The United States men’s national team has zero minutes of game time remaining before it lines up against Wales at the FIFA World Cup, the country’s first contest on soccer’s biggest showcase in eight years. Tuesday’s scoreless draw against Saudi Arabia gave us one final look at the Yanks before heading to Qatar, but didn’t even come close to getting a needle-moving moment in a nearly empty stadium. Let the rampant speculation begin as to who the 26 men USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will select for the international showcase; squads for the World Cup will be made public on Nov. 9.
Since the start of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying 14 months ago, certain Berhalter personnel decisions have been puzzling, as he prioritized loyalty over skill, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll course-correct for the 270 guaranteed minutes that’ll determine his future as the American’s coach. I’ve done my best to try to get into the massive skull of Greggy-poo, to figure out the double baker’s dozen of footy specialists that’ll wear the red, white, and blue in Qatar. And because I know Berhalter has me on speed dial, I’ll tell you where his selections would be wrong. This is all pending injuries of course, like Gio Reyna being subbed off after 30 minutes against the Saudis.
The easiest position to project out of Berhalter’s brain and my own thoughts is at goalkeeper. It’d be a shock to not call in three — and only four men appear in contention for those spots. New Arsenal signee Matt Turner is a lock and has the best case to start. Berhalter’s affinity for Zack Steffen is obvious and I think he’s a top-three keeper in the USMNT pool. The coin-flip choice between Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson will be where Gregg and I differ. Johnson has more experience and his collective body of work — especially his performance against Uruguay — is stronger than Horvath’s. Take away the penalty save against Andres Guardado last June. What has Horvath done to stake his claim? He’s a solid keeper, but that alone shouldn’t have him on the plane to Qatar. Berhalter chooses to reward the most memorable moment from his tenure.
Let’s jump around the formation a little bit to where Berhalter and I would agree — in the midfield. In terms of balancing out the USMNT best, I believe seven midfielders need to be in Qatar. I see Gregg only bringing six by prioritizing more bodies at less-proven positions. Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, and Luca de la Torre are the five locks. Musah, McKennie, and Adams as the midfield starters is the right call and a safe bet. Bringing the Rangers teammates of Malik Tillman and James Sands, a needed backup to Adams in a defensive midfield role, should be on the plane to Qatar. I see Berhalter only bringing Johnny Cardoso instead.
I’ve split the defense into two groups: Fullback and center-back. Filling in the fullback spots is incredibly similar. The one difference is that I’m bringing five outside backs to Qatar, with the inclusion of Shaq Moore, and I see Berhalter only bringing four. We both will give plane seats to Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, and Reggie Cannon, with Jedi and Dest starting. The decision for Moore to be in the 26 is because of Cannon’s tendencies. Cannon is traditionally an outside back, but loves to play inside as a sort of third center back. It’s the best way to maximize the roster.
The consistent exile of John Brooks has become more egregious with time. The USMNT isn’t blessed with center-back talent, especially with a long-term injury that forced Miles Robinson, the team’s best at the position, to be out of consideration for the World Cup. Brooks should start in Qatar, but I doubt Berhalter will even call him in. I also understand that Tim Ream’s last few appearances for the national team haven’t gone well, but where else are you going to find a captain from a top-five European league?
Ream has worn the armband for Fulham this season and even if you don’t play him in Qatar that much, his veteran presence is needed for the Yanks. Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long are the pair Berhalter and I agree on, and he’s likely to start that MLS duo against Wales on Nov. 21. I see Chris Richards, Joe Scally, and Sam Vines rounding out Gregg’s center-back selections.
The biggest failure of Berhalter’s tenure thus far is finding no true starting striker. Against Saudi Arabia, Gregg started Ricardo Pepi up top. He had 13 total touches in the game, the least for any American starter, including Turner. It appears Jesus Ferreria has the current path to start in Qatar with five goals for the Yanks in 2022, albeit four of those coming against lowly Grenada. The FC Dallas striker should be on the plane but not start. I’d give the true No. 9 role to Jordan Pefok. How do you deny the starting striker for the top team in the Bundesliga? The other striker to suit up for the USA at the World Cup should be Josh Sargent, who’s been in great form at Norwich City. I see Berhalter opting for Pepi and Jordan Morris in addition to Ferreria at striker.
Rounding out the squad in the non-striker forward slots are some of the easiest selections on the team. The quartet of Reyna, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, and Brenden Aaronson all need to be in Qatar with Gregg bringing an eighth forward in Paul Arriola. I gave the outside forward starting spots to Pulisic and Aaronson, with a hopefully healthy Reyna being a consistent super-sub. Reyna and Pulisic start in Berhalter’s lineup. It’s 55 days until the start of the World Cup and 43 days until we find out how many (hopefully all of them) I got right.
GK (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson
LB/RB (5): Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Shaq Moore
CB (4) Walker Zimmerman, John Brooks, Tim Ream, Aaron Long
MID (7): Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Malik Tillman, James Sands
FWD (7): Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Jordan Pefok, Jesus Ferreria, Josh Sargent
GK (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath
LB/RB (4): Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon
CB (5): Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Chris Richards, Joe Scally, Sam Vines
MID (6): Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Johnny Cardoso
FWD (8): Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Jesus Ferreria, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola