US men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter has been pretty open about his plans for this summer all along: The Nations League roster would be primarily composed of first-choice players and many of the top back-ups, while the Gold Cup roster would be composed of players in the hunt for one of those back-up jobs -- or in a few cases, in the hunt for a spot in the first XI.
So you can think of it as an A Team and a B Team if you like*. I’m comfortable with that designation even if a handful of the guys on the US roster announced on Wednesday are probably more worthy of the “A” tier designation than “B” but whatever. I’m not here to split hairs.
(*) Don’t get hung up on that, though! World Cup qualifying is going to be a grind, and we’re almost never going to see the type of first-choice XIs folks like to tweet out. Berhalter’s going to have to mix-and-match, and depth is going to be paramount. So remember that more than anything else, this is a way to both cultivate and integrate that depth.
What I’m here to do is try to pull apart a few of the mysteries baked into this 23-man group, which is a little unbalanced in places, very unproven in others and filled with potential throughout.
Let’s go group by group:
This is obviously Turner’s chance to push his way into the discussion for the No. 1 kit. I’ll be surprised if he’s not the starter throughout this tournament, and nobody should be all that surprised if he claims the starting spot long-term. As our friends over at AmericanSoccerAnalysis wrote last week when unveiling their new “Goals Added” model for goalkeeper analysis: ”When aggregating regular-season player performance over the past three seasons, there’s Matt Turner, and then there’s nobody, and then there’s Steve Clark.”
Play around with their model a little bit and you’ll see that the two best full seasons in their database, which goes back to 2013, belong to Turner. His first season as a starter -- 2018 -- was also an all-timer, and he’s on track for another one this year.
I expected to see Johnson, a reliable veteran, in as a back-up. I was on the fence about seeing Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), but he's played really, really well this year and is, like Johnson, a reliable back-up.
Who missed out?
Nobody, really. Berhalter wasn’t going to take David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake) to ride the bench again after giving him his first taste with the first team in June, and while Bill Hamid (D.C. United) has an argument, Berhalter’s seen him plenty of times before.
I did not expect to see Tim Melia’s (Sporting Kansas City) name on this list, but am slightly bummed at his omission. The 35-year-old has been one of the best ‘keepers in MLS since he finally won the job with Sporting back in 2015, but has yet to earn a cap. I hope he gets one eventually.
Worth noting: Turner and the current No. 1, Zack Steffen, are both God-Tier penalty stoppers. God-Tier, however, is below Melia-Tier. He’s 6-0 in PK shootouts, including twice when he’s shut the opposition out entirely (the only two times that’s happened to an MLS team in any competition, ever). Just 12 of the 26 non-shootout penalties he's faced in his MLS career haven’t been converted -- so it’s damn near a coin flip, which is by far the best rate in league history among keepers who have faced at least 10 penalties.
It could be a Tim Krul thing. Melia, historically speaking, is that good.
This is 100% as expected, and I’m pretty sure each of these guys have a chance to play their way into the first XI, or at the very least into the gameday roster during most qualifiers.
Who missed out: I love Kevin Paredes (D.C. United) but he wasn’t going to push in front of Vines or Bello, nor were Chase Gasper (Minnesota United) or Jonathan Gomez (Louisville City). Neither John Tolkin nor the injured Andrew Gutman (both New York Red Bulls) made the 60-man preliminary roster, but I’m gonna just mention them here because they’ve both been really good.
The USMNT is on the verge of being absolutely loaded at left back. That sure does feel like one of the signs of the apocalypse.
Zimmerman and Robinson were both mortal locks for this roster given their experience, respective club form over the past three years and potential fit next to the likes of John Brooks, Tim Ream, Mark McKenzie or Chris Richards in qualifying. I’m sure these were two of the easiest choices on the roster for Berhalter.
For me, Sands was just as easy a choice, though the make-up of the roster suggests he’s going to be more of a center back than a defensive midfielder. I prefer Sands as a no-nonsense, clean-everything-up ball-winning No. 6, but the simple fact is that he’s had more run as a center back this year, and the US are thinner at center back. Sands can fill spots on the depth chart at both spots, but with only four center backs heading to the Gold Cup, and Sands as one of them, it seems fairly clear he won’t be spending much (any?) time in midfield next month.
Donovan Pines was a surprise selection to me as the fourth center back. He only just returned to D.C. United's lineup after a lengthy injury absence, and he hasn’t exactly been flawless. That said, none of the other plausible candidates in his age group -- Justen Glad, Mauricio Pineda, Auston Trusty, a few others -- have stood out with their play this year, and most of them have already gotten a real look at one point or another.
So using the fourth spot on the CB depth chart at the Gold Cup to give Pines an at-bat and see if he’s got the potential to help during qualifying is just fine by me.
Bear in mind that Berhalter has toggled between a back-four and a back-three, and that Sands has generally played most of his CB minutes in the middle of a back-three. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that look at least once this tournament, though that would leave the US pretty thin on backline depth.
Who missed out?
Glad (RSL), Pineda (Chicago Fire FC) and Trusty (Colorado Rapids) are the three that come to mind. Henry Kessler (New England) was also on the 60-man preliminary roster, but he’s no longer a full-time starter with the Revs, so I don’t think there was a super strong argument to bring him here.
Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur) could have been here, but both are going to be in preseason at new clubs. It makes much more sense to let them get their feet under them there and play their way into the mix based upon their league form.
The other potential option here was young Justin Che (FC Dallas), who is on Bayern Munich’s radar in a big way and probably has the highest ceiling of any young US center back. But he’s been playing as a right back or right wingback, and he looks very much like a talented young player in need of lots of reps and some time in the gym.
Cannon’s one of just three European-based players on the roster, which lets you know exactly how things went at Boavista this year. They stayed up and Cannon was a big part of that, but nobody should be shocked if he’s wearing another club’s colors when the next season starts. Based upon everything I’ve read and heard, Boavista need to make some money and transferring guys with legit interest (keep an eye on Serie A for Cannon) is the typical way of doing so.
That said, I have also heard that nothing is imminent, so here he is.
Moore, who plays for CD Tenerife in the Segunda Division (Spain's second tier) was a bit of a surprise to me given he has played no part under Berhalter and isn't a young player bristling with talent.
But he is a reliable overlapping threat, an excellent crosser of the ball and isn't in danger of losing his job or playing time if he misses preseason. He could also conceivably help in qualifiers, and is unlikely to be significantly off the pace in this tournament should Cannon take a knock or need some rest.
Getting him in here makes a decent amount of sense even if we're talking about a guy who's battling for the fourth or fifth spot on the depth chart overall.
Who missed out?
Aaron Herrera (RSL) has had an up-and-down spring. Kyle Duncan (RBNY) hasn’t, and there’s a solid argument for him to be a part of any US camp that precedes a game against a minnow because he is just devastating attacking off the dribble. But I understand not wanting such an obvious specialist when there are more well-rounded options.
But I think the one we all expected to see here is Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy). The 19-year-old is finally in the XI every week as an actual right back, and while his season hasn't been perfect, Greg Vanney's trusted him through some early rough patches and the kid's performances have evened out. Even the most ardent Galaxy-hater would agree that he's on an upward trajectory, and his ceiling is considerable.
Is this just a case of Berhalter not wanting to take a kid who's finally earning impactful first-team minute for his club away from that club for a month in the middle of the season when he's likely to get only backup minutes with the US? Perhaps. Does he just think Moore is better than Araujo and more likely to help this summer and down the line into qualifiers? That's plausible.
Is Tata Martino recruiting Araujo for El Tri? That's also plausible, and something to think about here and all the way until Araujo is officially cap-tied.
Edit: We have our answer:
And here’s where things get a little bit weird. Yueill plays defensive midfield in Berhalter’s scheme as a regista -- a sole back point whose job is to 1) protect the center backs, and 2) set the tempo. He has mostly done this well in his US appearances, and it’s telling that quite often over the past two years the US’ ability to control the tempo has disappeared once he was subbed.
But Yueill, one of the few holdovers from the Nations League roster, was poor in the friendly against Switzerland and then borderline catastrophic in the Nations League semifinal vs. Honduras. Those 150 pretty bad minutes clearly weren’t enough to remove him from Berhalter’s plans entirely, but I do think that based upon what we saw at the Nations League, Acosta is No. 2 on the No. 6 depth chart, and thus No. 1 for this tournament.
That said, Acosta plays the role differently from Yueill. He’s a more dynamic dribbler and has better defensive range, but he’s a much lower-usage player on both sides of the ball, and has never been a tempo-setter with his passing. It’s telling that when Berhalter has used Acosta as a d-mid it’s been as the more defensive of two players in a double pivot rather than as a true back point to run the show.
I do want to see Acosta get some reps there to see if he can be that kind of player. Maybe he’ll have the kind of revelatory performance that Williamson did when he was put in at the back point for Portland earlier this year when Gio Savarese inverted his midfield triangle, flipping from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.
Williamson was breathtaking. The eye-catching thing was how effortlessly he advanced the ball off the dribble, collapsing the defense and finding the right pass time after time, but the truly encouraging things were his tempo-setting (he was all over the ball, and reliably made simple plays that put his teammates in good posts) and his defense. He won damn near every duel he got into as a No. 6 and looked natural conducting things from the back.
The same can be said about Busio on that latter point. He’s turned from a toolsy, talented youth player without a clear position into someone who is very obviously a regista, even if his defensive acumen (he fixates on the ball and doesn’t check his shoulder; he loses too many challenges; when he loses a challenge, he doesn’t work like hell to get back into the play) is a work in progress.
If/when Busio does get on the field this summer, it’ll almost certainly be in the same role that Yueill’s played for the better part of two years now. And like Yueill, he will need a bodyguard or two in central midfield.
The other thing to consider here is that all four of these guys can and have played as a No. 8, some of them much more often than they’ve played as a No. 6. The truth is I expect Williamson and Busio to get more of their minutes this summer in that No. 8 role, but I am much more interested in each, long-term, as potential No. 6s.
And remember that if none of the above actually works, Berhalter can toss Sands out there as a 6 and not worry at all about anything with regard to defense at that spot.
Who missed out?
Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union) is a promising young player I think most would’ve expected to be here, but he’s a less dynamic passer than the four plausible d-mids on the roster and we know that Berhalter has almost always defaulted toward the more dynamic possession players rather than the more dynamic defensive players for this role. I do think Flach will get a chance soon, but I’m not shocked it won’t be next month.
Ok, bear in mind that all four of the guys listed above can play as No. 8s, and some of them surely will! We’re not going to see these two guys soak up every possible minute at these spots.
Lletget is a known quantity at this point and, like Yueill, Acosta and Cannon, is a holdover from the Nations League roster. Tough luck, Galaxy!
Roldan is a known quantity as well, but just in case you haven’t been paying attention to Seattle’s season: He's playing as the No. 10 but he doesn't play the role as a No. 10. Roldan is much more of a central winger trying to create overloads (especially on the right side) and off-ball penetration rather than dictating the game with the ball at his feet. For Seattle, the "dictating the game with the ball at his feet" happens deeper, through Joao Paulo and Josh Atencio or Kelyn Rowe.
Seattle's struggled a bit creating high-value chances recently because teams are coming out in lower blocks and daring the Sounders to break them down with the ball instead of in transition. Roldan doesn't have true No. 10 magic, so they just end up moving possession side-to-side and whipping in a lot of crosses.
I don't think he really fits this role and he has struggled in the past under Berhalter. That said, he is an absolutely beloved teammate who can credibly fill in at four spots (he could be very valuable as a right winger for this group). I could see him being a 23rd-man-type for upcoming tournaments.
Who missed out?
I’d love to have seen Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids) with this group, though I think he has a lot of the same “doesn’t quite fit” issues that Roldan does. Frankie Amaya (RBNY) fits almost perfectly, though he’s not going 90 every week for his club team so I can see why others who are were preferred. The same goes for Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) and youngster Moses Nyeman (D.C. United).
When I first saw this roster, I was shocked at the fact that there were only two true wingers. Then I remembered that both Lletget and Roldan can actually play on the wing, and both Williamson and Busio can plausibly play on the wing, and… look, it still feels unbalanced to me, and it’s not like the old days when the manager can make changes to the roster after the group stage. That rule has gone away, and barring injury, what you see from this group is what we’ll get for the duration of the tournament.
Arriola has been very good since coming back from injury and has delivered for the US before, both before Berhalter’s tenure and during it. He was obviously going to be on this roster.
It was not obvious Lewis was going to be. I have been a Lewis fan for a long time -- I like wingers who put pressure on opposing backlines with their movement, and who play goal-hungry. He does.
He’s also 24, has been a pro for half-a-decade and has yet to lock down a job as a starter. That includes this year, during which he’s played just 280 minutes.
And then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room: The Miss vs. Honduras in Olympic qualifying. A big old segment of the fanbase saw that and said “I never want to see him in Red, White & Blue again!” and I get it -- it was a terrible miss with dire consequences.
But give me a winger who gets into position for tap-ins in the first place. Berhalter is clearly sending that exact message here, that if you follow the blueprint of his system and get into the right spots to do the right things, he will trust you to eventually execute on the final step.
This is a huge chance for Lewis to prove him right and repay that faith. It is also quite possibly his last chance to do so.
Who missed out?
All that said, I think almost the entire fanbase would’ve preferred either Caden Clark* (RBNY) or Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes) for this roster slot even though neither is truly a winger. Both guys have been more productive than Lewis in MLS this year.
(*) I bet is that Clark would’ve been on this roster if not for his recent appendectomy.
Chris Mueller (Orlando City) is a true winger and my guess is that when Lewis beat him out for the start against Trinidad & Tobago this past winter during the January camp, he laid down a real marker. Maybe Mueller could’ve closed the gap if he’d played at a Best XI-level this year, as he had in 2020, but that just hasn’t been the case thus far despite the Lions’ hot start.
And here’s the other part where it gets weirdly unbalanced. Four center forwards is a lot! It’s probably too many, especially considering that none of these guys can really play other spots.
Here’s my guess: Berhalter is expecting one of these guys to get sold to a new club and thus to depart US camp fairly early in the tournament, which brings the center forward corps down to a more manageable three deep. I will let you all guess which of these four is the one most likely to be sold.
Obviously the sale is not a given, and if no transfer comes to pass then we all have the same hope: that Dike picks up where he left off vs. Costa Rica and leaves no doubt that he will be a dominant force against Concacaf foes. I think you could argue that the best possible individual data point from this entire tournament from an overall health of the pool perspective would be “oh man, Daryl is just going to annihilate anyone this confederation can throw at him.” And it feels like that outcome is very much in play.
Beyond that, Hoppe is intriguing because of his off-ball movement and the fact that with Schalke he flared wide a lot (don't be surprised if he factors on the winger depth chart here), Gioacchini is a project in search of a new club and Gyasi is Gyasi. I am neither surprised nor disappointed he’s here, and you shouldn’t be either.
Who missed out?
It sure does feel like the book has closed on Jozy Altidore’s (Toronto FC) international career. Not so for Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), though I almost listed him as an attacking midfielder because I’m convinced his future is there and not as a false 9. Corey Baird (LAFC) is another guy on the No. 9 depth chart who’s not really a No. 9.
Mason Toye (CF Montréal), Robbie Robinson (Inter Miami) and Rubio Rubin (RSL) are all, in fact, true No. 9s. But all are various shades of “unproven” and while Rubin, in particular, has been impressive, it hasn’t been to the degree that he’d leapfrog Zardes or Dike. And so at that point, Berhalter’s calculus is “do you bring the 20-year-olds who’ll be missing a bit of preseason or do you deprive MLS teams of their starting forwards for a month only to have them spend all their time watching from the bench?”
That obviously goes for Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas) as well. It’s more important for these guys to get regular minutes and to score regular goals for their teams than it is to spend the next four weeks doing drills and missing out on valuable playing time.
That's a lot to take in. Just tell me where I should focus!
- Center forward. Dike has a chance to shoot to the top of the No. 9 depth chart with a strong tournament. Even if he doesn't get a big-money move to a big team in Europe, there's a very good chance he'll be the first-choice center forward when qualifiers come around in two months.
- Center back. Aaron Long's injury has opened the door, and there are no certainties on the depth chart. Even John Brooks, as superb as he was this year in the Bundesliga and as excellent as he was in the Nations League, has a checkered past against Concacaf foes. It feels like Robinson, in particular, can play his way up the depth chart in a hurry.
- Defensive midfield. Acosta proved his usefulness against Mexico but has limitations. Same with Yueill, who found himself out of his depth in a meaningful game against Honduras. The door is open for someone else to win the job as Tyler Adams' back-up. And whoever wins that job will get big minutes in qualifying, since Adams is not proving to be the most durable guy in the world.
- Goalkeeper. It is my opinion that Turner is a significant upgrade over the other options currently on the depth chart. It's worth remembering that if we'd had even below-average goalkeeping against T&T in Couva (instead of an all-time shocker of a performance), the US would've made the 2018 World Cup.
- Formation hijinks: This roster lends itself pretty neatly to a 3-5-2 -- or would, if there was one more center back -- which is not a formation we've seen Berhalter use as of yet. I would be a little bit surprised if we see it, though not completely shocked.
- Halfspace merchants: A term coined by our friends at Scuffed about the role of the wingers in Berhalter's system. Think about how Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna played in the Nations League. They weren't bursting through the lines all that often; they were instead dropping off the front line to get on the ball in the half-spaces and operate from there. Neither Lewis nor Arriola have ever been particularly good at that, so I am curious to see if that role changes a bit.
Tell me the starting XI!!!
Ok, fine. Here it is: