There’s reason to be worried about the United States men’s national team and the 2022 World Cup following the latest round of player call-ups from Gregg Berhalter.
That’s not because this roster in itself is inherently bad, or that Berhalter’s choices are a singular terrible moment that signals the downfall of his tenure.
And it’s also not because this unit will not qualify for Qatar. They probably will. It’s worth discussing whether they should be entering this window without qualification in the bag, yes, but this is more of a big-picture discussion.
Most people would agree that the age of the USMNT roster and an analysis of the player pool means the side is likely to be at the peak of its powers heading into the 2026 World Cup, but that doesn’t mean the Yanks can’t do real damage at this winter’s World Cup with a halfway decent draw. Talking about how darn young your team is compared to historical version of it is only impressive if you aren’t leaving older players behind out of principles or stats (Just ask Frank Lampard how good it was to play the youth of Chelsea when Thomas Tuchel put the vets back out there and won the European Cup).
Look at the philosophy behind, construction of, and performance by Berhalter’s unit and it’s very difficult to imagine he’s going to make an unbiased selection of the best group of players for a World Cup, adopt the appropriate mentality for a growing power in the sport, and humbly appreciate whichever international opponent stands between him and USSF immortality.
By far the least of the problems caused by the uncertainty of Berhalter’s plan for the program is our USMNT Player Pool Power Rankings, for there is now a “Top 25 USMNT players in the world” and a “Top 25 USMNT players to Gregg Berhalter” that are very different. The key word is the modifier: Very. Every national team manager is going to have a preference or three — Ask any MLS fan about Jurgen Klinsmann and Benny Feilhaber — but Berhalter’s got a bunch than are more than hunch than punch.
The prevalence of advanced stats now makes it possible to compare players from different leagues. If we accept that the top five leagues in Europe are, while a different animal in style, largely superior to MLS.
John Brooks as an example
Let’s start here: Even without explicit acknowledgment or even much innuendo, we have to operate in a mindset that Gregg Berhalter sees John Brooks’ personality or reputation inside of the team as reason to keep him out of the squad. His omission in the Fall felt appropriate given form and both coach and player handled the issue with class, so it seems like the veteran back “got it.”
But Brooks is healthy and playing well for Wolfsburg now. Of backs to play more than 15 league matches, he’s
- 18th In clearances
- 11th in aerial duels won percentage
- 18th in ground duels won percentage
- 37th In interceptions
- ninth in accurate long balls per game
- 18th in clearances
- 20th in passes attempted
- not made an error that’s led to an opposition shot
- is 25th in SofaScore rating.
Regardless, even a dipped-in-form Brooks is superior to most of the backs of the pool, so whether it’s just a clash of strong personalities or a story we won’t get for a long time, let’s try to accept that Berhalter knows what he’s leaving home and hope that somehow the trade-off is worth it.
As an exercise and with expectation but without pre-judgment, I’ve used the site FBRef.com and its collection of StatsBomb data to put Brooks and the four called-up USMNT pool center backs into the same FBRef.com comparison.
With the caveat that we used the 2021 MLS seasons of James Sands, Miles Robinson, and Walker Zimmerman instead of Sands’ rarely-used start at Rangers and three-match sample sizes for the latter, here’s how Brooks and Erik Palmer-Brown stack up alongside the aforementioned trio. We’ve excluded Aaron Long as he returns from a long-term injury.
Current USMNT CBs stat leaders in club play, per 90 minutes
Passes attempted: Robinson, 59.9 (Brooks 2nd, 59.6)
Passes completed: Robinson, 51.5 (Brooks 3rd, 50.5)
Pass percentage: Sands, 90 (Brooks 3rd, 84.7)
Pass progression distance: Brooks, 410.5 yards (Robinson 2nd, 364.9)
Tackle percentage: Palmer-Brown, 73.7 (Brooks 3rd, 54.3)
Pressure percentage: Palmer-Brown, 38.8 (Brooks 2nd, 38.6)
Shots blocked: Brooks, 1.94 (Robinson 2nd, 1.84)
Tackles+interceptions: Brooks, 4.22 (Palmer-Brown 2nd, 4.18)
Clearances: Zimmerman, 5.9 (Brooks 2nd, 5.5)
Distance progressed: Robinson, 290 (Brooks 2nd, 243.7)
Aerial duels won %: Zimmerman, 76.7 (Brooks 5th, 65.3)
Yep. Brooks leads in some huge categories lauded by Berhalter and is only worse than 3-of-5 in aerial duels won (which is, actually, stunning). And it’s encouraging to see the deeper numbers/analytics explain the Erik Palmer-Brown call-up, a long-time promising defender who is probably not meriting a ton of eyeballs at Troyes.
That’s not to say that he’s a beast among beasts and destined for the very upper reaches of the Bundesliga, which was once a thing. But he’s a strong player who is going to have a strong selection of very good teams from which to choose his next club this summer, and it wouldn’t be surprising if sometime soon we read a hit-piece on why he’s out of the national team fray right now, or learn that he said, “Don’t call me up if I’m not starting.”
I have zero proof of either, which are concocted in a logical lab, but I just can’t calculate another explanation.
Two Big Worries
Presuming the Yanks qualify for Qatar — because if they don’t (and they won’t), U.S. Soccer House should be the most dramatically and peacefully overturned apple cart in sports history — there are two huge worries for U.S. men’s national team fans.
1) The omitted XI
Realistically, in how many meaningful international should an argument be able to be made that a program the stature of the United States men’s national team has 11 healthy players that could defeat any group of XI chosen from the called-up squad.
So, let’s be true here, who wins this matchup?
Called up XI
Sean Johnson, Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, James Sands, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Cristian Roldan, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Jesus Ferreira.
Healthy and uncalled XI
Brad Guzan, John Brooks, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Tim Ream, Joe Scally, Julian Green, Frankie Amaya, Paxton Pomykal, Sebastian Lletget, Djordje Mihailovic, Josh Sargent
Guzan, Amaya, Pomykal, and Ream probably shouldn’t be a part of the discussion and Green and Greuther Furth have struggled, but could you make an argument for calling the others up over the “Called up XI” members (which includes Johnson, Acosta, and Yedlin who are easy to explain as members of the roster but we needed to hit 11)?
We thinks so.
2) Know-it-all arrogance limits USMNT’s ceiling
But really, it just feels at times like Berhalter is one of those managers who believes he’s operating on a higher plane, one that a writer or a player or most of his peers could not possibly understand with their non-galaxy brains. And that’s combined with a stubborn streak that’s made him walk from proverbial beach sand into chest-deep ocean waters, shift back and forth in his stance until he’s ankle-deep, and just hope he’s read the waves right.
And maybe that hope isn’t even coming from Berhalter, but from USMNT fans who are looking at one of the less than 20 World Cups they get to see in their lifetime (until Gianni Infantino starts staging them monthly, at least). Hope is powerful and never dies, paraphrasing the famous quote from “Shawnshank Redemption,” and to be staring down the next World Cup with varying hopeful pleas — one that Berhalter won’t mess up the next week or the players will overcome the nonsense and another that he won’t bungle the World Cup once in Qatar — is a tremendously disappointing vibe.
One Big Asterisk*
Let’s also celebrate the incredible depth of the United States men’s national team, which barely registered blips with Julian Araujo choosing Mexico for his national future and Tyler Boyd not being on the radar after starring right away following a switch from New Zealand to the USMNT.
There was a time that either of those would’ve dominated all of our conversations — remember Jonathan Gonzalez and Gedion Zelalem — but are now just met with mild exhalations and groans.
Not only are MLS academies churning out top players in Major League Soccer as well as a bevy of exports to Europe, but here’s a list of players not even mentioned above or in the player pool rankings below:
Nicholas Gioacchini, Montpellier
Konrad de la Fuente, Marseille
Mark McKenzie, Genk
Justin Che, Hoffenheim
Henry Kessler, New England
Matt Miazga, Alaves
Bryan Reynolds, AS Roma
Sam Vines, Antwerp
Shaq Moore, Tenerife
Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew
Jackson Yueill, San Jose
Matthew Hoppe, Mallorca
Jonathan Lewis, Colorado
1. Christian Pulisic, Chelsea (1)
2. Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig (2)
3. Weston McKennie*, Juventus (3)
4. Timothy Weah, Lille (4)
5. Yunus Musah, Valencia (5)
6. Antonee Robinson, Fulham (6)
7. Miles Robinson, Atlanta United (13)
8. John Brooks# , Wolfsburg (18)
9. Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund (9)
10. Chris Richards*, Hoffenheim (11)
11. Walker Zimmerman, Nashville (7)
12. Jordan Pefok, BSC Young Boys (16)
13. Sergino Dest*, Barcelona (8)
14. Joe Scally#, Borussia Monchengladbach (15)
15. Brenden Aaronson, Red Bull Salzburg (12)
16. Zack Steffen, Manchester City (10)
17. Kellyn Acosta, Colorado Rapids (22)
18. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders (20)
19. Ricardo Pepi, Augsburg (17)
20. Gianluca Busio, Venezia (19)
21. Ethan Horvath, Nottingham Forest (NR)
22. Erik Palmer-Brown, Troyes (NR)
23. Cameron Carter-Vickers#, Celtic (NR)
24. Matt Turner*, New England Revolution, loan from Arsenal (21)
25. Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders (NR)