Gregg Berhalter was both frank and cagey Thursday evening as he discussed his roster for the US men’s national team’s three enormous World Cup qualifiers at Mexico (March 24), home to Panama (March 27) and at Costa Rica (March 30), the final Concacaf Octagonal gauntlet that will determine whether the program returns to the sport’s largest stage this fall.
Among many other topics broached over the half-hour media availability following the roster’s unveiling on ESPN’s SportsCenter, the freshest news was the strong likelihood that an injury sustained in FC Barcelona’s Europa League match earlier in the day will rob the Yanks of flashy fullback Sergiño Dest this month. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Dest has since been replaced by Atlanta United homegrown product George Bello.)
“Regarding Sergiño, it's not great news,” said Berhalter, who called Dest “a one of a kind with his skill set” in his interview with SportsCenter’s Elle Duncan. “The initial diagnosis, it seems to be a hamstring injury, but we're going to get the final details tomorrow. But we may need to replace him and we've already identified candidates to replace him and we're already prepared to speak to him first thing tomorrow.”
The coach named George Bello, Joe Scally, Shaq Moore and Sam Vines as leading options to be added to the squad should Dest be ruled out, noting that the replacement will need to be able to play left back.
One European-based defender who won’t take part in this window is John Brooks, who remains out of the picture since the first window of the Ocho despite a lengthy USMNT résumé and a good run of club form with Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg.
“I had a good conversation with him and explained to him that this is our thinking for the window. This is what we chose to do in this window, it doesn't determine his future with the national team. And I think that's a very important distinction,” said Berhalter.
He later pushed back against the suggestion that his latest snub – combined with the selection of two center backs (Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown) with zero Octagonal experience so far – means Brooks is effectively out of the picture for good.
“I think that's unfair,” said the coach. “I hate to get detailed about this regarding an individual player, but when you look at the window in October, he had an injury … in November and January, we weren’t happy with his club form. Now he's back playing and now it becomes about what our game plan is for this window. And there's some details in his game that I talked to him that we need to improve to fit into our game model. And we don't have time on Tuesday to improve these things.
“The game’s on Thursday, the game’s on Sunday. There's not a runway here. So I think when this whole thing settles down, and hopefully we're in the World Cup and we have the June window, the September window, I think there'll be another opportunity for him where we can really start addressing where we think his deficiencies are, to be the starting center back in our pool.”
Other key absences
With New England’s Matt Turner injured and Zack Steffen only just returned to availability with Manchester City, goalkeeper is a concern. After dismissing the rumor that Turner’s foot/ankle injury was linked to frostbite sustained in the frigid WCQ win over Honduras in Minnesota last month, Berhalter seemed to signal that Steffen remains his No. 1, though he said Ethan Horvath is “definitely in contention” to start given his run of games with Nottingham Forest.
“Regarding Zack, he's in full training,” the coach said of Steffen, who he called “traditionally the number-one goalkeeper” but did not name the starter. “Speaking to the Manchester City staff, they're confident enough to put them on the bench and he would have to play if there's an injury, and there's potential that he plays this weekend. So he's been training really well. We've been getting that feedback. And he's ready to go.”
Berhalter admitted that it will be impossible to truly replace Weston McKennie, the inspirational central midfielder ruled out for the rest of Juventus’ season by a broken foot, in both performance and personality terms.
He did give a vote of confidence to Sporting KC product Gianluca Busio for his tenacious efforts with Italian club Venezia and also listed Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Brenden Aaronson, Cristian Roldan and Yunus Musah as his main options for the twin No. 8s that are so critical to the functionality of his 4-3-3 formation.
Gio Reyna got a mention there too, though the NYCFC academy alum sounds more likely to be an impact substitute this month after only just returning to Borussia Dortmund’s gameday rosters.
“I had a good call with Dortmund [manager Marco Rose] today, and planning out his usage and how much we think we can use him,” Berhalter said of Reyna. “The important thing is us qualifying for the World Cup, first of all, but secondly, is Gio returning healthy to his club. And we're mindful of his load, we’re mindful of the work that he's done in the last couple of weeks, and we're going to adjust accordingly.”
Who is the No. 9?
Perhaps the Yanks’ biggest worry is up top, where precious few US strikers are playing and scoring regularly for their clubs, save perhaps Jordan Pefok, who edged out Josh Sargent for a roster spot. Most glaringly, Ricardo Pepi hasn’t tallied since his January transfer from FC Dallas to Augsburg and has to go back to the October qualifying window to find his last goal for club or country.
“Am I concerned about Ricardo Pepi? Absolutely, no question about it. We want him scoring goals. We want all our strikers scoring goals,” said Berhalter. “One thing with Ricardo is getting back to the basics with him. He's a goalscorer and that comes naturally to him. And that's something we need him to refocus on, clear his mind, focus on doing the small things, getting in good positions, because if he gets in good positions, we're comfortable he's going to score.
“He's asked to play slightly different for Augsburg. When he's on the field, they're creating chances by him running behind the backline, not so much from service. And we hopefully will get some more service in the penalty box and that will help them out a little bit when he plays. So it is a concern of mine, but I've spoken to him at length and he's ready to go for this window.”