might not play a minute. He exists in Berhalter’s world, I think, to make the switch to a back three/five easy and natural.

Ream, who was injured this past weekend but apparently not badly enough to keep him out of this camp, has long been Berhalter’s preferred back-up to Brooks, and often an ad hoc left back as well, while McKenzie seems next in line for that particular job.

More on that below.

  • Sergino Dest (Barcelona)
  • DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)

Dest is the clear No. 1 at this spot and will likely start two of the three games. Though I still have reservations about Dest's defensive chops in Concacaf, and I’d say that Berhalter does as well based upon how he was deployed during the Nations League.

Yedlin, who at age 28 counts as a grizzled vet for this group, will likely start the other. I’m guessing it’ll be to match up against Alphonso Davies in the second qualifier, as Yedlin is maybe the only defender in the region who has the speed to run with the Canadian wingback.

Lack of game action since the end of the Gold Cup obviously hurt both Reggie Cannon (Boavista… for now) and Shaq Moore (CD Tenerife but man, how cool would it have been if those Real Betis rumors had been true?).

  • Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)
  • Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids)

Another easy selection. I expect Adams to start the Canada and Honduras games, with Acosta starting at El Salvador. I would once again like to personally thank Acosta for playing so well in the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup and against El Tri in particular that I am no longer at all worried about this position. Feels good!

Sands is a “break glass in case of emergency” reserve option here.

  • Weston McKennie (Juventus… for now)
  • Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
  • Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

McKennie and Lletget are the presumptive first-choice pairing for obvious reasons. And Roldan is here for an obvious reason as well:

Just win, baby.

I will admit I’m surprised at the omission of Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), who I thought played very well in the Gold Cup final. But he’s barely played since then, and struggled badly (as did all of Portland, to be fair) in 45 minutes this weekend.

Both Yunus Musah (Valencia) and Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) are hurt, though the good news is that Musah seems on the verge of returning. As for Pomykal, you will not get me to stop listing him as a potential inclusion in these rosters until/unless he is no longer able to walk.

I’ll have more about this central midfield rotation below.

  • Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
  • Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Tim Weah (Lille)
  • Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg)
  • Konrad de la Fuente (Olympique Marseille)

Another mostly easy group to pick given the injuries to Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) and Richie Ledezma (PSV). It is particularly good to see Pulisic on this list given his recent bout with COVID-19 – thank science for the vaccines.

Weah looks to have won a full-time starting job with Lille and is playing well, while Aaronson is scoring clutch goals for his Champions League team. Reyna is arguably the highest-upside player in the entire pool and proved his Concacaf bona fides in spades back in June during Nations League.

De la Fuente is one of just two players selected here who wasn’t on either the Nations League or Gold Cup rosters, but he has earned his spot with his excellent early play for one of the giants of Ligue 1. And given his experience with the Nice ultras last weekend, he will not be fazed by Concacaf culture should he get on the field in a road game.

  • Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
  • Jordan Pefok (Young Boys)
  • Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)

There's still an open question about who the No. 1 is going to be, but Sargent at least found himself a pair of tap-ins this weekend in Cup play, and was generally better than given credit for among the fanbase in the Nations League.

Of course, I’d argue Pefok was better in that competition than Sargent was, and is now starting for a Champions League club. (Please ignore his disastrous performance on Tuesday.) There are no frills to his game, but that’s ok: this version of the US just needs a center forward who makes good runs, occupies defenders and finishes the occasional tap-in. Set piece danger helps as well.

Pepi, who was reportedly choosing between the US and Mexico for this camp, is the other player on this roster who was on neither the Nations League nor Gold Cup roster. The 18-year-old has earned his place here with his in-the-box nous, which is Wondo-esque:

His hold-up play and link play are both works in progress, though his improvement curve over the course of this season has been very, very promising. Pepi won't be permanently cap-tied here even if he plays all three games (the new FIFA rules are interesting), but given how central he's been to US youth teams, and his obvious upside and improvement curve, I suspect he'll be wearing much more Red, White & Blue in the future than he does Verde.

Obviously this is another massive dual-national win for Berhalter, who is now reaching Saban/Calipari/Auriemma-level recruiting status. The fact that he has been able to get guys like Dest, Musah and Pepi (to name three) to commit to the US while actually strengthening, rather than diminishing the team's internal culture as a previous regime did, is probably the very best sign of the overall health of the program.

Other than, you know, the trophies.

Bear in mind that Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew) and Daryl Dike (Orlando City SC) are both injured, while reports out of Europe have Matthew Hoppe (Schalke 04) in search of a new club. He hasn’t played since the Gold Cup final.


Richards' omission

I think the one true surprise is that McKenzie, who has struggled with his club to the point that he’s now on the fringes of their center-back rotation, was preferred to Chris Richards (Bayern Munich). Richards has barely played, which is bad, but I’d argue that 1) he has a higher upside than McKenzie, or any other center back in the entire pool, really, and 2) barely playing with Bayern Munich is probably a better recent data point than playing poorly with Genk.

The mitigating factor here is that there’s a decent chance Richards is on the move to a new club and will need to travel for a medical.

Williamson's absence

For whatever reason, Williamson has had a harder go of earning Berhalter’s trust than many other players. If McKenzie over Richards is the biggest surprise, then I’ll list Williamson’s omission as my single biggest gripe. I think he just adds a dynamism in terms of ball-carrying and ball progression in general that can be otherwise lacking in this US side.

Reyna's best spot?

Of course, that leads me to perhaps my spiciest take: I think this roster screams “we’re going to try Gio as a No. 8.” Reyna has been playing primarily in that position for Dortmund at the start of the season, and while results have been mixed and I still have doubts about his current ability to hit the unselfish, tempo-setting passes required of the position in Berhalter’s system, there is simply no questioning his talent.

Reyna, more than any other possible selection at this spot, has the potential to get on the ball, eliminate multiple defenders, and just destroy the opponent’s entire defensive shape with individual skill. There’s a danger here — guys who dribble a lot tend to lose the ball in bad places a lot — but if Adams is at the 6 and McKennie is the other No. 8, I feel like there’s enough defensive solidity and ball-winning oomph out there to risk it.

Set pieces

Never, ever forget the importance of set pieces. Both US wins over Mexico this summer came courtesy of restarts, and if you’re looking for a reason beyond the obvious for Roldan’s inclusion, there it is. He is one of the best little guys in the air in all of Concacaf — just ask Tigres.

Araujo no-go

Fox's Keith Costigan reported that LA Galaxy right back Julian Araujo, a dual-national who is being heavily recruited by El Tri, turned down a call-up for this round of qualifiers, just as he turned down a call-up to the Gold Cup. This was later confirmed by other reporters.

If this is the case, Araujo has now turned down the two most important USMNT camps of the past four years. He's been a part of the US system for a good long while, and there's been no official announcement about a permanent decision from Araujo. But it feels like the writing is on the wall here.

Pipeline continues

A number of good young players are making a name for themselves, to one degree or another, in top five leagues across Europe. Tanner Tessmann (Venezia) made his Serie A debut, and Taylor Booth (Bayern Munich) made his, uh, Bayern Munich debut over the past week. Bryan Reynolds (Roma) probably won't play much under Jose Mourinho, but you never know. Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach) has already started twice and looks likely to play quite a bit, which could definitely have a long-term impact on the shape of the pool. Gianluca Busio (Venezia) has yet to get on the field for his new club and struggled physically at the Gold Cup, but he's likely to get plenty of chances at earning a prominent role in Venice this year.

All of these guys could factor in the future. None of their omissions here is particularly surprising, though.

CB depth chart

The same goes for veteran CBs Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur... for now), Matt Miazga (Deportivo Alaves) and Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City... for now). If any of those guys land at a club in a top-five league, start getting minutes and start playing well, they can get a chance in the CB depth chart real quick. That's how it works.

But how it doesn't work is this: Just being on the books at a big club or in one of the world's biggest leagues is no longer enough for automatic inclusion. Berhalter is clearly looking for more than just that.

Let's hope the players continue to show in September, as they did all summer long, that that's the right approach.

And now, for fun...

Here is my camp Best XI. Bear in mind, though, that there will be tons of rotation across the three games.

Armchair Analyst Best XI for Sept Qualifiers