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USMNT World Cup roster prediction: Our final picks for a ticket to Qatar

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We’re less than a week away from learning the U.S. men’s national team’s final 26-man roster for the upcoming FIFA World Cup.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter will announce the squad next Wednesday, Nov. 9 in a roster reveal party at Brooklyn Steel, a venue that usually hosts live music, in New York City. The event will begin at 5 p.m. Eastern time and will be broadcast live on ESPN2.

The reveal party will likely be the first time we hear from Berhalter since the U.S. fell 2-0 to Japan in Germany and drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia in Spain in a dispiriting pair of friendlies in late September. Those matches raised plenty of concerns for the Americans, who failed to record a single shot on goal against Japan and weren’t particularly threatening going forward against Saudi Arabia. Questions about how the team will attack and worries about the relative strength of the center back and striker positions will likely dominate much of the conversation around the U.S. heading into their Group B opener against Wales on Nov. 21.

The injury status of several players will also factor into the overall discussion, particularly in the buildup to the roster announcement next week. Goalkeeper Matt Turner, center back Chris Richards, midfielders Weston McKennie and Luca de la Torre and striker Josh Sargent are all currently sidelined with various ailments.

Their health will play a role in shaping the team Berhalter brings to Qatar, but the reality is that a good chunk of this roster has already been decided. There are locks: Christian Pulisic, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams have long known they are going to the World Cup. McKennie is in that group, too, as long as he stays on track in his recovery from a minor quad injury he suffered over the weekend. Other contributors like Turner, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Walker Zimmerman, Sergiño Dest and Gio Reyna are also sure things for the final roster, barring any health setbacks.

With all that in mind, here’s who we think Berhalter will select for his World Cup squad.

(To reiterate: These are our predictions for who we think Berhalter will take. We’ll outline the rosters we would take to the World Cup if we were in charge of the U.S. in a piece next week.)


Goalkeeper

Going to Qatar: Sean Johnson, Matt Turner, Zack Steffen

Just missed: Ethan Horvath, Gaga Slonina

Turner has missed the last three matches with Arsenal with injury, including a pair of Europa League contests he was set to start. However, the hope is that the knock isn’t serious enough to keep him off the U.S. team for the World Cup. As long as he’s healthy, Berhalter will bring him.

The picture behind him is a bit murkier. Steffen is playing regularly with Middlesbrough, but he wasn’t called up to the September camp. At the time that roster was announced, he had missed a couple of recent matches with an injury of his own, but he was healthy enough to return to the field for Boro in their final match before the September international break. Even with that exclusion, we think Berhalter will pick him for Qatar. Steffen probably won’t be the starter, but he’s got far more experience than the other options behind Turner in high-stakes matches with the U.S. He feels like the safest choice as the No. 2.

The third goalkeeper spot will likely come down to Horvath and Johnson. Both have solid arguments for the gig, but we think the personable, well-respected Johnson, who recently completed his MLS season with New York City FC, has the slight edge. Slonina, who is in the USMNT’s fitness camp for out-of-season MLS players and will make a move to Chelsea this January, is one for the future.

Left back

Going to Qatar: Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally

Just missed: Sam Vines

Robinson probably isn’t at 100 percent coming off the ankle injury that kept him out of the September camp, but he’s been healthy enough to start and perform solidly for Fulham for the last few weeks. Barring a setback, he’ll be on the plane and on the field for the U.S. in Qatar.

GO DEEPER

Antonee Robinson on his ankle injury, keeping Salah quiet and World Cup dreams

Vines was given first crack in September at winning the job to back him up, but he struggled against Japan. Scally isn’t a natural left back like Vines – he plays on the right side for Borussia Monchengladbach and lined up at right back during his solid substitute appearance against Saudi Arabia. He’s capable of deputizing on the left, though, and we think Berhalter will bring the 19-year-old as cover for Robinson and as an added option on the right, as well.

Center back

Going to Qatar (Stejskal prediction): Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Long, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman

Just missed (Stejskal prediction): Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown, Tim Ream, James Sands

Going to Qatar (Tenorio prediction): Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman

Just missed (Tenorio prediction): Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Chris Richards, James Sands

This position group is coming down to the wire, and it’s also one of two spots where our educated guesses differ significantly.

This has essentially been a wide-open competition for three spots behind the No. 1 option Walker Zimmerman since Miles Robinson went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in May. Chris Richards’ injury status — he hasn’t played since Aug. 27 and has played just over 200 minutes since last April — has made it even more so.

Zimmerman and Aaron Long have been the preferred pairing since this summer, but both play on teams that were eliminated from the MLS playoffs on Oct. 15 and thus will have gone about a month without a game when the U.S. kicks off against Wales on Nov. 21. Long didn’t look great down the stretch for the New York Red Bulls or with the U.S. in September, and it puts into question his status in this group.

Cameron Carter-Vickers has been playing regularly for Celtic, though he recently missed a couple of games with a knee injury. He’s expected to be available for this weekend, however. Mark McKenzie is playing regularly for Genk, which has been in good form and sits comfortably atop the Belgian league, but he too struggled with the U.S. in September. Erik Palmer-Brown is starting for Troyes and recently lined up against the likes of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in France, but he didn’t even get a look after being a late call-in to the September camp.

And then there’s Tim Ream. The 34-year-old has not played for the U.S. since starting the opening game of World Cup qualification in El Salvador. Ream played well in that game and was called up to the squad for qualifying last October, but pulled out due to personal reasons. He hasn’t been named to a U.S. team since. In the meantime, he has continued to start for Fulham, in the Championship last year and in the Premier League this season, and has been decent throughout. He’s in the 55th or better percentile among center backs in the top five European leagues in passes attempted, pass completion percentage, dribbles completed, interceptions and blocks, but ranks in just the 34th percentile in tackles, 40th percentile in clearances and 16th percentile in aerials won, according to FBref.com.

These aren’t going to be any easy decisions. All of the options have weaknesses in their game. None of them are clear-as-day starting options. Outside of Zimmerman, you could mix and match combinations of any three of the other seven candidates and be able to justify those selections.

Ultimately, we differ a bit on who we think Berhalter will select. Sam thinks Richards, who looks set to resume full team training with Crystal Palace in the next few days, will be deemed healthy enough to go to Qatar. Paul isn’t sure that a week of training will be enough to have Richards ready to perform at a World Cup. He could be a fifth center back if a fullback is dropped, but if Berhalter takes four, it’s tough to see him bringing someone who hasn’t played a game or trained in full for nearly three months.

Right back

Going to Qatar: Reggie Cannon, Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin

Just missed: Shaq Moore

Dest’s availability and form is really the only question here. His loan move to AC Milan presented at least a short-term solution to regular playing time even if Dest hasn’t been able to lock down a regular starting role. As long as he’s healthy he’s the presumptive starter at the position. Cannon’s regular time at Boavista, and ability to play on the right side of a three-man back line as he does in Portugal, adds a layer of flexibility to the roster. Yedlin is the only World Cup-experienced player in the pool. Even with Inter Miami getting knocked out of the playoffs on Oct. 17, Yedlin’s value as a veteran in the locker room is too important for Berhalter to leave at home.

Defensive midfield

Going to Qatar: Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta

Just missed:  None

Maybe the easiest position group to evaluate. These two players have been the go-to selections throughout qualifying. Adams is a lockdown starter and a potential captain for the team in Qatar. He’s in good form for Leeds and is one of the first names on the team sheet for Berhalter. For Berhalter, Acosta appears to be the only viable back-up at the position, and he’s shown the ability to step in for Adams when called upon. That Acosta’s LAFC team has played through to MLS Cup is a bonus — he’ll have just a week-long break before U.S. camp opens up in Qatar.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Fearless and unforgiving, Tyler Adams led from the front in Leeds’ win over Liverpool

Central midfield

Going to Qatar: Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan, Malik Tillman

Just missed: Johnny Cardoso, Luca de la Torre, Djordje Mihailovic, Eryk Williamson

McKennie might be out with a thigh injury at the moment, but we expect him to recover and be in decent game shape by the time the World Cup rolls around. If that proves true, Berhalter will undoubtedly lean on him and Musah to partner with Adams in midfield.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

USMNT form and fitness worries ahead of World Cup squad selection

The other big question at this position involves de la Torre. Celta de Vigo announced last week that the 24-year-old would miss at least three weeks with a hamstring injury. According to that timeline, he wouldn’t return to the field until Nov. 20, the day before the U.S. is set to open the World Cup against Wales. We think that will keep de la Torre, who looked like a solid option off the bench in qualifying but struggled against Japan in September and has played just 54 minutes in Spain this season, off the team.

Djordje Mihailovic and Eryk Williamson would be natural candidates to replace him on the roster, but Berhalter didn’t even call either to the ongoing MLS fitness camp. Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, meanwhile, is involved in that camp. Roldan was part of every U.S. roster from the start of qualifying last September through a four-pack of friendlies and CONCACAF Nations League matches in June. He didn’t play much in those instances and missed the friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia because of injury, but Berhalter seems to value what he brings in training and from a personality standpoint. We think he’ll be in Qatar.

We see Berhalter tapping Malik Tillman for the remaining spot in midfield. The 20-year-old German-American has been relatively anonymous in his four appearances for the U.S. since he debuted for the team in June; he’s also been a bit up and down with Rangers, where he’s playing on loan this season from German giants Bayern Munich. Berhalter seems to believe in him, though, perhaps because of his ability to line up as both a No. 8 and a winger.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Rangers are crying out for Tillman’s talent – he needs support, not criticism

Winger

Going to Qatar: Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah

Just missed: Jordan Morris

This is the U.S.’s most talented and deepest position in the pool, where Berhalter has four easy decisions; Pulisic, Reyna, Weah and Aaronson are on the squad as long as they’re healthy. Thankfully, that’s the case right now. Weah returned from a foot injury and has built up his minutes with Lille over the month of October. His absence during those September friendlies reinforced how important his verticality and production in the final third is to this U.S. team. Reyna has also been playing consistently for Dortmund and looks healthy. That’s a bonus for the U.S. considering how much injuries have slowed him over the past year. Pulisic’s playing time has increased under Graham Potter at Chelsea and, more importantly, he has looked confident and in form ahead of Qatar. Aaronson remains one of the most productive pressing players in the Premier League. The depth chart here is solid.

The final choice for Berhalter here could end up being whether to bring five or six wingers. We think he’ll opt for five in order to open more space up in other spots on the roster. If that’s the case, Arriola has been a trusted player throughout qualifying and his direct approach to the position along with his defensive work rate give him the edge over Morris.

Striker

Going to Qatar (Stejskal): Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent

Just missed (Stejskal): Jordan Pefok, Brandon Vazquez, Haji Wright

Going to Qatar (Tenorio): Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Ricardo Pepi

Just missed (Tenorio): Josh Sargent, Brandon Vazquez, Haji Wright

After months of sustained struggles, almost every member of the U.S. striker pool suddenly rounded into form this summer. Ferreira and Vazquez were banging in goals in MLS, Sargent found his footing in the English Championship, Wright was succeeding in Turkey and Pefok started life with Bundesliga club Union Berlin on a tear. The only one who was having issues was Pepi, who was looking for a move away from German side Augsburg after a tough beginning to life in Europe.

Today, the picture looks significantly different. Ferreira didn’t score in his final seven matches with FC Dallas, who were eliminated from the MLS playoffs on Oct. 23. Sargent has continued playing well, but he suffered a calf injury last week that has kept him out of Norwich’s last two matches. Pefok hasn’t scored in his last eight Bundesliga and Europa League matches, and was left out of the starting lineup for Union Berlin’s Europa League match on Thursday. Vazquez and Wright continued to perform well with their clubs (though Vazquez’s season ended when FC Cincinnati were eliminated from the MLS playoffs on Oct. 20), but neither of them appear to be in Berhalter’s plans. While many of the other options have fallen off a bit, Pepi has dramatically improved, scoring five times in seven appearances in the Dutch Eredivisie since he was sent on loan to Groningen in September.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Jesus Ferreira and the heightened pressure to score goals ahead of a World Cup

Where does that leave things? Despite his recent struggles, we think Ferreira is a lock for the team. Berhalter has seemed to prefer him over all other options since the beginning of this summer. We think Pepi is a solid bet to get to Qatar, too. Not only has he finally rebounded from the torturous goalless streak that lasted from Oct. 7, 2021 to Sept. 17 of this year, but he’s been an apparent favorite of Berhalter since he started scoring in qualifiers last October.

That leaves us with one final spot for the World Cup roster. Vazquez, who wasn’t called for the ongoing MLS fitness camp, and Wright, who wasn’t named to the team in September, seem to be out of the picture, which presents a battle between Pefok and Sargent. Pefok is a more bruising option; it’s pretty clear that Berhalter wouldn’t use him as a starter, but as a throw-the-kitchen-sink option off the bench if the U.S. needs a late goal. Sargent is more well-rounded. He might have the best overall skillset of all the U.S. strikers, and he’s in decent form. Berhalter didn’t give him much run in September, only playing him in the second half of the Japan game, but, as long as he’s healthy, Stejskal thinks he gets the nod.

Tenorio thinks Sargent’s lack of playing time in September didn’t bode well and that Berhalter will want one late-game super sub that can play as a target — much as Pefok did against Honduras, when he scored, and Mexico, where he missed an open chance.

Predicted USMNT World Cup rosters:

Stejskal: 

Goalkeeper (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner
Left back (2): Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally
Center back (4): Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Long, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman
Right back (3): Reggie Cannon, Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin
Defensive midfielder (2): Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta
Central midfielder (4): Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan, Malik Tillman
Winger (5): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah
Striker (3): Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent

Tenorio: 

Goalkeeper (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner
Left back (2): Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally
Center back (4): Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman
Right back (3): Reggie Cannon, Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin
Defensive midfielder (2): Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta
Central midfielder (4): Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan, Malik Tillman
Winger (5): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah
Striker (3): Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Ricardo Pepi


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(Top photos, left to right: ANP/Getty Images; Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images; ANP/Getty Images; ANP/Getty Images; Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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