WC_Countdown_USMNT_Jordan_Pefok

MLS Week 32 is done, the international window has opened and the US men’s national team have begun their training sessions in Köln, Germany ahead of Friday’s friendly vs. Japan in Düsseldorf (8:25 am ET | ESPN2, TUDN, UniMás, ESPN+).

But it feels pretty safe to say things are not flowing quite as smoothly as head coach Gregg Berhalter, his staff and players might ideally prefer.

Injuries pre-camp

“A lot can happen between now and November 9, [which] is when we're announcing the final roster.”

Berhalter cautioned reporters thusly when announcing his 26-man September roster on Wednesday, and it’s taken mere days for the first waves of upheaval to roll in. Since that moment, Yunus Musah, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards have picked up injuries that prevent their participation in this month’s camp and have been replaced by Johnny Cardoso – learn more about the Brazilian-American here – and MLS academy alums Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie.

Those losses pile atop already-known injury absentees Tim Weah and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson, reducing Berhalter’s access to his first-choice options and underlining the jittery situation facing all national teams in the final countdown to the World Cup. You want your players fit, sharp and playing, but one misstep or bad tackle and they’re lost to you, their own dreams shattered in the process.

This happens every four years, yet it might be worst in 2022 thanks to the unprecedented fall schedule that will see many leagues around the world continue right up until a matter of days before the tournament begins in Qatar, raising the possibilities of injuries and reducing the time in which coaching staffs can react to them.

“When we were planning this roster, as of tomorrow when guys will get into camp, there will probably be five players that were expected to be on the roster that couldn't take part because of injury,” Berhalter told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman in a halftime interview during Sunday’s Columbus-Portland match. “So what I would say is that there probably will be an opportunity for guys that aren't in this camp, just because of attrition. And that's something we're expecting to happen. We hope it doesn't, but it's likely, based on what's happened in the past, that it will.”

It’s a ‘sliding doors’ situation that can quite literally change careers and lives in an instant.

The Pefok predicament

While the USMNT gathers in the Rhine Valley, Berhalter’s most prominent roster snub continues to ball out some 350 miles (or 570 kilometers, if you prefer) to the northeast. That would be Jordan Pefok, of course, who scored again – on a gorgeous diving header, no less – for Union Berlin in Sunday’s 2-0 home win over Wolfsburg. He also played two key passes and, to be fair, failed to hit the target on three other shots and had another blocked.

That result keeps the working-class Cinderellas undefeated and top of the Bundesliga table, one of European soccer’s most engaging storylines of the new season.

Pefok now has 3g/2a in six league matches, is drawing comparisons to Robert Lewandowski among German observers and looks to have leveled up dramatically from his most recent USMNT outings at the tail end of Concacaf Octagonal qualification. Surely, Yanks fans are wondering, in increasing numbers and volume, if there’s a place for this guy on the squad, even if only as a late-game sub option?

Twellman asked Berhalter about Pefok directly during the aforementioned interview (which, it should be noted, was inevitably a fleeting one), and responded with the aforementioned general answer about attrition. Add that atop the coach’s answers to repeated queries about the French-Cameroonian-American striker on Wednesday, and it’s tempting to conclude that Berhalter doesn’t rate Pefok as a workable option in his system, which differs from Union’s, or just didn’t see enough from him in his previous USMNT minutes.

Or perhaps circumstances will keep evolving as they are already, and Pefok does indeed get that call in November, even if he’s well down Berhalter’s depth chart.

The Steffen situation

When Berhalter alluded to five players who’d already been ruled out of this camp by injury, many concluded Zack Steffen fell into that category, as the goalkeeper has been nursing a nagging knee injury that ruled him out of four of Middlesbrough’s matches in the English Championship.

Yet Steffen returned to Boro’s lineup on Saturday, posting a clean sheet in a 0-0 home draw with Rotherham. While that sentence would normally be good news from a USMNT perspective, the fact he’s in England instead of with the national team in Germany prompts some pondering.

Berhalter and Steffen have a long history together dating back to their time with the Columbus Crew. The 27-year-old has been the USMNT’s first-choice GK more often than not since 2018 and seems to have the skill set the coach most desires in his ‘keepers. Yet he’s not a part of this final pre-World Cup camp.

So: Does Berhalter want him to focus on keeping hold of his starting job at Boro (where, it must be noted, he is on a one-year loan from Manchester City for the express purpose of playing more regularly ahead of the World Cup)? Would that suggest his place in Qatar is secure if he’s healthy – which has been no small matter for Steffen – and match-sharp? Or has he slipped down the pecking order just a bit, with Matt Turner and Ethan Horvath competing in the present camp?

We’ll be watching closely.

Humble pie for McKennie’s Juve

Good news: Weston McKennie started a third straight match for Juventus!

Bad news: La Vecchia Segnora lost 1-0 to Serie A bottom-dwellers Monza in one of the biggest upsets in Europe this season!

And it wasn’t some freak outcome from a game the Italian giants had otherwise dominated. Freshly promoted from the second tier, Monza had yet to win in the league this season, but a first-half straight red card to Angel Di Maria opened a door the underdogs eventually walked through with a winner from Christian Gytkjær with 15 minutes left.

While not exactly man of the match, McKennie was generally not held to blame for the result by pundits. He completed 74% of his passes in central midfield, including two key passes, one of which was an inviting delivery served up to Moise Kean in the goalmouth, but not finished.

Still, the result may blow back on the Texan simply by way of his involvement. It’s a bitter pill for Juve and their under-fire manager Massimiliano Allegri, with the Old Lady falling to eighth in the table after a 2W-1L-4D start and two losses at the outset of the UEFA Champions League group stage. Instability in McKennie’s club situation is one variable Berhalter would prefer not to countenance.

Yanks abroad potpourri

Elsewhere in Europe, Ricardo Pepi did the best thing he could do to tamp down the drumbeat of unflattering comparisons made between him and Pefok after last week’s roster drop: He scored.

It’s the first goal of his loan stint in the Netherlands, and the FC Dallas product’s first goal for any of his clubs – including FCD and Augsburg – in nearly a year. For a still-young player who thrives on confidence, that is the best possible way to transition into this month’s USMNT camp.

Gio Reyna didn’t score, but he did figure in Borussia Dortmund’s dramatic 1-0 Revierderby win over rivals Schalke, going 2/3 on dribbles and playing one key pass in 52 minutes off the bench in place of Marco Reus, who looked seriously injured as he was carted off, but subsequently turned out to get a better-than-expected diagnosis. Any time on the sidelines for Reus would seem to open up further minutes for Reyna, even if only for a few weeks.

Afterwards Reyna carpooled over to USMNT camp in Köln with his fellow New York City FC academy alum Joe Scally, who continues to play regularly, and well, for Borussia Mönchengladbach. Scally went the full 90 for Die Fohlen, who sit sixth in the BuLi standings, in Saturday’s 3-0 beating of RB Leipzig.

And finally, we turn south to Liga MX, where a USMNT-eligible player was central in the biggest event on Mexican club’s soccer’s calendar, El Súper Clásico, the clash between Club América and Chivas.

That would be FC Dallas academy product Alejandro Zendejas scoring in América’s win, which keeps Las Aguilas top of the table, and perhaps prompts further discussion about whether Zendejas deserves more USMNT consideration. He’s become one of América’s standouts, yet Berhalter has yet to call up a single Liga MX-based player in his nearly four years at the helm.

Will that change between now and opening day in Qatar?