It’s official: The United States have qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. After a disaster that led to the USMNT missing the 2018 edition, they’re back.
And the pool seems deeper than ever. A lot of good players are vying to be on the plane to Qatar in November. It’s time to shift focus to the roster.
We’ll touch on this a bit later, but it's worth noting some tournaments have upped the squad limit to 26-players instead of 23 in the age of COVID-19, so keep that in mind.
LOCKS FOR THE 23-MAN ROSTER
- Zack Steffen (GK, Manchester City)
- Matt Turner (GK, New England Revolution)
- Sergino Dest (D, Barcelona)
- Antonee Robinson (D, Fulham)
- Miles Robinson (D, Atlanta United)
- Walker Zimmerman (D, Nashville SC)
- Tyler Adams (M, RB Leipzig)
- Weston McKennie (M, Juventus)
- Yunus Musah (M, Valencia)
- Gio Reyna (M, Dortmund)
- Brenden Aaronson (F, RB Salzburg)
- Christian Pulisic (F, Chelsea)
- Tim Weah (F, Lille)
TOM BOGERT (TB): We tried to be really deliberate about these 13 locks, but there are probably a few other guys who, if not outright locks, at least have their key in the door. There’s a better metaphor somewhere in there, but you get it.
One disagreement already, Doyle: Kellyn Acosta has to be a lock.
He’s appeared in every single match in World Cup qualifying except for one. There isn’t a backup to Tyler Adams that the coaching staff has trusted; they have only turned to him. He played as many games for the USMNT in 2021 as he did for Colorado! That’s nuts!
MATTHEW DOYLE (MD): Here’s the argument against Kellyn being a lock: he doesn't play that spot for his club. What if James Sands gets a break and goes thermonuclear for Rangers at the 6? Or Edwin Cerrillo puts in a Best XI season in Dallas, or Leon Flach in Philadelphia? Or, I don’t know, Seattle’s Obed Vargas turns into the American Makelele between now and November?
It's unlikely, but it could happen. Something like a 5% chance AT BEST (probably more like a 2% chance), whereas it doesn't matter if someone on the fringes or off the radar has that kind of season on the wing. If Jonathan Lewis scores 30 goals this year, Pulisic, Reyna and Weah are still going to Qatar.
That’s the difference between guys who are locks and guys who are almost locks.
TB: You’re wrong, I’m right, but whatever! Anyway, more on them later.
This group of sighs 13 is locked in, no question about it going to the World Cup barring injury. And it’s a really strong core to start with.
Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest are top-end talents playing for Champions League clubs. It’s a shame they’ve been on the pitch together so sparingly (if at all), or we’d be talking about that core even more. Yunus Musah, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson are right on that cusp, too.
Round out a starting lineup with either Zack Steffen or Matt Turner in goal, Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson in central defense (the USMNT are +15 GD with them on the field, the only loss in nine games being Wednesday night at Costa Rica) plus Antonee Robinson at left back.
That group stacks up at least comparatively, if not better than, what, all but eight nations in the world? Is that too optimistic?
MD: No. On talent, this group kicks ass. And while they’re young, they’ve accrued a lot of on-the-job know-how over the past year for their country. Plus as you pointed out, they’ve got a ton of it at the highest levels for their clubs as well.
Berhalter still has to, at some point, drop Steffen. He is a liability. And the rest of the pieces don’t quite fit perfectly yet. But they don’t not fit, either, and the talent is exceptional.
TB: (The eight I had, in case you were curious, are: Brazil, Argentina, Belgium, France, England, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands.)
MD: Zimmerman + Robinson >> Van Dijk + De Ligt, but Imma let you finish.
TB: That leaves a lot of deserving players within contention for the final 10 spots.
- Sean Johnson (NYCFC)
- Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest)
- Gaga Slonina (Chicago Fire FC)
TB: There is an extremely low chance the third goalkeeper on a World Cup roster plays, so this choice breaks down pretty simply:
- Do you reward a guy like Sean Johnson who has been in camps for a while, a respected goalkeeper but not really pushing Steffen/Turner for the starting job now or in the future?
- Or go for Ethan Horvath, who had that memorable Nations League moment and had long been in the group, too?
- Or go for the rising star Gaga Slonina, assuming down the line he’ll be the starter one day (and also make sure Poland, which he’s also eligible to represent, don’t turn his head with a better plan for his future)?
MD: I don’t really think there’s a wrong choice here, though in general when it comes to the third ‘keeper slot I tend more towards the steady veteran who’s a good locker room guy – the Tony Meola 2002 role – rather than a kid. So that’d be SeanJohn.
Bear in mind that the 2002 team had a legit ‘keeper controversy between two guys, in Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, who, um, were not best of friends, so Meola (who is one of the five nicest people in American soccer) was really there as a mediator.
From what I’ve heard there’s none of that tension between Turner and Steffen, so maybe that role is less necessary.
As you point out, making Slonina part of the longer-term project is very necessary. Berhalter’s earned my trust when it comes to recruiting dual nationals, though, so I won’t sweat it if the kid doesn’t make the trip.
And likewise, I won’t sweat it if Horvath is there, though I think he probably only makes the trip if he continues starting for Forest, or some other club at a good level.
- DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF)
- Reggie Cannon (Boavista)
- Joe Scally (Mönchengladbach)
- Shaq Moore (Tenerife)
- Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United)
- Bryan Reynolds (Kortrijk)
TB: Right back is so deep and versatile with Dest’s ability to play both right or left back that the USMNT have often called up an extra right back. DeAndre Yedlin has been a regular in the group for WCQ, as has Reggie Cannon.
Joe Scally is a rising talent with Borussia Monchengladbach and is very likely to get a chance to impress in camps between now and Qatar. He, like Dest, can play either right or left back, a very useful trait for a 23-man roster.
MD: If Araujo hadn’t picked Mexico, he’d have started for the US against Panama though, right? He was supposed to be on last year’s US Gold Cup team ahead of Moore, but he turned it down, and he was called up for the first set of World Cup qualifiers in September, but he turned that down, too. And then he chose Mexico, and now he doesn’t even factor for Tata Martino at all.
Sliding doors, man. I’m rooting for him to be a starter for El Tri this autumn.
Anyway, this is a crapshoot. Yedlin’s experience probably gives him an edge, but Cannon’s been to the most camps under Berhalter and has generally been very good, and provides the added benefit of being able to play inside in a 3-4-2-1 formation if GGG goes with that shape. I think those two are the likeliest to be there.
Scally, though, is the one with the most obvious and obviously reachable upside. If he plays over the next six months like he did from August to November, it’ll be tough to leave him out. Especially when considering his versatility – of all the guys on this list, he’s the one who’s most natural swapping between the right side and the left side.
TB: Agree on Scally. Plus, being able to adeptly play RB or LB would be a nice bonus. Maybe that frees up a roster spot for another center forward.
- Chris Richards (Hoffenheim)
- Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
- John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
- Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes)
- Mark McKenzie (Genk)
- James Sands (Rangers)
TB: Aaron Long – who was a starting CB under Berhalter before rupturing his Achilles – returned to the field ahead of schedule and got himself on the roster for the final WCQ window. It’s pretty cool. He has the inside track to get to Qatar.
So does Chris Richards, who started four of the five WCQs between October and February before picking up an injury of his own.
John Brooks, like Scally, will likely get his chance to work back into the picture this summer, but with the established first-choice pairing of Zimmerman and M. Robinson plus Long’s return and Richards’ ascension up the depth chart, it might be tough.
Erik Palmer-Brown was a surprise inclusion in this final WCQ window while Mark McKenzie hasn’t been in, erm, great club form and was left off the most recent roster. He’ll likely get chances in the group this summer too.
MD: How likely is it that Brooks gets that chance to work back into the picture, though? I think some bridges were burned, and the door might be shut.
That’s my way of saying I will be shocked if Richards and Long aren’t the picks here. I think Berhalter justifiably sees them as a cut above the other options.
TB: In so many words, yeah, that was what I was intimating with “might be tough.”
MD: Sands, though, is the wild card because of his versatility. He’s naturally a 6, so he provides depth there. And he’s extremely at home in the middle of a back three (or five), so he’d make it easier for Berhalter to change the team’s shape if he wants to. And, of course, he can play as a CB in a back four, which we saw for both club and country last year.
There are competing theories about how to build out a roster for a tournament, and one of them is “fill the end of the roster with versatile guys in case of injuries/suspensions.” Bruce Arena, for example, didn’t do that in 2006, which is how Claudio Reyna ended up playing as a solo d-mid in a must-win game against Ghana (it did not go well).
I still don’t think Sands will be there – and to be clear, he has not been good for Rangers so far, so he might be playing his way out of the conversation entirely – but you can probably tell from my tone that I think there’s a good reason to include him, or someone like him.
- George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld)
- Sam Vines (Antwerp)
- Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg)
- DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution)
TB: George Bello seems to have taken in that backup left back spot behind Robinson, but the ground seems tenuous. There’s plenty of room for Sam Vines, DeJuan Jones or Kevin Paredes to make their move over the next six months.
Don’t sleep on Jones or Paredes.
MD: Berhalter’s given Bello a lot of room to win this job and unlike most of the other high-upside young players who’ve gotten run, he hasn’t delivered. And he’s struggled in his minutes thus far at Arminia Bielefeld.
My money is on someone else breaking through here, or Berhalter just eschewing a proper backup left back and putting it on Dest’s plate, which I’d hate. The other obvious option is that Scally beats out one of Yedlin or Cannon, since he can back up either spot (that versatility factor again).
I had hoped that Paredes would hit the ground running in Germany, but man has it not happened that way. Let’s never send anyone to Wolfsburg again.
- Kellyn Acosta* (LAFC)
- James Sands? (Rangers)
TB: U.S. Soccer listed James Sands as a defender on the March WCQ roster. I assume he’s viewed as a center back, but he can play both in central defense and No. 6, and the situation is very light at the position, so he’s at least within a shout here.
This is why I think Acosta is a lock. He’s a constant in World Cup qualifying rosters, not just to make up the numbers, but as part of the action. Perhaps some players listed at CM (like Gianluca Busio) can play No. 6, but in reality, the coaching staff has only turned to Acosta over qualifying.
MD: I’ve already made my Acosta explanation above, and the Sands explanation above. I fully expect Kellyn to be on the roster, but there’s a sliver of a window that could have someone sneak past him.
If he was playing as a No. 6 for LAFC, I’d feel otherwise. But he’s not so I don’t.
- Luca de la Torre (Heracles)
- Gianluca Busio (Venezia)
- Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
- Sebastian Lletget (New England Revolution)
- Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
- Cole Bassett (Feyenoord)
- Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montréal)
- Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)
TB: The starting midfield group is defined with Adams holding underneath Musah and McKennie. De la Torre has risen fast up the depth chart and seems very likely to be the third midfielder.
Busio has been a regular in camps, plus can play either CM or No. 6, giving useful versatility. Sebastian Lletget got left out of the most recent roster after falling out of the rotation. Cristian Roldan has been in fantastic form with Seattle Sounders FC, but hasn’t played meaningful WCQ minutes with the USMNT since October (and even that was 22 minutes off the bench in that barren Panama road loss).
Eryk Williamson just returned from a long-term injury, Paxton Pomykal is back in form and fitness after a nightmare few years with injuries, while Djordje Mihailvoic continues to level up with CF Montréal. Cole Bassett is finding his feet in the Feyenoord first team, too.
MD: Full disclosure, dear reader: Tom originally wanted to put Luca on the locks list and I couldn’t quite get there. But he’s damn close, and I think we both agree that he’s extremely likely to be on the Qatar roster. Let’s hope part of that is him playing his way into a move to PSV or Feyenoord, and then playing very well for them.
Anyway, the versatility argument works here for Roldan (CM, winger, right back, right wingback), Djordje (CM, winger) and, to a lesser extent, Pomykal (CM, winger, wingback – though he is bad at those last two spots). It might work better for a fully fit Williamson or, I guess, Busio, who can play as one of the free 8s or as a No. 6.
And I like that idea a lot. It probably won’t be necessary for the US to go three-deep at d-mid, but 2006 left me permanently scarred and I hope Berhalter is bearing that in mind. It’s the most important spot on the field.
The other thing that could happen here is Berhalter starts seeing Reyna as more of a free 8 (it’s coming) than as a winger, which would then make it less necessary to bring two of these guys and open up a spot to bring an extra forward or center back, or even another winger.
- Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
- Konrad de la Fuente (Marseille)
- Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Djordje Mihailovic? (CF Montréal)
- Paul Arriola (FC Dallas)
- Cristian Roldan? (Seattle Sounders FC)
TB: I’m lumping both flanks together because the winger group seems pretty defined. Pulisic and Aaronson are locks on the left, Reyna and Weah on the right. In a roster of 23 players, four wingers might be enough, particularly given these are four of the most influential players on the roster to begin with.
MD: It does not. It seems like the best hope for this group is that the “Gio is a starting free 8” thing happens, which then opens up the potential need for another winger. If that’s the case it’s Arriola who I suspect is the best bet, though Roldan and Morris (he can also play as a center forward) both have the versatility arguments.
But when the current four-deep is filled with Champions League players who have also produced in qualifying, it’s tough to see a path for anyone else to truly crack the rotation.
And yeah, it’s crazy how much winger talent the US has produced over the past five years. Most of these guys would’ve been starters – some of them full-fledged stars – in any previous generation.
- Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg)
- Jesus Ferreira (Dallas)
- Jordan Pefok (Young Boys)
- Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion)
- Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
- Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
- Jozy Altidore (New England Revolution)
- MYSTERY BOX STRIKER
TB: Just like it was heading into qualifying, center forward for the USMNT is wide open. In this last window, Jesus Ferreira made the strongest push at the starting job or at least a roster spot, but Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike and Jordan Pefok had previously made similar cases, while Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes remain on the bubble.
This position is the most interesting group to watch, and the one with the most volatility, as we get closer and closer to the World Cup.
MD: Ferreira’s making a compelling case and is in the best club situation: being a DP striker for a good team means lots of service, and lots of rope to play through any sort of slump. The fact that the US attack really does seem to hum when he’s out there – his movement allows the wingers to create attacking depth – is also super compelling. At the moment, I think he’s better than a coin flip to be on the roster.
But that’s still far from a lock, and a lot of strange stuff can happen between now and November. What if Brandon Vazquez scores 20+ goals for Cincinnati? What if Brian White, who Berhalter has namechecked in the past, does the same for Vancouver? Or Mason Toye? Or Miguel Berry? What if Norwich get relegated, Teemu Pukki leaves and Sargent starts banging ‘em home in the English Championship?
So yeah. It’s wide open. And I know you want to talk about Jozy, so let’s talk about Jozy.
TB: Jozy Altidore is an extreme longshot, but there’s a scenario in which he’s in incredible form and gets a flier as one of the final roster spots.
MD: The ultimate Andrew Wiebe Narrative Choice is what that would be, but yeah… Jozy is still the most gifted striker in the pool (to the extent that he’s actually in the pool) of any age.
It’s not just the talent, though. It’s that Jozy does a lot of the same false 9 things that Ferreira does – he has always loved to drop into midfield and become a playmaker, sending wingers through. Prime Jozy would be pretty close to Berhalter’s ideal No. 9 for this group, I think.
Also, it’s worth remembering the type of attacking chemistry he and Pulisic had back in the 2018 qualifying cycle:
If he plays 2000 minutes and scores 15 goals for the Revs, could he get a look? Absolutely. But Jozy has played 2000+ minutes exactly once in his MLS career, and in his national team career has only rarely been able to make it through a full tournament without picking up a muscle injury of some sort.
So forget about bringing him as a starter or even the primary back-up. In order to have room for him on the roster, it’d probably have to be specifically as a super-sub who’s never going to be asked to play more than 30 minutes per game.
There actually is a way for that to happen. If Reyna goes into the free 8 depth chart and Berhalter doesn’t backfill with another winger, then he’s got room to bring Jozy as a third No. 9.
I think the chances of that happening are incredibly small. But I am rooting for Jozy to have the type of season that makes us seriously discuss it.
OUR PROJECTED 23
- GK: Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Sean Johnson
- RB: Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin
- CB: Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, Aaron Long
- LB: Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally
- DM: Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta
- CM: Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Gio Reyna
- LW: Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson
- RW: Tim Weah, Jordan Morris
- ST: Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi
TB: Quick note off the top: Berhalter has selected a 23-man squad as USMNT manager twice, both in 2021, for the Nations League and Gold Cup. Those squads each had:
- 3 goalkeepers
- 4 fullbacks, 4 center backs
- 2 DMs, 4 CMs
- 4 wingers, 2 center forwards
Some players were different from others in versatility, but this was generally the mold. The Gold Cup had two players who were ostensibly center forwards (Matthew Hoppe and Nico Gioacchini) that Berhalter stressed were primarily viewed as wingers for that tournament.
Will he stick with two center forwards or change the alchemy? Being able to call 26 players (and name 23 to any given matchday squad) would be useful.
MD: Making it a 26-man roster would be a lot of fun because then we’d get to watch USMNT Twitter lose its collective s**t over the 27th man in the player pool, which we all know is the most important guy to discuss.
TB: Life or death.
Anyway, you talked me into dropping Gio Reyna into the midfield, thus making room for another forward (Jordan Morris in this instance). Explain the rationale.
MD: Before the injuries, Morris was basically a first-choice player for Berhalter. I’m assuming he’ll be close to that again by June, and with Reyna pointed toward central midfield for his club… it just kind of fits.
And then, of course, there’s the versatility thing. Morris serves as a “break in case of emergency” option of a center forward behind the two other guys on the depth chart. We’ve seen it over and over again in the World Cup: suspensions and injuries happen, and absolutely crush teams.
So yeah, Morris is the 23rd man on our roster at this point (though I will admit to the readers that I bullied you into it).
TB: If there’s talk bout a “break in case of emergency option” at center forward, you sure the roster is good in going with two natural center forwards, then? One of which hasn’t scored since October and the other we were all questioning as of, like, last week his fit as a No. 9 in a 4-3-3?
MD: Right now they’re the two best options, right? Combined they’ve started seven of the past eight qualifiers, and the other two guys who’ve gotten on the field at center forward in that time (Pefok and Gyasi) haven’t exactly convinced.
Things can change, though. Rapidly. Nobody should bet their lives on this depth chart holding its shape until November.
TB: This was fun. Can’t wait to look back on how stupid this looks when the roster is being submitted in November.