With the United States confirming a place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the nightmare of the failed qualification in 2018 is officially put to bed, and USMNT fans can look forward to the big dance.
Now, the speculation begins — who will be among the 23 players brought to soccer’s most coveted event, and who will be left out of the fold? (All expectations are that FIFA will ultimately expand rosters from 23 players to 26 players.)
Manager Gregg Berhalter and his USMNT coaching staff will spend the next months readying the final list of talent, so we take a stab at predicting who will make the final roster in mid-November.
Of course, injuries will have a major say as to how this plays out, and there is already one starter who will likely miss out barring an incredible recovering from an Achilles injury.
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World Cup rosters currently consist of 23 players, including three goalkeepers. Whittling down the U.S. player pool to the 23 best — or, most useful — players is going to be extremely difficult for Berhalter.
The starting lineup and main contributors seem relatively set, but every roster spot is valuable, and the goal will be to maximize every position with players who can contribute in multiple ways on and off the field.
So, with that in mind, here are the 23 players The Sporting News predicts to be on the World Cup roster.
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Goalkeepers (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson.
Defenders (7): Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Antonee Robinson, Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, George Bello, Cameron Carter-Vickers.
Midfielders (6): Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Cristian Roldan.
Forwards (7): Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Jesus Ferreira, Haji Wright, Jordan Morris.
There are a number of choices here that were extremely tight calls to make.
First and foremost, fullback used to be a position of weakness for the USMNT. It still is…but only on one side. Antonee Robinson has established himself as the clear first-choice left-back, but the next best option behind him is George Bello.
Meanwhile, there are loads of options at right back behind established starter Sergino Dest. And while Reggie Cannon would be a positive addition to the roster (he can also play center back in a pinch), having three right backs is a bear on the squad and DeAndre Yedlin’s veteran presence will be required for such a young side.
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At center back, John Brooks has done his best to prove he’s ready for a return to the national team fold, but Berhalter has consistently rebuffed calls for the out-of-contract defender to be included. Brooks was left off the roster for the March international qualifiers, and again in the summer, as it seems he cannot manage to find a place in the squad. Instead, Aaron Long, fresh off recovery from an ACL tear, was brought back in over Brooks. That feels like a nail in the coffin of Brooks’s chances.
While it feels like Long will ultimately end up as the starting center back alongside Zimmerman, the third central defender spot is wide open. Possibilities include Cameron Carter-Vickers, back from USMNT obscurity thanks to a fantastic season with Celtic, Chris Richards of Bayern Munich, Erik Palmer-Brown of French side Troyes, or Genk central defender Mark McKenzie. Carter-Vickers’ current club form is the best, but Palmer-Brown finished the season strong and boasts positional flexibility, as does McKenzie.
Another difficult call comes up front. Just this winter, it felt like the striker spot was Ricardo Pepi’s to lose, and it appears he’s in fact lost it with a miserable start to his Augsburg career. Meanwhile, Jesus Ferreira led the MLS goalscoring charts as the calendar turned to June, and while he still struggled in front of net on the international level, his pressing has been what Berhalter wants. Haji Wright is in stellar club form and got his first international goal against Morocco in a tuneup match, and he just clips Pepi for a spot.
In midfield, Yunus Musah will also see time and should be a lock in the squad, and veteran Kellyn Acosta provides stability. Domestic-based options Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan seem to be battling for one last spot, while Paul Arriola is one of the first few left off.
So now that we have the final 23, how will they line up? The starting lineup is pretty self-explanatory, although there are still a few decisions to be made.
The biggest question comes between the pipes. With recent starting goalkeeper Matt Turner moving to Arsenal where he will compete for time and likely back up Aaron Ramsdale, that makes two USMNT goalkeepers with upper echelon Premier League teams…both as backups. Form is critical for goalkeepers, meaning it remains to be seen whether Steffen or Turner get enough minutes to consider themselves game ready for World Cup matches.
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Another main question is at the third midfield position. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, when healthy, are locks for the starting lineup. The final spot seemed more up in the air until Brenden Aaronson performed brilliantly at the head of the midfield trio against Morocco. Could this be the way to get all the best U.S. attacking players on the field at the same time?
With just 23 players allowed on the roster (though 26-player rosters seem likely), some players will be left on the outside looking in.
Up front, left out along with Ricardo Pepi is Jordan Pefok, who has had a great club season with Young Boys in Switzerland, but there just aren’t enough roster spots to make it happen. Gyasi Zardes and Josh Sargent also fail to make the squad. Paul Arriola is a steady veteran option, but with a squeezed roster, Jordan Morris gets the spot.
The backup center back battle is totally wide open, with Carter-Vickers, Palmer-Brown, McKenzie, and Richards all in contention. An end-of-season injury to Richards left him off the summer roster, which hurts his chances, and McKenzie hasn’t looked comfortable in any of his USMNT appearances to date. Carter-Vickers was up and down during his 45 minutes against Morocco, and Palmer-Brown is still inexperienced.
One of Cristian Roldan and Sebastian Lletget will likely be left off the roster, barring injuries, and while the two are extremely similar players in many ways, Roldan is three years younger, and having his versatility on the World Cup roster is valuable. The Seattle midfielder was chosen for the March qualifying roster, while Lletget was left off, indicating where the two stand in the pecking order.
At goalkeeper, Sean Johnson is an experienced option and a more viable on-field option in the event his talents are required. Veteran Brad Guzan tore his ACL with Atlanta United and will not be an option, and this World Cup comes just a bit too soon for young Gaga Slonina. Stefan Frei had a wonderful performance in the CONCACAF Champions League for Seattle, but still didn’t get a look in the summer even with an injury to Zack Steffen that saw Ethan Horvath as the next man called up.
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Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath, Stefan Frei, Gabriel Slonina.
Defenders: Tim Ream, Chris Richards, Reggie Cannon, James Sands, Shaq Moore, Mark McKenzie, Joe Scally.
Midfielders: Sebastian Lletget.
Forwards: Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Konrad de la Fuente, Paul Arriola, Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes, Matthew Hoppe.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort