National Writer: Charles Boehm

Can USMNT solve striker, center back questions with World Cup six months out? 

Life comes at you fast in international soccer, especially with a World Cup looming. Gregg Berhalter and his US men’s national team got a good taste of that during their qualifying campaign, and even more so when one of their most trusted defenders dropped to the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on May 7.

“Things do change quickly in soccer. One minute you have a starting center back in Miles Robinson and the next minute, he's out for the World Cup,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter after announcing his June roster on Friday, acknowledging that even his best plans and most fully-baked projects could go in any number of directions over the next six months.

“Guys, between now and then, their form may dip so far that they can no longer be part of the team or no longer be part of the starting lineup. Guys can really get in good form and now all of a sudden make their case to be in the group.”

The ruptured Achilles that sidelined Robinson for the foreseeable future has given the USMNT a key slot to fill alongside Nashville SC's Walker Zimmerman.

“Miles has the type of pace that you can play a high backline,” said Berhalter. “We want to be aggressive pressing teams, and we want to be high up the field, and they're going to kick the ball long. You need guys that can win duels convincingly, and then you need guys that, if anything breaks through, they can catch those guys. And that's where Miles was so valuable. He did a great job of that, very good in duels, very good covering the space behind. So we're absolutely going to be looking for a guy that can do that also.”

Possible center back replacements

To some extent Robinson got his chance when Aaron Long sustained the same setback a year ago, and the New York Red Bulls anchor ranks high on the list of possible starters heading into next month’s quartet of friendlies and Concacaf Nations League matches. Having won, and kept, a starting role at Ligue 1 side Troyes and then working his way onto the pitch during the Yanks’ final trio of Ocho matches in March, Erik Palmer-Brown is right in the mix, too.

Cameron Carter-Vickers will also get a look after his significant contributions to Celtic’s Scottish Premier League-winning season, his first USMNT call since Berhalter’s first months on the job in 2019. With the staff planning to work on formation alternatives based on a three-man backline in June, that too was a factor in selections.

“Condensing the field, that's really important to our game,” said Berhalter. “So Aaron Long has speed, we know that he's aggressive playing forward, pressing forward, so that's a good sign. Erik Palmer-Brown can improve on that but he does have the pace to cover behind him. and Cam has been doing that at Celtic, when they play against most of their opponents they’re in the half of the opponent and he has to play with a lot of space behind him.

“We've been watching EPB playing in France, he was player of the month at his club this last month and they secured their place in Ligue 1,” he added later. “He's been doing a good job, he plays in the three-back system, looks comfortable distributing, he's playing against guys like Mbappe and Messi and Neymar, doing a good job. So for us it's been really interesting watching, watching his progress.

“Cam had an outstanding season at Celtic. They won the title and he was a key part of that, so it'll be nice to work with him again. And we think that both have good comfort on the ball, both good 1v1 defenders, they have speed, they can cover space behind them. So we're excited to see them in camp and what they can do for us.”

Aaron Long USMNT
Aaron Long seems a likely candidate alongside Walker Zimmerman.

At the start of this cycle John Brooks appeared to be just such a defensive cornerstone, only to be dropped after the first Concacaf Octagonal window and never return. While Berhalter insists the German-American World Cup 2014 veteran isn’t blacklisted – “trust me, he's not out permanently, that's not our idea,” said the coach on Friday – the litany of explanations and justifications for his continued absence don’t look particularly encouraging for his prospects.

Striker role still up for grabs

The door is also noticeably open at striker, where the USMNT started five different faces in qualifying but none, aside from Ricardo Pepi’s purple patch last fall, made themselves undroppable as goals were few and far between from the No. 9 role.

Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok and Daryl Dike are presently hurt. Colorado Rapids' Gyasi Zardes’ scoring productivity has slackened over the past year. After finishing Augsburg’s season on a slump of his own, Pepi has been given this window off to recover both mentally and physically from more than a year of hard mileage as he made his professional breakthrough.

Jesus Ferreira has surged out to an early lead in the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi race with FC Dallas and will surely see US minutes in the upcoming window, though his distinctly different profile still leaves a need for more traditional No. 9 types to lead the line. Enter Haji Wright, the former US youth international who after a six-year ramble across five different European clubs has hit his stride dramatically at Antalyaspor, finishing among the top scorers in the Turkish top flight.

“He'll get the opportunity to play in this camp,” said Berhalter of Wright. “We only have two true strikers on the roster, so he will get an opportunity. In terms of his path, it's been really interesting to follow. He's been bouncing around at clubs and hasn't really stuck at any clubs, hasn't really outperformed anywhere yet.

“But this year, I think it's exceptional, and speaking to [Antalyaspor’s] coaching staff, they've been really pleased with his progress. They've been really pleased with how he started slow but then picked up momentum, really changed his mindset, changed his mentality, and is able to start dominating in games. … We always talk about form and trying to capitalize on guys’ form, I think now's a perfect time to get him back into the group.”

Jesus Ferreira
Jesus Ferreira is hoping to make the No. 9 role his.

Wright will quite likely get a chance to strike up chemistry with the program’s latest dual-national recruit, Malik Tillman. After representing both the US and Germany at youth levels, the 19-year-old Bayern Munich attacker looked to have chosen his mother’s homeland but has now filed for a change of international allegiance and hopes the paperwork is completed in time to take part in June’s games.

“I think he's an attacking midfielder in a 3-4-2-1, he could be a pocket winger in a 4-3-3. He could be a center mid in a 4-3-3 depending on if he can get his defensive work up to where it needs to be,” said Berhalter of Tillman. “But really talented between the lines, really [a] knack for scoring goals. Good, calm around the penalty box. Good technique, scoring both-footed, interesting player.”

The Yanks will set up camp in Ohio ahead of a friendly vs. Morocco at FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium on June 1, meet Uruguay in Kansas City four days later before opening CNL play against Grenada in Austin on June 10, then wrap the window with a visit to El Salvador on June 14.