I am burnt out after a full year’s worth of work, and am about to (try to) unplug for the next five days before the quick ramp-up ahead of – good lord, I can’t believe it’s here – the 2022 World Cup. We’ll be doing live watchalong shows with postgame analysis, and I’ll be writing a bit of course, and the usual.
So what I’m saying is that for this column here I’ve got the energy and mental bandwidth to give you an embedded video and some bullet points.
Here’s the embedded video, which is to last night’s instant reaction Extratime special with me, Andrew Wiebe and Charlie Davies. We went in pretty deep on most of the stuff that is of interest, and I think it was mostly coherent, so give it a watch:
Now for the bullet points:
• While everybody was freaking out about spots 21-26 on the roster, the real reveal is that 90% of our most important players are fit and playing real minutes. The USMNT never, through the course of qualifying, had all of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Timothy Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest, Walker Zimmerman and Matt Turner healthy at the same time. Not once!
Add in the expected recovery of Weston McKennie and Luca de la Torre (head coach Gregg Berhalter implied last night during the broadcast that both guys would be good to go by the 21st), as well as the form of Tim Ream and the fact that Berhalter called in three young(ish), in-form strikers… this is literally the best it’s ever been in this cycle.
We paid a blood price to get to this point. Lost in all the Sturm und Drang of qualifying, as well as the justifiably focus on how young the US team was, was the fact that this group was insanely injury-prone. Berhalter had to juggle everything all the time, and while he didn’t always do the best job of it, and the players themselves often came up short, they made it to this point and the soccer gods have repaid them with some good karma re: injuries and form.
Obviously, it’s not perfect, as it sure would be nice if Miles Robinson and Chris Richards were here. But it’s as close to perfect as this US roster has been this cycle.
If you’re more hung up on who was picked at spots 21-26 than the fact that the guys in spots 1-20 are 90% healthy, you’re focused on the wrong thing.
• There were two major surprises in Berhalter’s picks, of course, with Zack Steffen’s omission being the bigger one. Steffen had been the consistent No. 1 when healthy despite consistently poor form for both club and country, but in retrospect it looks like his brutal performance in the final two qualifiers was enough to finally lose him the job.
I don’t know why that cost him the backup job as well, though I am of the opinion that he has not been among the top three US-eligible 'keepers for quite some time, so I’m not fretting on it too much.
The upshot of Steffen being excluded is that Berhalter has, perhaps, seen the light on both the value of superior shot-stopping (consider this a “Damn, maybe Brad Stuver should be there, too?” blurb) and the limited ROI on dogmatically building from the back with this group. I think, in other words, that this is something of a tell that the US are going to play a bit more against the ball – specifically, that they’re going to be much more of a counterattacking team at the World Cup than they were during qualifying.
Note that this doesn’t mean they’re going to completely give up on building with the ball, nor does it mean they’re going to stop pressing. I just think we’re going to see more toggling between high-block/low-block with an emphasis on immediate verticality rather than some of the ponderous, possession-based builds that were the default scheme in qualifying.
This is probably a good thing.
• Another tell that the US might be more inclined toward counterattacking this coming month: The inclusion of Jordan Morris and Haji Wright near the end of the roster (though I could see Wright playing his way into a bigger role), and the inclusion of Brenden Aaronson as a midfielder rather than a winger.
All three of those guys are limited when the game is compact but devastating when there’s space to run into.
There was never a lot of that for the US in qualifying. There is potential to find much, much more of it against Wales and England (though likely not against Iran, who seem set to play their typical deep block in the World Cup).
• Let’s talk about Wright, who, it seems, was included at the expense of Ricardo Pepi – the second-biggest exclusion behind Steffen. Berhalter says that’s not so…
…but irrespective of that, it’s hard not to think that there were three spots for five forwards (Jordan Pefok is the other, and his two-month-long cold spell did him in).
And look, I get it. Pepi’s done well in his two months with FC Groningen, but the Eredivisie is a notoriously high-scoring league for one; for two, his underlying numbers are still not great; and for three, we got almost a full year’s sample size of Pepi still looking like a kid and getting rag-dolled by physical, Bundesliga defenders. He was not up to the job there.
Sargent and Wright are grown men at this point, and bring a level of physicality that Pepi can’t yet hit (though Wright is still nowhere near as physical as his frame suggests he should be). That really, really matters at the World Cup.
Jesús Ferreira’s not that type of presence, but he was so productive in MLS, and the way he plays the position is so vastly different, and the fact that the US have consistently generated better chances with him on the field is so compelling that there was no chance he was going to be left off the roster.
Back to Wright for a sec: when I say “he’s nowhere near as physical as his frame suggests he should be,” I mean he’s really not much of a target man and is only a limited aerial threat. Wright is, instead, a slasher – a guy who pulls wide and is more likely to find space attacking the B gap between the fullback and center back than the A gap between the center backs. The way he imposes his physicality is with his pace and solidity on the run (he can take a shoulder and keep trucking).
He’s the anti-Pefok in basically every way.
• Paul Arriola was the final cut. I love Arriola but the hard truth is he's redundant if you have a healthy Aaronson and Weah already on the roster (even if Aaronson is listed as a midfielder, he’s still clearly factored into the winger depth chart).
That left the final winger spot for Morris, who is bigger, stronger, provides more end product (11g/8a in 2100 USMNT minutes) and is better on set pieces. He’s just a different sort of presence from any of the other wingers going to Qatar, and while he’s unlikely to play a large role, he does have obvious utility in late-game counterattacking situations if the US are protecting a lead, as well as late-game "get it into the mixer!" desperation moments because of his physicality in the box getting onto the end of restarts.
Anyway, let’s get this man to the 2024 Olympics as an overage player:
• Forward is one of two spots up in the air. The other, obviously, is left center back.
The case for Tim Ream is simple: He’s in the best form of any of the options, and has been playing weekly in the English Premier League, which is the best league in the world currently. He also has ample familiarity with Berhalter’s system and the other players on the roster, given that he was a regular from 2019 until September of last year.
Where Ream falls short is in the type of raw athleticism that allows a team to press high (Fulham rarely do so) while still covering in behind. Berhalter cited that and Ream’s relative weakness in the air when talking about his exclusion earlier in the year. He didn’t, in other words, fit the game model.
Is his inclusion now another indication that the US could be pointed more towards being a counterattacking time in Qatar, since Ream’s very comfortable defending in a low block and his ability to pick a transition-creating pass from the back is unmatched in this pool? Or is it just a matter of attrition + form + familiarity (both with the scheme and with Antonee Robinson at LB) forcing Berhalter’s hand?
I don’t know. I also don’t even know if Ream is there to start. I kind of doubt it, given that Berhalter has clearly rated Aaron Long ahead of Ream over the years, including this year even with Long coming back from his Achilles tear. And I found this to be a compelling point from Max:
It’ll be very interesting to see if Ream can win the starting job over the next 10 days.
• The other surprise omission was Reggie Cannon, who was dropped in favor of Shaq Moore. I have to admit I didn’t see that coming, and assume that Moore’s flexibility to play inverted on the left was preferred to Cannon’s flexibility to come inside and play as a right center back in a back three (or five). In fact, I’d call Cannon’s omission an obvious indicator that Berhalter has no intention of going with a surprise 3-4-2-1 at any point in the tournament.
• So does that make Moore the backup LB if Jedi picks up a knock or a suspension? Or does the job go to young Joe Scally? Or would the right move be to shift Sergiño Dest over to that side with one of the above, or DeAndre Yedlin, at RB?
Whatever the answer actually is… man, I wish there was a natural LB back-up for Jedi on this roster. Berhalter gave so much time trying to get George Bello and Sam Vines to win that job that he never seemed to notice that DeJuan Jones and John Tolkin were outplaying both of them.
Hopefully it doesn’t matter – hopefully Robinson plays every single minute (I’ll be greedy and say “all 450 of them!” in Qatar. Fingers crossed).
• I called Cristian Roldan a “vibes guy” in the above video, and do not at all mean that as a dig on him. Being a vibes guy does not mean he’s not a good player. But we all know very well he’s on the fringe, and that he’s not likely to see significant playing time. This isn’t unique to the US, by the way:
So if you’re looking at a filler slot like that, you can either take a high-upside kid, or you can take an A++ vibes guy who understands the assignment.
Roldan does. He’s even called himself a vibes guy, and back three years (or so) ago McKennie singled out Roldan not just for his positivity, but for how he’s always locked in and is like having an extra coach on the roster even when he knows he’s not going to play.
It sure seems like the players understand the value of having a guy like that, even if the fans don’t necessarily.
• The other thing I’ve been thinking about a bunch, and that I wrote on at length both this summer and earlier this week, is the potential shift from the 4-3-3 we saw during qualifying to more of a 4-2-3-1 with a No. 10 (or someone in a 10-like role) in front of a double pivot.
When I wrote on it earlier this week I focused on how the responsibilities wrt ball progression and backline protection are balanced in the double pivot. As for how it works with the No. 10 and the rest of the attack, I’m just going to copy what I wrote this summer:
Whether you consider the player in this spot to be a true No. 10 or not doesn’t really matter; what does is understanding their job is much less about ball progression through the middle, which falls to Musah and (to a lesser extent) Adams, and more about operating in the half-space as part of the attack. If, for example, they’re operating in the right half-space it’ll usually be the right winger out wide, the center forward occupying the middle channel, the left winger (Christian Pulisic basically all the time) in the left half-space and the left fullback trying to get around the edge out wide.
The goal is to get to the baseline 3-2-2-3 formation in possession and to create both positional and dynamic superiority. Throughout 2021 and most of 2022, the US had aimed for a 2-3-2-3 instead.
Note that this role is much more similar to the one McKennie has played for Juventus under multiple managers. He’s still sloppy on the ball, so they move him upfield where his turnovers cause less harm and they can weaponize his box-arriving runs (which are brilliant) and his propensity to try sh*t, which actually comes off quite often when the whole team’s in a flow.
I’ve gone back and forth over the past week over whether we’ll see the US in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 this tournament (I’m sure it’ll be a bit of both, but one will be the default and the other won’t). Two days ago I was convinced it’d be the 4-3-3; today I think it’ll be the 4-2-3-1.
I’ll probably change my mind five more times between now and the whistle on the 21st, and truth be told, I actually think that’s the biggest question – not starters at left back or center forward – facing the US.
• You can tell I had the 4-3-3 in my head when I made this graphic.
• I’m pretty certain about nine of those 11 starters, with center forward and left back still up in the air. I would also, quite frankly, start Tim Weah and drop one of either Pulisic or Reyna, but I don’t think that’s going to happen (nor will shifting Pulisic to the right and Reyna to the left, which… sigh).
But anyway, the roster came out and it was good. And the World Cup starts in less than two weeks, and I think that’ll be pretty damn good for the US, too.