The USMNT punched their ticket with a true let’s-not-fuck-this-up-royally performance in Costa Rica. So now the attention turns to who are the 23 souls that Gregg Berhalter will be putting on the plane for the tournament. Our intrepid soccer goofuses Sam Fels and Eric Blum have some ideas.
Fels: All right Eric, I thought it was awfully nice of US Soccer to let us pick the World Cup squad, don’t you?
Blum: For sure. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. How did you find the selection process?
Fels: Maybe a little more tricky than you did. I got so used to Gregg Berhalter being able to select 26 or 27 guys for qualifiers that I didn’t realize 23 is pretty tough. Some good players are going to be on the couch come November. Which will make them just like us.
Blum: That speaks to the talent of the current USMNT pool. There are close to 18 players who are locks for me, or a I guess via proxy, Berhalter. That doesn’t leave much for some on the hot seat.
Fels: Sure doesn’t. Anyway, let’s do this back to front and we’ll start with the keepers. This is pretty far and away the easiest group to pick, as it’s been pretty steady throughout qualifying when everyone has been healthy. I opted for Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, and Ethan Horvath.
Blum: Since the start of the CONCACAF Nations League last summer, three goalkeepers have played for the national team. Steffen, Turner and Horvath. Easy call. I’d think Turner is actually the favorite to be the starter in Qatar.
Fels: Even with this group picking a starter is tricky. WIth both Turner and Steffen likely to be backups with their clubs, it’ll depend on basically gut feeling. Turner will have more MLS reps before he departs for North London, which may just edge it. But Berhalter seems to prefer Steffen when he’s healthy due to his better feet. I think unless Steffen goes completely cold, the odd Cup game and spot start with City gets him the nod when the tourney opens. Then again, after his performance against Costa Rica, Steffen maybe has gone cold.
Blum: Horvath probably has the best individual moment of Berhalter’s tenure with his penalty save on Andres Guardado in the Nations League final. He deserves another shot sometime. I can’t see him not being the current No. 3 right now.
Fels: And he’s the only one to be likely playing regularly next season. We’ll see in what division but yeah, hard to imagine him leaping over the other two. Still, not the worst gig in the world to sit on the bench for a World Cup and have the best seat in the house.
Let’s move up the field a bit to the fullbacks. Every group from here on out isn’t nearly cut and dried. I went for Sergino Dest, Jedi Robinson (I’ve accepted calling him that), Joe Scally, and DeAndre Yedlin. Obviously, Dest and Robinson are your starters. I like Scally, even though he hasn’t been called up yet, because he can play either side like Dest and you don’t have to take two specialist left backs. Honestly, the difference between Yedlin, Shaq Moore, or Reggie Cannon is negligible, and whoever is chosen will be fine with me. Something tells me Yedlin’s experience wins out here.
Blum: For the fullbacks I have Dest, Yedlin and Robinson as locks. Can’t see them being left off for various reasons. Yedlin should be one of only two USMNTers called to Qatar with previous World Cup experience. Plus, he’s earned the right to start. Dest and Robinson start and can provide to the attack while being quick enough to get back and defend against the world’s best teams. My fourth choice rounding out the squad would be Reggie Cannon. I just think he has a little more experience than Scally or Moore. I’d be fine with either as fullback No. 4.
Fels: Yeah, it’s likely whoever is No. 4 doesn’t see the field anyway, and you do need insurance defensively in case Dest’s need to explore in too risky, say against whoever the No. 1 seed in the US’s group ends up being.
Blum: And that’s exactly why the picks at center back need to be the best players possible for those spots, regardless of how you’ve handled previous camps. Let’s get this out of the way for the center backs: JOHN BROOKS NEEDS TO BE IN THE 23.
Fels: You and I are on the same page there. I went for Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, and Brooks in the middle. It’s clear that the brainstrust doesn’t think Brooks can be a good soldier if he’s not starting, but this is the World Goddamn Cup. I can’t imagine he’s such a headache that he would turn down a place even if it is a backup option. This is almost certainly his last WC too. And his mobility and ball playing skills are needed, as Zimmerman and Robinson can still struggle with that.
Blum: My four CBs are Brooks, Zimmerman, Robinson and Aaron Long. Before his ACL injury last year, Long played the most minutes of Berhalter’s tenure. He’s a good stopper and fits in with the other three choices well. Robinson has earned his spot but shows inexperience at times. Zimmerman has been a godsend for the team. He and Brooks should start.
Fels: So Long over Richards?
Fels: I can see it, and certainly wouldn’t wet myself if that was the way. I’ll still always go for the Bundesliga starter over the MLS one (cue the MLS Army to harass me on Twitter). I can’t say I’d start Brooks over Robinson though automatically. Robinson and Zimmerman have struck up quite the relationship in the middle of defense and I’d be itchy about breaking that up.
Blum: They’ve held worse teams at bay. I’m worried about Robinson against a team like Germany. I’d be fine with him starting, especially since he and Zimmerman are both fantastic on set pieces. And yes, I know Brooks scored the game-winner against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup.
Fels: They tell me I picked some stranger over my head after that goal.
Blum: Fun times. Moving to the midfield, Tyler Adams is tactically the most important USMNTer, and I’m not sure it’s close to Christian Pulisic as No. 2. He’s the only true defensive midfielder I’ve called in. He’ll likely play every minute in Qatar. There’s just no true back-up there, so why force it when you only get 23 picks?
Fels: I’m with you there. Any injury to Adams and this team is basically boned.
Blum: I’ve only called in five true midfielders to the squad. Wanted to go six and six with the forwards, but that left a good attacker home for an inexperienced mid. Add Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta and Luca De La Torre to the team.
Fels: The push and pull between the midfield and attack that you just described is what tripped me up the most. I did go for six midfielders, and called in James Sands along with the midfielders you have. Because Sands can play as a No. 6, and I’d be more comfortable with him there even with no experience than I would be with Acosta filling in for Adams, even though I’ve come to appreciate Acosta as a #8. But I could definitely see going with five in the midfield to take three strikers. Especially as either Aaronson or Reyna can play in midfield as well.
I think I’m coming to your way of thinking. Sorry Sands, I think you should fuck off.
Blum: I thought about that and decided against it. I could see Antonee Robinson or Dest going more central in a time of need. I think it depends on the form of the true strikers Berhalter wants to call in. If he’s comfortable with a smaller number, Sands gets the call. If Greggy wants more options, sorry Sandsy.
Fels: All right, so let’s get up front. The wide forwards are pretty obvious in Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson, and Weah. I could see some calling for Arriola over Weah after Sunday, but I don’t want those people around me.
Blum: If I’m putting the Berhalter hat on, Arriola is a lock. I have five wide forwards in the squad because I think the best option right now at center forward is actually Weah as a false No. 9.
None of the current crop have scored enough to earn that role. I’ll also bring Ricardo Pepi and Jesus Ferreira to Qatar, but I don’t give them a shot to bag a bunch of goals.
My other call-ups at forward: Pulisic, Reyna and Aaronson.
Fels: See, now you’re speaking my language with the false nine. I wonder if this tournament was in a normal summer slot and Berhalter had weeks to build up, if we wouldn’t see that be the formation. But as this will be crammed into the league season, none of these guys really play as a false nine with their clubs. Though Ferreira is something of a false nine himself, it’s going to be hard to jam someone into a new position with little prep.
I opted for Pepi and Ferreira as the center forwards. Even if Pepi has struggled, this team’s real aims are in 2026, and he should be brought along and probably play at points just for the experience.
I still hold out hope that Dike will tear apart the Championship next year and make this a debate, because the US doesn’t have anyone like him, a combo of power and pace. Or at least the idea of him. I think Pefok blew his audition and we may never hear from him again.
Blum: I still want Josh Sargent to get another chance now that he’s at Norwich, but he had a ton of chances last year and didn’t do anything with them.
Fels: One goal in a league season doesn’t really scream “PICK ME!”
Blum: It doesn’t, but who does scream “PICK ME!” from the other choices?
Fels: This is our concern, dude.
Blum: There are three wide players who deserve to start. Which one best fits in the middle? Weah. In between Reyna and Pulisic. That’s good enough for me.
Fels: Or Reyna as a 10 with Aaronson out wide, a 4-2-3-1 kinda. I don’t think Berhalter would veer much from his 4-3-3 but that would be the one variant.
All right, well, we’ve done our job. Semifinals here we come, right?
Blum: Easily. I think a Golden Boot is coming for Reyna.
Fels: I want whatever you’re imbibing.
Blum: Lots of NYC bagels
Fels: See, this is why the New York v. Chicago pizza is stupid. If New Yorkers need to feel superior, and you clearly do otherwise you’ll die, all they have to do is point out how hard it is to get a decent bagel in Chicago. It’s been a bane of my entire existence. BUT THAT’S NOT WHY THESE PEOPLE CALLED.