We’re taking on a Vincent Price accent and sticking a flashlight underneath our chins for this week’s pre-World Cup roundup of US men’s national teamers, because things are getting spooky, and just in time for Halloween.
A batch of unsettling injury concerns just knocked on Gregg Berhalter’s door with their trick-or-treat bags wide open and, well… that maniacal laughter almost certainly ISN’T coming from inside the house.
Rather than hit you with a gloomy laundry list of concerns, let’s take a look at something resembling an ideal starting XI for the Yanks in Qatar next month and see how the moving parts are doing. (Though we’re increasingly confident Berhalter will flip his midfield triangle to protect the back four with two center midfielders rather than just one, we’ll keep 4-3-3 as the default shape for now.)
You don’t have to be playing every weekend to pick up a knock, as Matt Turner and a few of his international comrades are experiencing lately. Turner missed Arsenal’s Europa League match vs. PSV on Thursday due to a groin issue, with usual starter Aaron Ramsdale stepping in to take a 2-0 loss in the Netherlands, and wasn’t on the bench for Sunday’s 5-0 league thrashing of Nottingham Forest.
“Yesterday in training he [Turner] had some discomfort in his groin, and he tried this morning but he was not well, so Aaron had to play,” Gunners manager Mikel Arteta said, whose team remains in first place in Europa Group A but now need to win their final group match – a home date with Zurich this Thursday – to be assured of the top spot. “We have to assess it, but it did not look like a serious injury, no.”
If Turner starts on Thursday, USMNT watchers can breathe a bit easier. If not, then many gazes will shift over to take a closer look at the recent English Championship outings of Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath (whose teams are near the bottom and in mid-table, respectively... hey, at least they’re playing at Middlesbrough and Luton Town.)
We know Walker Zimmerman is currently in Frisco, Texas undergoing fitness-centric workouts with the rest of the MLS-based USMNT regulars whose clubs did not qualify for or have been eliminated from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. (His Nashville SC were a Round One casualty at the hands of the LA Galaxy.) Due to a lack of media availability for those players thus far, that’s about all we know.
With Berhalter having long made clear how highly he rates Zimmerman, the bigger question has been the identity of his central-defensive partner.
Aaron Long seems to be in pole position there; he, too, is keeping fit in Frisco after his New York Red Bulls got upset by FC Cincinnati in Round One. Chris Richards continues to recover – it’s been quite a while now and he still isn’t training at full bore – from the hamstring issue that ruled him out of the USMNT’s September camp and has kept him off Crystal Palace’s gameday squads. If you’re among those still thinking about John Brooks, bear in mind that he continues to ride the bench at Benfica.
Perhaps the toughest player to compare? Cameron Carter-Vickers, who is stringing together 90-minute outings for Celtic, who have been a Jekyll-Hyde proposition: Unbeatable in Scottish domestic play, luckless and winless (0W-3L-2D) in their tricky UEFA Champions League Group F assignment.
So... the Yanks’ most likely center-back pairing will arrive in Qatar not having played a competitive match in more than five weeks. SPOOOOOOKY. Then again, as noted above, you don’t have to be playing matches to get hurt, so best to assume very little in this department. Here’s where we mention that Tim Ream (Fulham), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes) and Auston Trusty (Birmingham) are playing regularly, and mostly pretty well, for their European clubs.
Maybe Sergiño Dest has found the best balance among the USMNTers in Europe: With AC Milan platooning him and Pierre Kalulu at right back lately, one could argue he’s playing just enough to stay sharp but not so much as to rack up heavy mileage and increase injury risk.
That case will hold a great deal more water, of course, if the Rossoneri – who sit third in Serie A after their shock loss to Torino over the weekend – hold their nerve and avoid defeat at home to RB Salzburg on Wednesday in order to advance out of Champions League Group E.
All that said, it’s hard to see anyone displacing a fit Dest for the United States’ right-back role, unless Berhalter decides to go ultra-defensive against, say, England. Reggie Cannon would probably be a leading choice in that scenario, and the FC Dallas product has recently healed from the groin issue he picked up vs. Saudi Arabia last month to log full 90s in Boavista’s last two matches.
On the left flank, it’s all about Antonee “Jedi” Robinson. The English-American dual national seems to be past the ankle injury sustained last month, having gone the distance in Fulham’s last five matches, during which time the Cottagers have stacked up a 2W-1L-2D record. While others like Dest, Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp) and Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach) can fill the role, Robinson at left back is one decision Berhalter would just as soon write in ink.
Good news! Tyler Adams returned from a minor injury to anchor Leeds United’s engine room on their daunting visit to Anfield on Saturday, going the full 90 in a battling performance as Jesse Marsch’s side stunned Liverpool 2-1 to end a lengthy winless skid and haul themselves away from the Premier League’s relegation zone. Even the notorious Daily Mail was impressed, giving the Red Bulls academy grad a 9/10 rating, raving that Adams “covered every inch of Anfield to snuff out Liverpool’s attacking talent.”
Bad news! A few days after scoring his second Champions League goal of the season, Weston McKennie picked up a thigh injury in Juventus’ 1-0 win over Lecce.
It’s being framed as a relatively minor injury, but Juve don’t expect him to play for them again until the new year, deepening the gloom around Turin in the wake of their crash out of the UCL group stage. Even the stated two-week recovery period is unnerving for the USMNT, considering that gives just a week of leeway before their World Cup opener vs. Wales on Nov. 21.
Down in Spain, Yunus Musah, McKennie’s usual partner in Berhalter’s twin 8s setup, missed out on Valencia’s painful 1-0 loss to FC Barcelona at the Mestalla (Robert Lewandowski popped up with a 93rd-minute winner, ouch) due to suspension. Los Che dropped to 10th in the LaLiga table, though in general Musah’s recent form and usage should be encouraging for the US faithful, as ESPN’s Sam Marsden recently reported.
Worryingly, however, Luca de la Torre – the man who seemed to have earned the first spot on the depth chart behind McKennie and Musah during qualifying – finally got some run in Celta Vigo’s draw with Getafe… only to pick up a hamstring problem that will reportedly keep him out three weeks. That might well keep him from making it to Qatar entirely, though we’re hoping he’s a fast healer and can sidestep that awful misfortune.
Christian Pulisic started two consecutive matches for Chelsea – both at right wingback – over the past week. First he notched a game-winning assist in their key 2-1 UCL win over Salzburg. Then he got another runout in the Blues’ visit to Brighton & Hove Albion, where things didn’t go so well.
With manager Graham Potter making his first return to the Amex since departing for London to take over at Chelsea earlier this season, the Seagulls thumped CFC 4-1 for their first-ever league win over The Blues, seizing a 2-0 lead before a quarter of an hour had passed as the home crowd rained down mockery on Potter and his squad.
It was a rough day for the whole team and fairly or not, Pulisic took his share of criticism and then some for the performance: A glaring early miss and the fact that Brighton’s third goal was carved out in the space behind him blotted out his two key passes and myriad defensive actions.
Tim Weah and Lille, meanwhile, suffered a 1-0 loss at Lyon in Ligue 1 action. Weah wasn’t particularly impactful and made way for Adam Ounas in the 70th minute but at least he got the start, his first in the league this season after missing time to a foot injury.
You’re probably wondering when we’ll mention Gio Reyna. All things being equal, the talented New York City FC product has a strong case to start in Qatar, though his brutal string of soft-tissue injuries has led us to consider him a super-sub until he can prove his legs are ready for heavy usage. Could that moment finally be at hand?
Reyna played 87 minutes as Borussia Dortmund held off Manchester City for a 0-0 draw that booked their place in the UEFA Champions League knockout phase, then got 29 more under his belt in BVB’s Bundesliga win over Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend. It’s surely no coincidence that the Black-and-Yellow are 3W-1L-2D since his return, and the kid cut a happy figure as he spoke at length to Bundesliga.com a few days ago.
Has there been a bigger USMNT question mark than who starts at the No. 9 spot next month? So it remains.
Josh Sargent presently tops our depth chart, which, to be clear, is not necessarily aligned with Berhalter’s. The Norwich City star was held out of the Canaries’ 3-1 win over Stoke City due to a calf injury, which sounds bad from a USMNT standpoint but may be a blessing in disguise, considering manager Dean Smith’s explanation.
“He felt it Tuesday [a loss to Luton Town on Oct. 18], played on. But it was just too tight today,” said Smith. “He's got the opportunity to maybe get called up for the World Cup as well. We can't risk him. And he didn't feel it was right to go today.”
Elsewhere, Jesus Ferreira is constrained to October camp duty in Frisco alongside the likes of Zimmerman and Long after FC Dallas’ Western Conference Semifinal loss to Austin FC. Ricardo Pepi was held scoreless in Groningen’s 0-0 draw with FC Emmen on Sunday, just the second game out of seven in the Netherlands in which he’s been held without a goal or an assist. And it seems doubtful that the likes of Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin) or Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati) will even make the roster at this point, let alone win significant minutes.
Who’ll start up top vs. Wales in Al Rayyan next month? Your guess is about as good as ours at this point.