You know, the tournament that starts in a couple of weeks? I’m sure everyone is going to be very happy with the squad and not at all ang-- OH BOY that’s a lot of outcry.
There’s already been plenty of discussion on social media about whether Berhalter got his roster selections right or wrong. I want to bring a bit more nuance to this discussion, though. We’re not just shouting “Ricardo Pepi didn’t make the USA World Cup squad?!” into the ether. Although to be fair, I am very surprised the FC Dallas product didn’t make the team.
Today, I’m looking at why seven different players who missed out on the World Cup squad had strong cases to make the cut. We’re going to use data. We’re going to talk about tactics and player profiles. It’s going to be fun. Or rage-inducing.
Let’s get to the snubs.
- Club: FC Cincinnati (MLS)
We’ve known about this one for a while.
“I talked to Gregg [Berhalter] right before that [September] camp,” Vazquez told David Gass on MLS Today, “and he was basically saying that it was a little too late to integrate me and that he feels I made it really hard for him and that I just need to keep proving myself and that I'll get that opportunity in the next cycle. Pretty much was that.”
After scoring 18 goals and finishing fourth in expected goals per 90 minutes among players with at least 1,000 minutes in MLS in 2022, Vazquez missed the USMNT’s World Cup roster. With his big frame (6-foot-2, 196 pounds) and his willingness to move off the ball (99th percentile in runs per game), Vazquez could’ve been a strong, versatile striker option for the US at this tournament.
There might not be a whole lot separating Vazquez from some of the other names in the USMNT depth chart, but you can’t argue with the 24-year-old’s production and his underlying numbers during a breakout year for FC Cincinnati. Alas, maybe next time around.
- Club: CF Montréal (MLS)
Djordje Mihailovic is coming off a great year in MLS. He finished in the 95th percentile in MLS in xG plus xG assisted per 90 minutes among attacking midfielders and wingers, per FBref. He created chances, he skirted past defenders and he changed games for CF Montréal.
Now for 2023, he’s going to try to change games for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. The Dutch top-flight side reportedly paid a transfer fee of around $6 million to acquire Mihailovic from Montréal back in August.
It’s a shame Mihailovic was dealing with an ankle injury back in June when he was set to play for the USMNT against Morocco because missing that camp evidently took him out of World Cup contention. For a US team that’s currently lacking high-quality depth in the No. 8 spots, having Mihailovic in the squad to operate as an attack-minded midfielder wouldn’t be the worst thing.
At this point, though, we won’t see that in Qatar.
- Club: Portland Timbers (MLS)
Speaking of being light in midfield, it seems like Eryk Williamson could have slotted right in as one of Berhalter’s dual No. 8s, doesn’t it?
Maybe part of the reason why it seems that way is because he’s done it before. Williamson played for the US at the Gold Cup in 2021 and had some bright moments (and some inconsistent ones, too). Still, with Weston McKennie dealing with a small injury on a shorthanded Juventus squad and Luca de la Torre recovering from an injury in Spain, Williamson might just have added higher-quality cover than the players Berhalter chose to bring.
The Portland Timbers standout is one of the best ball progressors in all of MLS. Per FBref, Williamson finished in the 96th percentile among midfielders last year in successful dribbles per 90. He also stepped forward to create and capitalize on chances more than the average central midfielder.
Williamson isn’t a perfect player, but there’s a real chance he could’ve helped this team.
- Club: Union Berlin (Bundesliga)
Jordan Pefok would’ve been the ultimate Plan B striker option for the United States. The Union Berlin standout does something essentially none of the strikers who made Berhalter’s squad do: win the ball in the air. According to FBref, Pefok is in the 94th percentile among forwards in the Bundesliga this year in aerials won per 90, with 5.82. He’s also in the 74th percentile in that same group of players in aerial win percentage, with 51.9%.
He’s tall. He’s a target for long balls. And he’s a target for crosses in the box.
Clearly, though, Berhalter doesn’t want to build his team around playing long balls and crosses to a target forward, which I respect. But I also wish the US had an “in case of emergency, break glass” kind of striker – and without Pefok in the team, I’m just not sure they do.
- Club: Rangers (Scottish Premiership)
This one comes down to roster construction. Berhalter chose to bring five fullbacks, but just four center backs to Qatar. With both Sergiño Dest and Joe Scally able to play on both sides of the backline, you can probably get away with not carrying that fifth fullback. So I would’ve flipped that allotment and brought five center backs and four fullbacks.
James Sands hasn’t been lighting it up at Rangers, but we’ve seen from some of his time in Scotland and most of his time back with New York City FC in MLS that he can thrive as a center back in a back three or operate as a midfielder.
The 22-year-old has a good mixture of defensive awareness, timing and attacking composure. Put simply, having Sands in the mix could’ve given the US cover in areas where I think they need a little more cover.
- Club: FC Dallas (MLS)
Paul Arriola just might be a victim of the USMNT’s group.
If we know one thing about Paul Arriola, it’s that he’s a workhorse. He runs all the time. He covers ground. He presses. He moves in behind opposing backlines. Per Second Spectrum, Arriola finished in the 97th percentile in sprints per game last year among players with at least 1,000 MLS minutes. He was also in the 95th percentile in pressures per game in that same group of players.
Arriola can be a useful part of a defensively sound team. The only problem? All four teams in Group B are probably at their best when they don’t have the ball (England, Iran, Wales and, yes, the United States). That means the Yanks might need some extra attacking firepower on the fringes of their winger depth chart if they want to break through against defensively-inclined opposition.
- Club: Middlesbrough (Championship)
I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think Zack Steffen is one of the three best goalkeepers with an American passport. His shot-stopping numbers have never been all that good and they’re certainly not good this year in the English Championship with Middlesbrough, on loan from defending Premier League champs Manchester City.
Up until Wednesday, though, I was almost sure that Berhalter thought Steffen was his guy for the World Cup. I know we’re way in the weeds here, but Steffen and Berhalter go way back to their time at the Columbus Crew before Steffen moved to Europe and Berhalter moved up to the national team job.
I guess I was wrong! And frankly, I’m happy to be wrong on this one. I feel for Steffen missing out on this tournament after being a part of the USMNT for years now, but with him out of the picture for this tournament, Matt Turner can eat up the minutes between the goalposts. With Turner’s elite shot-stopping ability, the US have a fighting chance in any game. I’m not talking about just group-stage games. No, I really do mean any game.