They might not have reached the level of past World Cup shocks like John Harkes in 1998 or Landon Donovan in 2014. Yet several of Gregg Berhalter’s most pivotal decisions about the US men’s national team’s 26-man roster for Qatar 2022 did indeed raise eyebrows.
That conversation inevitably starts with qualifying regulars Zack Steffen, Ricardo Pepi and Paul Arriola being left off the final list.
Steffen omitted from GKs
The fact that the goalkeeper who started six of the Yanks’ 14 Concacaf Octagonal qualifiers won’t even be at the tournament prompted ample media questioning after Berhalter’s squad was unveiled at Brooklyn Steel in New York City on Wednesday evening – particularly given that Steffen and Berhalter have worked together for years, going back to their time together at the Columbus Crew.
“Really difficult. There's a lot of emotion involved for both him and me,” Berhalter said of the call to notify Steffen that he’d been dropped. “Me and Zack go way back, and Zack's been there for me a bunch of times. And to tell him he's not going to be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me.
“But those are decisions that we made as a staff,” he added. “We move forward and now it's about who do we have in camp and how are we going to be successful?”
Steffen has been injury-prone over the past few years and has experienced ups and downs on his ongoing season-long loan stint with Middlesbrough in the English Championship from Manchester City. Yet Berhalter repeatedly sidestepped the matter of Steffen’s foibles in favor of underlining his faith in the trio of Matt Turner (Arsenal), Ethan Horvath (Luton Town) and Sean Johnson (NYCFC).
“The goalkeeper position, you do evaluate somewhat differently,” said Berhalter. “Looking at a guy like Sean Johnson, who's been with this program since day one, and we think he's a really valuable piece of the team.
“Ethan is a guy that always responds when his number’s called. Let's not forget, this is a guy that got subbed into the Championship [promotion playoff] final last year and was able to hold on and get the team to victory. He subbed on to our Nations League final, if you guys remember that, and ended up saving the penalty kick. He's a guy that’s Johnny on the spot – if you need him, he's ready. And I think that's valuable in a World Cup type of competition.”
Does that mean Turner is the unquestioned starter? Not so fast, cautioned the coach.
“It's easy to read into that and say that Matt's been the number one, he’ll most likely be the number one going into the World Cup. I think we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit,” said Berhalter. “He has been injured. We hear really positive things coming out of Arsenal's camp about where he is, his health status. So we're going to have to, I think, wait to assess him up close to make the final decision.
“We talk to Arsenal every single day. And we talk to all these clubs on a daily basis to understand where they are physically. So from our understanding, from the communication of Arsenal, he’s back full training, and he's cleared to play.”
Another flashpoint: The much-discussed No. 9 role, where Ricardo Pepi (Groningen) and Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin) are out and Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Josh Sargent (Norwich City) and Haji Wright – whose nine goals with Antalyaspor is tops among European-based USMNT-eligible attackers – are in.
“As coaches, we were evaluating Haji versus Jordan Pefok, and that's what it came down to,” said Berhalter. “And in this particular case, we felt like Haji is in great goalscoring form. They're both physical strikers, Jordan, maybe a little more so, but Haji has pace, he's got the ability to go one-v-one, he's got finishing with his head, both feet, and he's performing really well in the Turkish league.
“If we would have made the decision mid-September, Jordan Pefok would have probably been a lock to be in, based on his form in Union Berlin. But since then, it's a different story,” he added later. “Now Haji’s come on more. So that was the tricky thing about it. And again, you know, we hope these decisions are right. They may not be. But we're making the best possible decisions with the information that we have.”
Pepi’s absence is head-turning in light of his extensive play during qualifying, where he burst onto the scene with match-winning displays in key wins at Honduras and vs. Jamaica. After a brutal introduction to the German Bundesliga following a record transfer from FC Dallas to Augsburg, his recent red-hot run of form on loan at FC Groningen in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to keep him in the side.
“With Ricardo it was, we're judging him against Josh and Jesus, and we felt it was valuable that Josh was playing in that [English Championship] competition where two of our three opponents [Wales and England] are coming from,” said Berhalter. “We think that brings value, the physicality of the league. Dutch league I think is a great league, but it doesn't bring the same physicality that the Premier League brings and the Championship brings, and that was something that went into our decision.”
Arriola, a long-running member of the program who earned the respect of players and staff alike with his diligent work rate on both sides of the ball and some clutch attacking contributions, was another harsh casualty.
The FC Dallas winger fell victim to the numbers game, in Berhalter’s view, despite being a consistent presence during the former Columbus Crew manager's tenure.
“For one reason or another, we haven't always had our wingers fit and available. And now, as we lead up to the World Cup, every one of those players is fit and available. And it just made that Paul was the odd man out. And it sucks,” said the coach.
“Jordan [Morris] over the last four years had two ACL [tears], Tim Weah’s had an extensive injury time, Gio Reyna’s had extensive injury time. Christian [Pulisic] has been injured for a while, and now everybody's back. That's the worst possible thing, when this guy's been with us since day one, and you got to tell him that he's not coming to the World Cup.”