Huge questions surround USMNT roster for World Cup qualifiers

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The USMNT have three huge World Cup qualifiers coming up in October, but there are so many big questions swirling around their roster.

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From injury issues with Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to possible travel restrictions and plenty of selection dilemmas, there is a lot going on right now.

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter knows his side need to kick on in these games against Jamaica (being played in Austin, Texas), Panama (Panama City, Panama) and Costa Rica (Columbus, Ohio) after picking up five points from their first three World Cup qualifiers.

Anything less than seven points in these three qualifiers will be seen as a bad return by the USMNT fanbase, but Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica will likely be battling right until the end with the U.S. for a spot in the top three of the standings which secures qualification to the 2022 World Cup.

[ MORE: How to watch World Cup qualifying ]

Here is a look at just some of the huge questions facing the USMNT as they prepare to name their squad for the October World Cup qualifiers later this week.


Will superstars be fit to play?

There are huge question marks over Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, who haven’t played a single minute for their club teams since the World Cup qualifiers earlier this month. Reyna was injured in the draw with El Salvador, while Pulisic was hurt in the win at Honduras. Reyna and Pulisic are the USMNT’s most gifted players and have the ability to unlock any defense in CONCACAF. Not having one of them, or both, for these three games would be a huge blow.

Add in the fact that Tyler Adams wasn’t fit to feature for RB Leipzig at the weekend and three of the USMNT’s top five players at huge clubs in Europe may not feature. Now, about another one of those top five players…

What is the Weston McKennie situation?

In a recent podcast interview with U.S. Soccer, head coach Gregg Berhalter acknowledged that Weston McKennie could return for the October World Cup qualifiers. McKennie, 23, was sent home after a ‘violation of team policy’ in Nashville, as he didn’t play against Canada or Honduras. McKennie has had minutes for Juventus in recent weeks but Max Allegri criticized his inability to finish.

What with Andrea Pirlo leaving as Juve boss and rumors about McKennie being sold, plus this situation with the USMNT, it has been a rough few months for the midfielder. However, with plenty of injury issues to key players and McKennie a leader for this young squad, you’d think Berhalter will call him up for these games after disciplining him. Perhaps he would have liked to have left McKennie out for these qualifiers as he wanted to hammer home the disciplinary point, but it doesn’t seem like Berhalter has that luxury right now.

Gregg Berhalter
Getty Images

Which central strikers will be called up?

This has been the biggest question around the USMNT in recent years: who is going to score the goals? Josh Sargent is having a tough time with Norwich in the Premier League as the Canaries sit bottom of the table, and it seems like he’s better suited to being a secondary striker.

Will teenager Ricardo Pepi be thrust into the starting role after his heroics against Honduras? Or will Jordan Pefok start up top? What about Gyasi Zardes after his return to fitness, and form, in recent weeks? Could Matthew Hoppe have an impact? So many questions for Berhalter up top, and there is no clear answer. Pepi is probably the best fit for the way the USMNT play, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a teenager.

Who will start in goal?

With Zack Steffen missing the recent World Cup qualifiers after testing positive for COVID-19, Matt Turner came in and impressed. The New England Revolution goalkeeper has let up a couple of cheap goals in MLS play in recent games, but he probably has the starting jersey now.

Steffen has had a lack of game time due to his recovery from COVID-19 and even though he is very talented, there were a few questions marks about him starting to creep in. Turner will probably start against Jamaica in Austin on Oct. 7, but it is pretty much the flip of a coin.

How will quarantine rules impact the roster?

This is something to keep an eye on with the USMNT players based in the UK. Currently, Panama is on the UK’s red travel list. That means that anybody who travels there must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days on their arrival back to the UK. That would, in theory, take Pulisic, Steffen, Sargent, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson and Ethan Horvath out of club action until late October. Their clubs would not be happy with that and FIFA is still discussing with the UK authorities and other relevant bodies about these quarantine restrictions and possible exemptions for international soccer players.

Remember: plenty of issues arose when some Premier League players defied their clubs and went to South America for World Cup qualifiers and Brazil vs Argentina was postponed mid-game. While plenty of star players did not travel at all. It’s a real mess and the only hope the USMNT has to make life simpler for their UK-based players is that Panama is removed from the UK’s red travel list between now and Oct. 10. If it isn’t, there could be a lot of players not making the trip to Panama City for the second of these three important qualifiers and that could also force Berhalter to call up other players from other leagues, as the likes of Gianluca Busio and Bryan Reynolds (both based in Italy at Serie A clubs) may get the nod to come into this squad.

FA Cup
LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 03: USA team-mates Christian Pulisic of Chelsea and Zack Steffen of Manchester City chat after the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on January 03, 2021 in London, England. The match will be played without fans, behind closed doors as a Covid-19 precaution. (Photo by Visionhaus)

What is going on at center back?

John Brooks was the nailed-on starter at center back for the USMNT until a few weeks ago. But after shaky displays in the recent qualifiers and the same for Wolfsburg, he no longer seems to be an automatic starter. Brooks’ future at Wolfsburg is uncertain as he continues to negotiate a new contract and perhaps that is impacting his play on the pitch. With Michail Antonio set to start for Jamaica against the USMNT, they need a plan to stop the prolific West Ham striker who has just committed his international allegiance to the Reggae Boyz.

That means that Miles Robinson has all of a sudden been catapulted to the top of the USMNT center back pool following his strong Gold Cup displays. Alongside him, the experience of Tim Ream would be a sensible choice (if Brooks doesn’t start) and perhaps Walker Zimmerman is also a good option as a solid, reliable defender? Chris Richards is likely the long-term answer to the USMNT’s center back issues and he is at least playing regularly for Hoffenheim this season, as he once again joined on loan from Bayern Munich. Richards and Robinson may well be the two starters at the 2022 World Cup. If the USMNT get there.

Mexico star Raul Jimenez bags first Wolves goal since skull fracture

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Raul Jimenez is back on a Premier League scoreboard, 10 months after the injury that threatened his life.

The Wolves forward was hospitalized and required cranial surgery after a gruesome head-to-head collision with Arsenal’s David Luiz last year.

Back in action, Jimenez has been part of a Wolves team that has been snakebit in front of goal for all but one PL match this young season.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Zardes scores screamer ]

This was very much a vintage Raul Jimenez goal, as the Mexican striker bodied up Jan Bednarek to the extent that the Southampton back never challenged for the ball while it was in the air.

Bednarek, did, however engage in hand-to-hand combat with the Wolves striker, won when Jimenez got lower than the back to turn the corner.

At least Bednarek put up a good fight, as Jimenez’s work to get past Mohamed Salisu required minimal effort.

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VIDEO: USMNT striker Gyasi Zardes scores screamer

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USMNT forward Gyasi Zardes scored a stunning goal for the Columbus Crew in MLS on Saturday, as he continues to push for a call-up.

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Zardes, 30, often divides opinion among USMNT fans but his goal record for club and country has been very good in recent years.

And the second of his two goals against Montreal this weekend was one to remember.

Take a look at this.

Gyasi Zardes slams home from distance

Zardes got the ball out of his feet, turned and after running towards goal he spanked home a superb curler into the far top corner.

That goal was his third in his last two games a

And the goals he scored over the last week were the first since he scored for the USMNT in their Gold Cup success this summer, as he was out for a month from August after a hamstring injury.

Will he be in the USMNT squad for upcoming World Cup qualifiers?

The USMNT really need a goalscorer as Josh Sargent has struggled to take his chance as the undisputed No. 9, with teenager Ricardo Pepi taking his chance in the last World Cup qualifier against Honduras.

Who else is there, though? Daryl Dike has fallen down the pecking order, while Jordan Pefok is probably the next man up and the likes of Matthew Hoppe and Nicholas Gioacchini are knocking on the door for starts too.

Zardes has scored 14 goals in 62 games for the USMNT, so that’s hardly prolific, but he will give the U.S. men’s national team a focal point in their upcoming qualifiers.

With so many great attacking midfielders at their disposal (Brenden Aaron, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to mention a few) the USMNT need a focal point in their act.

Zardes, a favorite of Gregg Berhalter after their time together at Columbus, wouldn’t be the popular choice to start in the October World Cup qualifiers but he may well be the best choice.

Breaking down the USMNT’s slow start to World Cup qualifying

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Crisis is too strong of a word, but welcome to the first dilemma of the United States men’s national team’s Gregg Berhalter era.

The USMNT’s first two World Cup qualifiers since its humiliating exit from 2018 qualifying — you might remember the loss to Trinidad and Tobago’s B-team in Couva — have ended in draws: a scoreless away match in El Salvador and a 1-1 split with Canada in Nashville.

[ MORE: 3 Things from USMNT-Canada | Player ratings ]

Results from around CONCACAF have made the draws less damaging than they could’ve been, as only presumed qualifier Mexico (two wins) and 2018 participant Panama (one) have made their way into the win column, but what exactly are the worries and is the grass greener and safer than your typical CONCACAF away pitch?

Yes, er, most likely. Probably, even.

[ MORE: McKennie dropped for team violation ]

Here we’ll dig into the reasons behind the 0W-2D-0L start to “The Octagonal” and evaluate whether those factors could be long-term worries while also touching on some key quotes from Gregg Berhalter, Tyler Adams, and Christian Pulisic after the 1-1 draw with Canada.

Most simple rationale first: Absences hurt (and continue in Honduras)

Let’s talk about depth, baby.

USMNT supporters waking up Monday might’ve looked at their two points and grimaced a little before saying, “Yeah but we’re just over half-strength.”

They wouldn’t be wrong.

Berhalter was without Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah, and Zack Steffen in El Salvador and opted to rest top defender John Brooks. Pulisic returned for Canada, but Weston McKennie was suspended for breaking a team rule and Giovanni Reyna was injured in San Salvador.

Those are players who are factors at Chelsea, Nice, Manchester City, Wolfsburg, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund. There have been periods in USMNT history where there weren’t players in the pool on the books at top clubs in Europe, let alone five of them.

Also either injured or not called up? Yunus Musah, Gyasi Zardes, Matthew Hoppe, Jordan Morris, Daryl Dike, Chris Richards, and Aaron Long. And Bryan Reynolds. And Matt Miazga. And Reggie Cannon (who may be the biggest winner of this break so far with Sergino Dest and DeAndre Yedlin struggling at right back).

You get the idea. You could craft a lineup of absences that you’d expect to get a point or three in El Salvador.

Steffen

Cannon — Richards — Miazga — Vines

Musah — Green — Busio

Morris — Zardes — Weah

Tyler Adams admitted disappointment in McKennie’s absence and his team’s performance, but bristled at the idea that the players’ improved club pedigree matters much (even if it does more than a little, a passed litmus test of the quality of talent developed and identified in the pool).

“It’s a team sport. Doesn’t matter where we come from. If we don’t go out there and do the things we’re good at, then we’re just a group of names on a piece of paper. Other teams maybe they don’t have the players that play for these big clubs, it doesn’t matter. No individual is going to qualify for a World Cup.

The final third answer hasn’t been found (or isn’t healthy)

The talent above means that CONCACAF foes, more than ever, are going to choose physical and defensive options against the USA.

You may even see it from Tata Martino’s Mexico after the U.S. beat them twice this summer, especially with Mexico 2-0 and already in a position where it’s unlikely to be under the gun during qualifying.

So when Christian Pulisic said the following quote after the game, it’s a clarion call to the player pool and even his manager.

“We need new ideas at times. Today we didn’t test them enough, whether it was not being direct enough. I’m not too sure. We didn’t break them down. Obviously it wasn’t good enough.”

Correct.

Josh Sargent struggled at center forward in El Salvador, while Jordan Pefok was merely “just fine.” An average Zardes would’ve been an upgrade over both in terms of those performances, while Matthew Hoppe, Daryl Dike, and Nicholas Gioachhini are among the names who could be answers as well (Teenager Ricardo Pepi was on the bench and is the name on everyone’s lips due to his 11 goals in MLS this season, but a softer entry point would be a preferred way to introduce him to the CONCACAF climate).

Playing Pulisic in his preferred position could also work, and service from a healthy Reyna would be nice, too.

What about those ideas? Berhalter’s on the hook for some of this, too. The Yanks were bad in tight spaces, especially anywhere near the top of the 18, and almost all of Sunday’s danger arrived from Pulisic being fouled or Antonee Robinson whipping in crosses or making surging runs into the Canadian third.

The McKennie problem

Weston McKennie looks like an unbridled force in a USMNT shirt, but he’s gotta be able to put on the shirt in order to be a factor.

McKennie was dropped from the team in Nashville for breaking a team rule, the 23-year-old issuing an apology on social media for the infraction just as he did when he hosted a team party at Juventus and was punished by the Serie A club.

It’s inexcusable to the extent that it remains stunning a day later than the Texan would risk breaking a rule during a pandemic after the nation underperformed in its first World Cup qualifier since bombing out of 2018 eligibility.

And if Berhalter wanted to be lenient — he doesn’t, and has sent McKennie back to Italy — he couldn’t because McKennie is such a huge part of this team’s guts.

While Berhalter tried to not to discuss McKennie’s infraction and Pulisic clearly measured his words in how he spoke about his friend, Tyler Adams was a bit more open about the issue.

“It’s not an ideal because he’s such an important character for this team, not just on the field but for what he does to bring us together,” Adams said. “It’s disappointing but it’s that next man up mentality. … To be fair it hurts us but I don’t think it affected the team too much.”

Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. But they’ll have to find their fire Wednesday without McKennie. And if they can’t, well, that’s a huge problem for the state of the team.

Will the USMNT qualify for the World Cup?

Most likely. CONCACAF qualifying is already extremely forgiving to the confederation’s powers and even moreso with 14 matches on this docket and seven of the 10 matches so far being draws.

Yes, they would’ve targeted six points from El Salvador and at least four from Canada — with a home win — but changes in absences and answers will deliver plenty of success.

This is a program who, prior to the last five days, had not lost to anyone besides Switzerland since October 2019 and only drew Wales.

To fall off the World Cup map, it would need a collapse bigger than anything Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena oversaw despite having the deepest pool in American history.

USMNT vs Canada: Three things we learned, recap, Man of the Match

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Brenden Aaronson scored the lone American goal as Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team underwhelmed again in a 1-1 draw with Canada on Sunday in Nashville.

Yes, the Yanks were shorthanded for various reasons in this World Cup qualifier (injuries, positive COVID tests, Weston McKennie breaking a team rule) but the USMNT again had few real moments of danger in a game it didn’t quite need but very much should’ve had.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings vs Canada ]

Cyle Larin scored for Canada to level the game leaving both teams on two points after two matches and making Wednesday’s trip to Honduras very, very important.

Berhalter only made one sub in the first 82 minutes and will be left to answer a great many questions about his team’s completely underwhelming start to qualifying.

[ MORE: Lingard, Saka shine for England ]


Three things we learned from USMNT vs Canada

1. Turns out Pulisic is really important: He was harrassed, fouled, and basically tracked with a magnet all night, and while there are probably a half-dozen brilliant moments on the goal, don’t sleep on the one that is Canada going out of its way to foul the American captain rather than stick with Jordan Pefok.

2. Forwards? Imagine just a few months ago if you were told the Yanks would’ve really liked to have Gyasi Zardes available for a pair of World Cup qualifiers given the glut of hopeful talent in the pool. Jordan Pefok was okay on Sunday but Josh Sargent has struggled and Timothy Weah — not a center forward anyway — has been out the entire window. Zardes may not be the guy you want starting against Germany in a World Cup, but he sure knows how to find goals against CONCACAF defenses.

3. Absences hamper USMNT: Ask Gregg Berhalter how he feels about his depth and he’ll likely point to injuries to Giovanni Reyna and Timothy Weah as well as COVID issues for Zack Steffen and a suspension for Weston McKennie due to COVID protocols. That last one is a bad one, and you can be sure he was hoping his teammates would get the win without him because it’ll be a major talking point moving forward. Berhalter finally made a trio of changes with eight minutes left, plugging in Konrad de la Fuente, Josh Sargent, and Cristian Roldan for Brenden Aaronson, Jordan Pefok, and Sebastian Lletget. But Canada was able to bring on Jonathan David and Jonathan Osorio amongst others, while the U.S. was genuinely shorthanded in Tennessee.

Man of the Match: Antonee Robinson

It would’ve been Tyler Adams or Brenden Aaronson had the former not taken a silly yellow card that stopped us from learning whether the latter’s incisive pass would’ve been thumped home by Robinson. But the Fulham left back was everywhere for the U.S., assisting Aaronson’s goal and demanding another start on Wednesday.


USMNT vs Canada recap

Canada had the game’s first chance via a corner kick but the U.S. soon had a free kick when Christian Pulisic drew a foul. The service wasn’t great but Canada played it out for a USMNT corner.

John Brooks and Tyler Adams set the tone early with fouls and intention, the pair combining to shut down a strong Alphonso Davies in the ninth minute.

A Brooks giveaway, however, allowed a long ball to Cyle Larin that was poorly hit and gobbled up easily by Matt Turner.

Turner was bothered much more by a Dest mistake that allowed Davies 1v1 with the keeper in tight, but Miles Robinson blocked the effort toward goal to keep it 0-0.

Pulisic drew another foul in the 16th but the free kick went for nothing. Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan was shaken up and needed trainer’s assistance in the 20th minute, and Antonee Robinson soon tested him with a left-footed hammer.

Dest then led an electric run down the left that led to a cross and a wicked deflection that forced Borjan to fly toward the top corner to slap the ball away from danger.

You’re not going to believe this: Pulisic was a part of nearly every moment of real danger for the Yanks and won a corner in the 32nd minute.

[ MORE: Brazil versus Argentina suspended ]

Pefok worked a 1-2 with Pulisic off another quality Antonee Robinson long pass, but dragged his shot just wide.

Soon Aaronson and Lletget worked a terrific set-up off a long Brooks diagonal, but Pulisic’s snapped shot smacked the post.

Dest was injured just before halftime and replaced by DeAndre Yedlin.

The Yanks broke through before the hour mark when Brenden Aaronson created a turnover and the referee played advantage when Pulisic was fouled, the ball going to Kellyn Acosta for a perfect entry pass for Antonee Robinson. The Fulham man sent the ball back to the man who started it for a sliding tap-in.

Canada had it 1-1 quickly, as Yedlin was roasted by Davies. The Bayern Munich man’s pass past two sleeping center backs was snapped in by Larin for 1-1.

The Canadians were able to insert Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David, not bad if you have them.

Adams made an influential run down the right but bodychecked Mark-Anthony Kaye away from the play just as Aaronson hit a perfect pass to set up Robinson. A scoring chance turned into a yellow card.