Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Predicting Gregg Berhalter's first USMNT World Cup Qualifying roster

Next week the US men’s national team will play their first World Cup Qualifiers since the disaster in Couva four years ago.

They start by traveling to El Salvador (Sept. 2), then back to the US for a match against Canada (Sept. 5). They'll finish up the ultra-compact international date with a match against Honduras in San Pedro Sula (Sept. 8).

If you’re reading this column, I don’t think I need to elaborate on how big a moment this is for the program or how crucial a potential step it is in writing a new chapter. If you’re reading this column, you get that. You know that no Nations League or Gold Cup game can quite compare to the intensity and importance of a qualifier, and that while those competitions are meaningful in their own right, winning both this summer would mean nothing if those triumphs are followed by World Cup qualifying failure. You definitely know that, and so do the players, and so does head coach Gregg Berhalter.

The roster for this trio of matches is expected to be named in the coming days. Bear in mind that Berhalter can call up as many players as he wants and that not all of the players called for the international date will be rostered for each game.

Here’s my best guess at what we’ll be looking at, featuring 29 guys:

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

These three basically pick themselves, with the only real question being who the No. 1 is. Steffen has long been Berhalter’s choice in that regard, though Horvath made a strong claim when he subbed in for Steffen and graced us all with some A+ heroics in the Nations League final.

Turner’s better than either, though. He’s conceded just once (it was a PK) in seven US appearances, and unlike the other two guys he’s playing every week. He is really, really good:

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some amount of rotation among these guys.

On the fringe: There’s an argument for leaving Horvath with his club team -- better chance to win a starting job if he’s not missing time -- and bringing Brad Guzan (Atlanta United) as the third-string ‘keeper in a “font of veteran wisdom” role.

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

I’ve never been particularly convinced by Robinson and neither has Berhalter, who’s left him out of the team for huge swathes of time and didn’t play him a single minute in the Nations League final. But he’s played well to start the Championship season and has to be considered something of a veteran for the US at this point.

Bello is definitely not a veteran for the US, but Berhalter threw the 19-year-old into the deep end earlier this month, putting him in the XI for the Gold Cup final, matched up directly with Tecatito Corona. The kid delivered.

Beyond the ability to physically hang with (or even exceed the level of) most Concacaf attackers, Bello is simply way more comfortable turning possession inside and solving problems with the ball than the other LB options. He’s not precisely polished and his decision-making in the attacking third can take a beat too long. But even so, he is a different sort of option than the other LBs presently in the pool.

On the fringe: So yeah, that means I’m taking Bello over Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp). I love Vines, and while I think it’s fair to say he was more of a weapon in the attacking third during the Gold Cup than Bello was, his lack of a right foot and inability to operate anywhere but the touchline meant the US were liable to get pinned against the sideline as often as not. He proved to be a purely north-south option at LB, which is what already exists on this roster in Robinson.

He also had himself a disasterclass of a performance this past week, so I think it makes sense to give him time to settle in Belgium.

Center back
  • John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg)
  • Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
  • Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
  • James Sands (NYCFC)
  • Chris Richards (Bayern Munich… for now)

Three games over the window, and here’s the way I’m looking at it: In one game, the center back pairing will be Robinson and Zimmerman. In another, it’ll be Zimmerman and Brooks. And in another, it’ll be Brooks and Robinson. Nobody’s going more than 180 minutes, which seems a reasonable way to keep legs mostly fresh throughout the window.

Sands is there in case Berhalter wants to go to a back five (wouldn’t shock me at all) and for added d-mid depth. He might be on every single matchday roster and never play a minute, though.

Richards is there as Brooks’ back-up. I wish it was for more than that, but he hasn’t been featuring for Bayern Munich at all and hasn’t yet found a new permanent home. I think Richards is the most talented all-around defender in the pool, but I find it hard to imagine tossing him into World Cup qualifiers in a starting role when he’s got all of 82 total USMNT minutes, and when he hasn’t played a full 90 on the club level since April.

On the fringe: I originally had Mark McKenzie (Genk) in that final spot, but he’s been poor at the start of his club season and I think we all remember how he looked in the Nations League final. I rate a rusty Richards higher than an in-poor-form McKenzie.

Ideally in a couple of months, both of these guys will be no-brainer selections. But it’s just not the case right now.

Tim Ream (Fulham), who’s earned Berhalter’s trust over the past two years and who is the most natural back-up for Brooks, came off injured this past weekend. If not for that, he’d be an obvious inclusion.

Right back
  • Sergino Dest (Barcelona)
  • Shaq Moore (CD Tenerife)
  • Reggie Cannon (Boavista… for now)

Dest’s defensive issues are becoming un-ignorable (every coach he’s ever played for has benched him at one point or another for a lack of defensive awareness and/or investment), but also, he’s mostly a starter* for Barcelona. Just make sure it’s Robinson next to him at right center back and my level of concern goes down by a factor of five.

Moore impressed me in the Gold Cup, though it’s concerning he’s played all of four minutes for Tenerife since the final. Cannon hasn’t played at all, but has repeatedly proved his reliability over the past couple of years.

I wonder who’ll get the honor of matching up against Alphonso Davies?

On the fringe: DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray) has been in and mostly out of the lineup for the Turkish giants and is the best match-up against Davies in terms of pure speed, but offers less on the ball than the other options. Young Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach) is now a Bundesliga starter -- though he’s played both games at left back thus far -- while young Bryan Reynolds (Roma) appears to be pretty distant from Jose Mourinho’s plans. Young Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy) has been very good in MLS this year, but he turned down a call-up to the Gold Cup. Would he get another call here? Would he accept it if it came?

The US have a lot of talent at this spot, and Berhalter has a lot of options. I expect him to default to the guys he’s shown the most trust in thus far.

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

It’s these two guys with Sands on the gameday roster as a break-in-case-of-emergency reserve.

Let’s take a minute again to appreciate how magnificent Acosta was through the entirety of the knockout round at the Gold Cup, but especially in the final vs. Mexico:

The best news of the summer for the state of the USMNT pool, bar none, was that performance from Acosta as a true d-mid. I am now much, much less nervous about what happens when Adams misses games, and you should be as well.

On the fringe: If I was calling the shots it’d be Matt Polster (New England Revolution) and Russell Canouse (D.C. United) next in line, but I don’t think either of those guys are really on Berhalter’s radar. Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), meanwhile, seems to have played himself out of contention for the time being, while Gianluca Busio (Venezia) wasn’t up to the task of being a true No. 6 for the US this summer.

Central midfield
  • Weston McKennie (Juventus)
  • Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
  • Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
  • Yunus Musah (Valencia)
  • Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

McKennie appears to be in some degree of limbo with Juventus, but he’s still an easy choice here. Same with Lletget -- though he wasn’t particularly good at the Gold Cup, he’s earned some slack -- and Williamson.

Including Musah might be wishful thinking on my part considering he’s missed the past few weeks with an injury and is only now returning to training, but he’s worth having here even if he can only go for, like, the final 30 minutes of the final game of the window. Roldan is one of the most versatile players in the pool and is in the best club form of anybody on this list.

On the fringe: There are so many. Busio could definitely be on this roster as a No. 8, though I actually prefer his teammate and FC Dallas product Tanner Tessmann (Venezia). It’s at least a little bit telling that Tessmann made his Serie A debut this past weekend and has a squad number, while Busio was nowhere to be found and has the number of a running back.

If Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) could stay healthy he’d be an easy first-XI choice for me, but he just can’t. Luca de la Torre (Heracles Almelo) had a promising US cameo in the spring, and Julian Green (Greuther Furth) had a promising past 2.Bundesliga season (though a rocky start to this year’s Bundesliga campaign). Keaton Parks (NYCFC) has long been ignored for reasons beyond my understanding, while Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids) and Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union) are potential near-term solutions.

Here's what I'm saying: This depth chart could change a bunch over the next month or two. Though for this round of games I expect McKennie, Lletget and Williamson to get the bulk of the minutes.

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

Pretty easy to pick these five, provided Pulisic is recovered from his bout with COVID-19. Thank science he’s vaxxed.

On the fringe: Nobody, really, given the injuries to Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) and Richie Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), as well as the regression of Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes) and Caden Clark (RBNY).

This position is already deep, but chances are it’ll look a lot deeper in the coming months.

Center forward
  • Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
  • Jordan Siebatcheu Pefok (Young Boys)
  • Matthew Hoppe (Schalke 04… for now)
  • Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)

All but 13 of Sargent’s minutes with Werder Bremen and Norwich over the past month have come on the wing, which… god, I just hate it. I would rather have him in a lower-level league getting reps at center forward than in the Premier League getting reps on the wing, but it is what it is. Given the injury to Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew) and the lack of high-level data on the other options, Sargent’s at least temporarily still the first-choice No. 9 for the US. Hopefully he bangs home some goals in these games and shows that he’s worthy of the spot long-term.

It wouldn’t shock me at all if Pefok unseats Sargent as the presumptive starter after this camp. There’s not a lot of frills to his game -- all he does is make good runs, be physically imposing, score goals, and basically be miserable to play against. He is also an object lesson in how dropping down a level to get reps as a go-to No. 9 is often a smart way to step up a level in one’s career, and okay okay I’m done beating that drum for now.

Hoppe had a promising Gold Cup playing exclusively as a winger even though he’s a forward. I wish we’d gotten to see some reps from him as a No. 9 because he looks like a potential solution there.

Pepi has been a solution as the No. 9 for Dallas this year, with 9g/1a in 1300 minutes (about 400 of which came with him out of position on the wing). I’m not sure he’d accept a call-in -- he is a dual national, and El Tri are openly recruiting the hell out of him -- but I don’t think there’s much question that the 18-year-old is the highest-level center forward prospect in either country’s pool, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t able to step directly into the mix and contribute.

On the fringe: Daryl Dike (Orlando City SC) is, like Zardes, injured. But he had a pretty poor Gold Cup performance, which likely knocked him down a few pegs. I quite like Nico Gioacchini (Caen), though like Hoppe he played all his minutes this summer on the wing. At some point he needs to start producing for his club team or he will fade out of the picture.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to point out that Jeremy Ebobisse (San Jose Earthquakes) is a perfect Concacaf forward who’s going to absolutely tear it up for the rest of the season. I don’t know if that means he’s going to factor into Berhalter’s thinking or not, but he should.