One of two US men’s national team windows between World Cup qualifying ending and the World Cup beginning is done. In five short months, Nov. 21 to be specific, the United States will take the field against Wales in Qatar to begin their World Cup 2022 campaign.
The preferred starting lineup is taking shape, as is the expected roster. Let’s take a look at where things stand, in an update from our first roster projection in March.
It’s worth noting that, still, there is no definitive decision on whether this tournament will be the standard 23-man roster or the recent COVID-induced norm of 26 players.
Onward, with the September window representing players’ last chance to impress in camp before decision time for head coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff.
LOCKS FOR THE 23-MAN ROSTER
- Christian Pulisic (F, Chelsea)
- Weston McKennie (M, Juventus)
- Tyler Adams (M, RB Leipzig)
- Gio Reyna (M/F, Borussia Dortmund)
- Tim Weah (F, Lille)
- Brenden Aaronson (M/F, Leeds United)
- Yunus Musah (M, Valencia)
- Zack Steffen (GK, Manchester City)
- Matt Turner (GK, New England Revolution)
- Miles Robinson (D, Atlanta United)
- Walker Zimmerman (D, Nashville SC)
- Sergino Dest (D, Barcelona)
- Antonee Robinson (D, Fulham)
- Miles Robinson (D, Atlanta United)
Add (now 17):
- Kellyn Acosta (M, LAFC)
- Luca de la Torre (M, Heracles)
- Jesus Ferreira (F, FC Dallas)
- Chris Richards (D, Bayern Munich)
- Aaron Long (D, New York Red Bulls)
TOM BOGERT (TB): Just for continuity’s sake, let’s start with our original list of “locks” immediately following the successful World Cup qualifying campaign in March. We tried to be very deliberate and cautious in not putting, like, 19 guys on that list.
The only person who dropped off is Miles Robinson, after suffering a torn Achilles while playing for Atlanta United. We added Kellyn Acosta (who I argued should have already been on that list), as well as Luca de la Torre, Jesus Ferreira, Chris Richards and Aaron Long.
That brings us to 17 roster spots accounted for, ostensibly with six spots (or nine, depending on if the roster size is bumped to 26) left on the bubble over the next five months.
MATT DOYLE (MD): I think everyone mentioned, including Richards and Long, are locks (we’ll get into that more below).
I’m now completely on board with Kellyn as a lock, too. If someone was going to usurp him in the d-mid pecking order it would’ve had to happen this window, but Berhalter didn’t even call in the one guy who I thought might’ve had a chance (James Sands). Instead, we actually saw Berhalter go away from his preferred shape when Adams was playing as a d-mid, then back to it when Acosta was on the field. In other words, he’s actually scheming toward Kellyn’s strengths a little bit. You don’t do that if the guy’s name is in pencil.
Also, this was really cool:
So if there was any doubt – and I’ll admit I had the tiniest fraction of a doubt last time we did this column – it’s gone now.
TB: Yeah, the player pool really drops off after Acosta at d-mid. Plus Berhalter’s comments about what he wants from that position cemented it.
Ferreira played his way onto the locks (and Berhalter’s decision to start him the first three games of this window, including the two friendlies against World Cup opposition with a mostly first-choice lineup, makes this clear).
Ferreira is tied for the Golden Boot presented by Audi lead in MLS with nine goals and offers a different dynamic than any other forward. De la Torre has been extremely impressive since getting a chance in the senior side as well.
MD: No qualms there. I still don’t love Ferreira because he doesn’t draw fouls and is never on his toes hunting rebounds, but he finds chances and the team generally attacks better when he’s out on the field. He’s earned his spot on merit.
As for Luca… love him. No doubt in my mind he’s there. Honestly, it’s more likely he pushes Musah for a starting job than it is that he misses the roster completely.
- Sean Johnson (NYCFC)
- Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest)
- Gaga Slonina (Chicago Fire FC)
MD: Third ‘keeper is the ultimate vibes guy – you take 2022 vibes over 2026 potential 10 times out of 10, so I guess it comes down to who’s got better vibes, Johnson or Horvath?
TB: Johnson. I don’t think this ultimately matters much because of the extremely small chance the third-choice keeper plays, but, man, I wouldn’t love the optics of all three goalkeepers being second-choice at their club. Johnson at least is the guy at NYCFC.
MD: Is this the part where I say Johnson and Horvath* should both be there over Steffen, who’s been really poor for club and country almost every time he’s taken the field over the past 12 months? Are you brave enough to touch that, Thomas?
(*) I wrote this before Horvath’s absolute howler in El Salvador Tuesday night, but I’m gonna stand by it.
TB: I’ll let you have that hill all by yourself.
- DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF)
- Reggie Cannon (Boavista)
- Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Shaq Moore (Tenerife)
TB: A deep position behind Sergino Dest, conventional wisdom suggests just one of these guys are going to Qatar (I hate to continue to add qualifiers, but it's provided the roster is 23 and not 26). I guess there’s an argument for two because Dest can also play on the left (as can Scally), but it feels more useful to use a bottom roster spot elsewhere than a third right back.
I think all four are capable in different ways and are deserving. DeAndre Yedlin would seem to be most likely, if I had to pick.
MD: Yeah, Yedlin seems the most likely based upon his experience and the fact Berhalter has favored him against higher-quality opposition over the other options when Dest hasn’t been available.
That said, I think Cannon’s versatility (he can play as a RCB in a back three or five, which we saw in the second half on Tuesday) and superior crossing might come into play here? Reggie can dime it with either foot, and while Yedlin’s great at getting into high-leverage spots on the overlap, we all know that precision with the final ball has never been his calling card.
- Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic)
- Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes)
- Mark McKenzie (Genk)
- James Sands (Rangers)
TB: If Long and Richards are locks for this roster, then the rest are fighting for the fourth CB spot.
With Long, he got the first chance at starting next to Walker Zimmerman. He had been a constant under Berhalter before his injury and, even before he was able to join full training, he was back with the national team in a December camp doing individual work. He is very clearly in the plans.
Maybe that wouldn’t have been so clear if Richards was healthy this month. Perhaps it would have been clear Richards actually had the inside track at partnering with Zimmerman against Wales. But it seems extremely likely both of these players will be on the roster.
MD: Richards was actually starting games over Robinson (and Zimmerman at times) during qualifying, while Long has been to five straight camps – the first three of which came while he was hurt. And he’s played in most of the games he’s been available for since getting back onto the field. You don’t give a 29-year-old reps like that if you’re not sure about him.
So as I mentioned above, I actually think they’re both locks.
TB: Is it time to remove John Brooks even from the bubble? Seems this decision has been made.
MD: Yeah, he’s not going to be in Qatar unless he buys a ticket.
Right now I’m expecting Carter-Vickers to be the fourth-string center back, and either Palmer-Brown or Sands to make it as a fifth-string CB who can also be third-string cover at d-mid (it’s Sands’ natural position and EPB’s been playing there in training) and right back (Sands played there in Rangers’ Europa League win, while Palmer-Brown’s only qualifying appearance came there).
But none of those guys mentioned are anything close to locks, nor, obviously, is McKenzie. But my guess is two of them are going to be on the roster.
- George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld)
- Sam Vines (Antwerp)
- Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg)
- DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution)
TB: I am really disappointed we didn’t see DeJuan Jones have a chance in the June window. That would signify to me there is almost no chance he works his way onto the roster?
MD: …maybe? Given how poorly Bello and Scally have played for both club and country over the past six months, and that Vines wasn’t called in, and Paredes is almost entirely potential at this point, it feels like there’s still a chance to just bring in whoever the hot hand happens to be (and then to pray Jedi stays healthy and plays every single minute regardless).
TB: I suppose then there’s the argument if DeJuan makes a move to a big European league this summer (which is absolutely a possibility, I can tell you that), he can work in late.
MD: Damn, I guess that’s why they call you Tommy Scoops.
Anyway, one thing I’ve repeatedly written is that whoever comes as Jedi’s backup has to be a like-for-like just in case Jedi gets hurt/suspended/worn down by oppressive heat. You need to stretch the field high and wide in order to open up space for the pocket wingers, and while Jones is actually right-footed, he plays the position in a pretty traditional way for the Revs. He does the job as Berhalter wants it done.
I’m surprised you’re not adding an obligatory John Tolkin shout here, by the way.
TB: The time will come for my large adult son from New Jersey.
- James Sands? (Rangers)
MD: It’s pretty clear now if Sands makes it, it’s in that break-in-case-of-emergency role at three different spots and not strictly as Adams’ back-up.
Just to illustrate his quality and versatility, within the past year he has:
- Played d-mid at a Best XI clip for the MLS Cup champs.
- Been a starter at center back, toggling between a back-three and a back-four for the Gold Cup champs.
- Came on at right back in the Europa League final (and played well!), and won yet another trophy (Scottish Cup). The dude may be a Knicks fan, but plays well at multiple spots and he wins. Bing Bong!
TB: *extremely sad Knicks fan voice* Bing Bong!!!!!!!!!!!
MD: So yeah, I’d prefer Sands over Palmer-Brown as the defensive utility-man. But even with that résumé we’re talking about the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, so I don’t think anyone should get too bent out of shape about it one way or another.
(It's worth remembering, though, that with injuries, suspension and fatigue, if the US actually make a deep run, we could very well get down to the third-string d-mid or fifth-string CB. If the US had beaten Germany in 2002 and made it to the semis, for example, Bruce Arena would’ve had to pull me out of the crowd to give a decent hour in the middle of the defense).
TB: I agree re: Sands as the super-utility guy. If he’s playing regularly (and playing well) for Rangers in the fall, that will be quite useful.
- Gianluca Busio (Venezia)
- Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
- Sebastian Lletget (New England Revolution)
- Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montréal)
- Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
MD: I’m more likely to cross out Lletget than Williamson here. The former played his way out of the picture entirely, while the latter is on the outside looking in because of injury. If Williamson gets on the field and tears it up the rest of the year there’s, I think, a non-zero chance he could be on the roster for a look in September.
TB: That’s fair. Williamson did start a Gold Cup Final last year.
TB: This is also a difficult position to project given the defined starting group plus the ability of Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna to play centrally.
Ostensibly, you might want two in this group. But if LDLT is already in as the preferred (and perhaps overqualified) backup, you don’t need more than one. And, honestly, that one is about as likely as the third-string goalkeeper to get real minutes, given the strength of this midfield and its backups.
MD: Maybe. Just bear in mind, though, that Berhalter changed the team’s shape at this camp, and the shape change seems to play directly to Djordje’s strengths.
The other thing to bear in mind is the vibes. Roldan’s a part of this team through and through, and he’s still, I think, the odds-on favorite to claim the 26th roster slot (I’m assuming it’s 26 no matter how many times you add your caveats).
TB: You know what would be fun? If FIFA just made a damn decision so I didn’t have to keep writing these stupid caveats.
- Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
- Djordje Mihailovic? (CF Montréal)
- Paul Arriola (FC Dallas)
- Cristian Roldan? (Seattle Sounders)
MD: Djordje and Arriola are playing at an MVP level in MLS. Roldan played at an MVP level in the CCL. Morris… not as much, though he did score a muddy and gutsy Concacaf goal on Tuesday night vs. El Salvador.
TB: Right, and that’s on-brand because Morris has looked better than the other two with the national team in the past, complicating the club form picture. It’s an extremely difficult decision.
If Arriola keeps up even 80% of what he’s done to start the season with Dallas the next few months, though, I think it’s got to be him. Why? The combination of how often he’s played in the national team + club form. Morris hasn’t been lighting it up with Seattle this year and Roldan just hasn’t gotten much burn in the national team. Arriola has the combination of recent experience with the USMNT + club exploits.
MD: These are all good points. I’ll say that Morris and Arriola have limitations in that they can each only really play on the wings, while Roldan (in certain set-ups) and Djordje have more flexibility.
So given everything, my money’s still on Roldan from this group, followed by Arriola and Mihailovic. But obviously things can change, especially when considering how injury prone the four locks (Pulisic, Reyna, Weah, Aaronson) ahead of them are.
TB: For whoever narrowly misses the cut, it’s really tough.
In any other cycle this millennium, their MLS form would make them easy locks for the World Cup roster, if not starters. Now with the depth of top-end talent, these guys are fighting for the final few seats on the bench.
MD: Smells like progress.
March '22 group:
- Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg)
- Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
- Jordan Pefok (Young Boys)
- Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion)
- Gyasi Zardes (Colorado Rapids)
- Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
- Jozy Altidore (New England Revolution)
- MYSTERY BOX STRIKER
Add-ons for June '22:
- Haji Wright (Antalyaspor)
- Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati)
- Jeremy Ebobisse (San Jose Earthquakes)
TB: We talked about MYSTERY BOX STRIKER in March and we got our most likely candidate: Haji Wright. I think that settles it for anyone off the radar to play their way onto the roster, just given the obvious time constraint before the World Cup and we have eight guys listed here for (likely) two roster spots.
MD: I still think this one is pretty wide open, beyond the fact Ferreira has become a lock and Jozy is not going to find that Fountain of Youth and get the career-capping World Cup performance a lot of us had hoped for. I would also argue Gyasi’s race has been run unless he goes absolutely berserk the second half of the season here, which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
TB: Agreed with Gyasi, though I’d at least use your “non-zero” argument. It seems very unlikely, but hey, if he bangs 10-15 goals for Colorado the rest of the season, he’s at least in the conversation.
I think Wright/Dike/Pepi have the inside track. What say you? And would you take two or sacrifice a roster spot somewhere to bring a fourth?
MD: I think I agree Pepi has the inside track if he plays well even a little bit, but I don’t think Dike has fit with how Berhalter wants to play, and hasn’t looked good for the USMNT in non-friendlies in the past. He’d have to come out like a house on fire for West Brom to play his way in.
As for Wright… dude put his only look well wide of goal and then got hooked at the half of his only start during this camp. Then Berhalter kind of ethered him:
TB: Yeah. The fact Berhalter felt the need to say it publicly rather than just in the locker room really underpins the frustration here. Berhalter doesn’t do this often publicly.
MD: Berhalter added this performance doesn’t rule Wright out for the future, but I have my doubts. The scouting report on Haji from Turkey is “finds good chances, but doesn’t find many of them and is below average at basically everything else,” and that held true in his three US appearances. I think if Berhalter was at all impressed by him, he’d have given Wright more than 45 minutes in El Salvador no matter how ineffective he was in the first half. The fact he didn’t says this is kind of a back-to-the-drawing board moment.
Regarding how many to take, I think it’s Ferreira and two more. With 26 slots (no caveats!) there’s room for that provided Berhalter doesn’t go crazy bringing a bunch of extra wingers and midfielders.
Are we making roster predictions* now?
(*) To be clear, this is a prediction of who Berhalter will take, not who we’d take.
TB: Does it matter how I answer that?
MD: It does not. You go first.
GK: Turner, Steffen, Johnson
RB: Dest, Yedlin
CB: Zimmerman, Long, Richards, Carter-Vickers, Sands
LB: Robinson, Bello
DM: Adams, Acosta
CM: McKennie, Musah, de la Torre, Busio
W: Pulisic, Weah, Reyna, Aaronson, Arriola
FW: Ferreira, Pepi, Wright
• Doyle won out with the 26-man projection.
• For the sake of simplicity, I only listed each name once. But I’d have Aaronson/Reyna ahead of Busio as the other CM backup and Sands as the third option at DM. Richards would be both “backup” CB options ahead of CCV. Dest for backup LB too, honestly.
• Yedlin for the backup right back given his long-term standing with the group and being literally the only player on this roster with World Cup experience (!).
• It might be a toss-up between Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown for the fourth CB spot. I'm leaning CCV at the moment. Sands is the fifth spot for the super-utility aspect.
• Cristian Roldan was such a difficult cut. I don’t think whoever the last CM is (Busio in this case) will play real minutes at all, and Roldan is an important guy in the culture, but Berhalter has seemed to give Busio every chance ahead of him. If Busio isn’t playing much wherever he goes after leaving Venezia, the door is wide open. But it seems his spot to lose.
• It sucks we didn’t get to see Djorjde Mihailovic in June. I think he still has a real chance to play into the roster – one of the few – but I can’t in good conscience “predict” that right now until we see him in a national team shirt again.
• Arriola’s form/long-standing on the squad is too much to leave out. Plus, if Aaronson or Reyna play centrally, he’s a fresh option out wide.
• Would Berhalter be tempted to find room for a fourth forward just because of the lack of clear hierarchy right now? Perhaps. That’s in play. But if it’s three, I’m watching Pepi. He’s adapted to every single jump in level at every stage of his young career, from the academy to second team to first team to national team. My money is on him figuring it out at Augsburg, who have a financial incentive to give him plenty of chances.
• Wright offers something different than Pepi and Ferreira. Berhalter’s admission of frustration with him against El Salvador is a big worrying sign, but as long as his momentum with club TBD continues, he’ll be hard to leave behind.
GK: Turner, Steffen, Johnson
RB: Dest, Yedlin
CB: Zimmerman, Richards, Long, Carter-Vickers, Sands
LB: Robinson, Paredes
DM: Adams, Acosta
CM: McKennie, Aaronson, Musah, de la Torre, Roldan
W: Pulisic, Weah, Reyna, Arriola
FW: Ferreira, Vazquez, Pepi
• I love Cannon, but he did himself zero favors in this camp. Advantage DeAndre.
• I think Paredes is going to win a job right out of the gates for Wolfsburg, and thus win the backup LB spot for the US (even though he was used primarily as a winger in his one full USMNT camp thus far). Ok, fine, this is more wishcasting than it is a prediction, but I am what I am.
• Sands has been better in his US appearances than Palmer-Brown, so he wins the utility-man job.
• I was surprised to see Busio in Tom’s squad given he seems to have played his way out of the picture. I have Roldan there.
• That makes Morris and Djordje tough final cuts. This injury just killed Djordje’s chances – it’s tough to take a guy who hasn’t been a part of the group if there isn’t a clear need. Morris, meanwhile, is too limited against good competition, and can only play in spots that are absolutely loaded with talent.
• Aaronson’s listed as a back-up in central midfield here, and since that was one of the purposes of this camp, I’m comfortable with that notion. But bear in mind he’s also a primary backup on the wing as well.
• Vazquez is better in the air, finds more chances and draws more fouls than the other forward options – he is a super physical player, and thus fills a clear need.
• I’ll bank on Pepi getting brought back into the group as well even though I’m less convinced than Tom that he’ll be particularly good for Augsburg out of the gates.
The USMNT will play two more friendlies in September, reportedly against to-be-announced World Cup-qualified teams from Asia. Then it’s Group B time against England, Iran and Wales.