With two final friendlies before the World Cup starts in November, the United States men’s national team turned in a lesson in how to inspire pessimism. A disjointed 2-0 loss to Japan preceded a dull 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia, leaving the team utterly momentumless 55 days before they kick off against Wales in Qatar.
The team went into the international break hoping to shore up their roster and build cohesion, but the combination of injuries and poor performances stood in the way of those objectives, leaving Gregg Berhalter some difficult choices ahead of Nov. 9, when the final roster will be announced at an event in New York City.
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In this edition of the Big Board, which examines the current state of the roster and the process for selecting a final 26-man roster, an unrealistic assumption is made: that all players without a serious, long-term injury will be available for selection. Given that as many as five possible starters missed this camp because of injury and at least four others picked up injuries of varying seriousness during the window in training or games, it’s best to approach this exercise with that as a constant backdrop.
With that, here’s a look at where things stand:
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How we’re doing this
We’re going position by position, from goalkeeper to attack, and sorting the player pool in four tiers based on recent form and Berhalter’s perceived preferences since the beginning of World Cup qualifying.
Tier 1: Projected starter. Roster locks and players who are clear starters at their positions.
Tier 2: World Cup contributor. Players expected to be on the roster and contribute on the field, either as a starter or sub.
Tier 3: Roster bubble. Contention to be on the 26-man squad and provide roster depth.
Tier 4: Not this time. Players who have been around the team but likely won’t receive much of a look for inclusion.
Then comes the good stuff: the projected 26-man World Cup squad that will be in Qatar.
One of the only positives to take from the past two games was Turner’s performance, easing concerns that his limited game time since moving to Arsenal would erode his sharpness. There are two questions at this point: 1) Who will start? (Steffen or Turner) and 2) Who will be the No. 3? (Horvath or Johnson)
Since the beginning of 2021, Turner has played twice as many times for the U.S. than Steffen (20 to 10), has allowed the same amount of goals (8) and has performed better by just about every statistical measure. The biggest discrepancy comes in goals prevented (GP), which measures the difference between opposing teams’ expected goals on target (xGOT) and the goalkeeper’s goals allowed. Teams have generated 18.23 xGOT against Turner, but he has racked up 10.23 GP, indicating he has cut down opposing teams’ goal totals by more than half. During the same time (in roughly 1,000 fewer minutes), Steffen’s xGOT is 7.22, with a GP figure of -0.78, which suggests that he has allowed more goals than should have been prevented.
How much weight to put in that kind of statistical evaluation varies, of course, and it’s impossible to create the exact same circumstances to measure two goalkeepers perfectly. However, Berhalter has cited expected goals (xG) to support some of his opinions in the past, so it’s fair to believe he values this on some level. Distribution and ability to play out of the back matter, but with such a large discrepancy between how they’ve performed in the most fundamental, important part of the job, the choice seems clear.
And for the No. 3 … flip a coin, it doesn’t really matter.
Projected selections: Steffen, Turner, Horvath
Assuming full fitness, Dest and Robinson will start on the right and left, respectively. Robinson played more minutes and created more chances (18) than any player on the team during World Cup qualification, while Dest’s ability on the ball is special for a full-back. Based on how consistently they’ve been called in, both Yedlin and Cannon will probably be on the final roster, although Yedlin — the only projected roster player with previous World Cup experience — appears more likely to have a meaningful role.
Scally played just 31 minutes during the window and did not contribute during qualifying, but he made a positive impact when coming on for Yedlin against Saudi Arabia. His ability to play on the left or right would be a vital asset, and even though he’s just 19, Scally has more appearances in top-five European league games in the past two seasons than anyone else in the player pool. Vines got the start against Japan and has been playing well in Belgium, but he probably didn’t do enough to get into the final 26.
Projected selections: Dest, Robinson, Yedlin, Scally, Cannon
The past couple weeks gave some pretty clear insight into Berhalter’s pecking order, starting with the initial roster (Zimmerman, Long, Richards, Carter-Vickers) then from who was called in after Richards and Carter-Vickers were dropped due to injury (McKenzie and Palmer-Brown). Zimmerman has established himself as one clear starter, and it’s hard to make the case Berhalter doesn’t view Long, who has started the past six USMNT matches, as the other. Either way, both of them are going to be on the roster. What’s in question is how many other center-backs will be there and if any of them can unseat Long.
It doesn’t bode well for Ream’s chances that he wasn’t among the six center-backs to get called in during this window. However, here’s the case for him: He’s in good form captaining Fulham, who sit in sixth place in the Premier League. He’s an excellent passer and a naturally left-sided player. Beyond those attributes is probably the more important one: He plays next to Robinson for Fulham. When this team takes the field against Wales, they will have played two matches together in the previous 159 days and will have about a week together leading up to the tournament. That is not enough to facilitate continuity. Why not take advantage of the built-in chemistry Ream and Robinson have? Even without that aspect, Ream is more deserving than Long to play at this level.
Projected selections: Zimmerman, Long, Carter-Vickers, McKenzie, Richards
The inability to progress the ball through the midfield was one of the bigger disappointments of the past two games. It was sloppy and hard to watch. Getting Musah back, with his ability to maintain possession, will make a significant difference, but the drop in quality to Acosta and De la Torre wasn’t a great sign if either should be needed in Qatar. Much more is needed from McKennie, too. He seemed disinterested in both friendlies, which can’t be the case if the U.S. are to advance past the group stage.
Those four, plus Adams, are all safe bets to be on the roster, while Brenden Aaronson and Giovanni Reyna can also contribute in midfield. The wild card is Tillman, whose inclusion will likely be determined by some combination of roster makeup and injuries. There could be six slots here, depending on how many wingers or center-backs are selected.
Projected selections: Adams, McKennie, Musah, Acosta, De la Torre
Christian Pulisic speaks after the United States played out a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia in their final match before the World Cup.
This is the deepest position group on the roster. Pulisic, Reyna, Weah and Aaronson are all obvious inclusions who will have important roles to play as either starters or impact subs — if healthy. All four have dealt with injuries in the past year and they’ve never all appeared in the same game.
Depending on how Berhalter structures the roster, Morris and/or Arriola will also go among the final picks. Neither of them figures to be in line for meaningful playing time, unless injuries force the issue.
Selections: Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson, Weah, Morris, Arriola
Two games, 56 touches, one shot on goal, 0.51 xG, zero goals. The striker combination of Ferreira, Sargent and Pepi was nearly invisible in this international break. Some of that comes down to service, but at some point, it’s up to the strikers to find a way to make an impact and that just didn’t happen. There is no reason to be optimistic about the position in Qatar. It was a black hole during qualifying (Pepi led the strikers with three goals, two of which came at home against Jamaica in October) and it’s hard to see how anything short of a system change would lead to meaningful improvement before November.
Shouts for Pefok’s inclusion were loud prior to this window and should be even louder now. After winning the Golden Boot in the Swiss League last year, he has scored four goals in eight games across all competitions for Union Berlin, who sit atop the Bundesliga standings. He might not be the system fit Berhalter is looking for, but that logic is hard to defend when the players who supposedly fit the system are continuously ineffective.
Projected selections: Ferriera, Sargent, Pefok
Projected 26-man squad in full
Goalkeepers (3): Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath
Defenders (9): Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Joe Scally
Midfielders (5): Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta
Wingers (6): Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris
Strikers (3): Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok