Right off the bat, I will admit the title of this column is misleading. That’s not because it’s not aimed at US men’s national team obsessives – it is, and if you’re reading this, you are – but because it’s not really about what to focus on for this whole season. Rather, the focus is on a much narrower band of about the next 12 weeks, between now and when Gregg Berhalter names the USMNT’s (likely) 26-man roster for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
After that tournament, well, the focus will shift pretty dramatically. And we will assuredly all cross that bridge when we come to it.
For now, though, let’s get locked in on the job at hand. Here’s what we should all be watching between now and November:
This is far and away the most important issue, and one that has become so common for the US that it barely even sparks conversation anymore when someone in the projected XI goes down with one sort of knock or another.
Oh, Weston McKennie just separated his shoulder? It happens. Antonee Robinson playing through pain and maybe constantly on the verge of surgery? Makes sense. Matt Turner got freaking frostbite??? Ok no, that one was made up. But he did miss time with a still weirdly opaque foot injury this winter.
The story of qualifying was, in a lot of ways, one in which the US weren’t able to build any game-to-game rhythm, let alone window-to-window. That spate of injuries to write-them-in-pen starters was the proximate cause.
- McKennie and Christian Pulisic started just seven games each.
- Sergino Dest started six.
- Gio Reyna started once.
That’s not even mentioning the injuries that sidelined or slowed guys like Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon, Zack Steffen, Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola and any number of others. Do you remember that in the most important game of the Ocho, Berhalter had to go all the way down to his fourth-string right back? I’ve been watching World Cup qualifying in Concacaf for 35 years and I can never, ever remember a US coach having to dig like that. I’m not sure I can remember any coach of any country in this region having to dig like that.
Now, there is a flip side. In this instance, it’s that the US got lucky with the health of Jedi and Tyler Adams – arguably the two most irreplaceable players in the pool. Jedi started 11 of 14 qualifiers, and appeared in 13, while Adams also appeared in 13, with 12 starts. The two-way stability and dynamism those guys provided while surrounded by the walking wounded was not just necessary; it was essential.
Just look at what happened to the central defense:
- Aaron Long regularly wore the captain’s armband up until May of last year, when he popped his Achilles’ and subsequently missed all but 35 minutes of qualifying.
- That opened the door for Miles Robinson, who was excellent… right up until he popped his Achilles’ this spring.
- Vying with Robinson for playing time was Chris Richards, who at one point started four of five qualifiers… then broke his foot, and didn’t make another appearance in qualifying.
- The injuries opened a spot for Walker Zimmerman, who himself was coming off an injury sustained on US duty in last summer’s Gold Cup.
It was just an avalanche, one the US were lucky to survive. I am so glad we’re through with qualifying.
And here is the good news: with the exception of McKennie’s recently injured shoulder (reports are that it’ll sideline him for three weeks) and Miles Robinson’s Achilles’ (we’ll see him in 2023), the entire player pool seems to be healthy. We’re even getting Reyna preseason comps:
It is incredibly, INCREDIBLY good to see Gio Reyna playing soccer again, but I will not let myself get used to it.
Still, if it stays this way through November, then the US stands a damn good chance of playing the type of intricate, cohesive ball we saw in both qualifiers against Mexico and in the dominant, clinching home win over Panama.
If not, well, you remember what the rest of qualifying was like. So no matter who you’re watching, pray for their hamstrings.
An upshot from all of the above was the rise of Zimmerman, who’s now the only written-in-pen starter in central defense.
A few strong months from Richards, who just moved to Crystal Palace from Bayern Munich for a reported fee of around $15 million, could change that. Richards was arguably on the way to making his case for the job ahead of Miles Robinson last year, as he started four of five qualifiers from the end of the second window to the middle of the fourth – which is when he suffered the injury that ruled him out for the rest of the Ocho.
Zimmerman and Richards started two of those games together, so they have at least some understanding, and Richards’ ability in distribution puts his ceiling higher than Long or Cameron Carter-Vickers (CCV is no sure thing for the roster, but I do expect him to be on the plane come November ahead of Erik Palmer-Brown, who I’ve got lower on the depth chart).
That is, of course, if he plays. Palace already have two high-quality starting CBs in Marc Guehi and Joachim Andersen, and while there are rumors that Guehi is wanted by Tottenham, nothing appears to be imminent. So chances are that Richards will have to fight for time.
If he loses that fight and doesn’t manage to become a regular right away, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be starting alongside Zimmerman in November.
For what it’s worth, if it’s not Richards then the smart money is on Long. Truth be told, it might be on Long anyway.
Even when Zack Steffen wasn’t playing for Manchester City, or when he was playing and making catastrophic errors, if he was healthy then he was Berhalter’s first choice for the US. Thus, with Steffen moving to Middlesbrough on loan and presumably sharpening up with regular playing time in the Championship, it seems a pretty good bet that he’ll retain the No. 1 kit for the US over Matt Turner.
Of course, this summer Turner got the same kind of move that Steffen got three years ago, except to Arsenal instead of Man City. Turner’s now most likely a back-up in the months and years to come, which means he will be not playing at as high a level as Steffen was not playing the past couple of years, which apparently is a very good thing. Berhalter was reportedly “a big booster of the move, telling Turner in January he thought it was a good step for his career and that it would challenge him in the ways he needed to be challenged,” as related by Sam Stejskal of The Athletic.
Will it matter? When Turner was playing and Steffen wasn’t, it didn’t. Now that it’s likely to be the opposite – Steffen started this past weekend, and there’s little chance Turner will be in the XI for the Gunners when the EPL season kicks off – it seems like that’ll only solidify Berhalter’s depth chart no matter how big a booster he is of Turner’s transfer.
My guess is there are only two things that could change the above. One is for Turner to beat out Aaron Ramsdale for the starting job in North London. The other is for Steffen to play himself out of the starting job in Middlesbrough:
I wouldn’t be shocked if that happened. Hopefully it doesn’t – hopefully weekly playing time gets Steffen up to the level his talent suggests is possible, and gets the types of massive errors that characterized his qualifying campaign for the US and City’s past two FA Cup exits out of his system.
But if it doesn’t, then Berhalter could find himself choosing between a couple of backups for the biggest games of his coaching career. I simply do not think that’s ideal.
Berhalter was a striker whisperer as the Columbus Crew’s head coach, getting consistency and career years out of Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara and Gyasi Zardes – all true No. 9s. And yet with the national team, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike or Haji Wright have all looked somewhat to completely lost, to the point that it kind of feels like Berhalter’s already closed the book on them.
I think that book is still open on young Ricardo Pepi, though it’s now coming up on a full calendar year since he’s scored for club or country. It is hard to imagine him working his way back into the picture if he’s not putting the ball into the back of the net.
Meanwhile the guy who was supposed to be this cycle’s starting No. 9, Josh Sargent, is now a low-usage defensive winger for Norwich City in the Championship. He has scored in three of his past 48 appearances across all competitions for club and country.
What I’m saying is that for reasons involving either fitness or form, my hopes are not particularly high with this group. But if any of them start banging in goals with their current clubs – and I’ll say that’s especially true of Pefok (Union Berlin) and Pepi (Augsburg) in the Bundesliga – they should be brought into September camp.
Jedi had a superhuman workload for the US in qualifying. In part it’s because he’s wired that way – he’s a prototypical overlapping fullback who’s at his best when going endline to endline – and in part it’s because that’s what the system tends to demand of the left back.
And that’s a little bit scary because there is no reliable like-for-like replacement for Robinson. Sam Vines and George Bello are both supposed to be that, but Vines wasn’t up for it physically in his Gold Cup appearances (he played scared) and then didn’t play a minute during qualifying, while Bello just seems to struggle with the speed of games at the professional level.
This season is off to a better start for Vines, who has started both Belgian league games for Royal Antwerp thus far, and registered an assist. Bello has had a rougher beginning in the 2. Bundesliga as Arminia Bielefeld have dropped their first two league games. He’s started just once in three games across all competitions.
The Europe-based wildcard here is young Kevin Paredes. He barely got off the bench for Wolfsburg after he moved in January, and during this preseason he’s played winger, wingback and central midfielder – never technically lining up at fullback. And even last December with the US in that weird camp ahead of the Bosnia friendly, he was used mostly on the wing rather than at fullback.
But he was superb as a full-time wingback last year for D.C. United and I think he’s got the highest upside of anyone even potentially in the discussion as Jedi’s back-up. He has the skill to go with his endline-to-endline speed and stamina, and is an animal in 1v1 duels.
If Paredes gets on the field in a wingback role, that might be enough for him to jump to the top of this list. But, of course, he didn’t feature at all in Wolfsburg’s DfB Pokal opener, so I might’ve just wasted your life for three paragraphs.
The other Europe-based player worth mentioning is Joe Scally. He had an unexpectedly fast start to his Bundesliga career last year at Borussia Mönchengladbach – playing primarily as an inverted left wingback – but faded into a bit role by the winter and looked out of his depth when he debuted with the US this spring. That, and the fact he’s right-footed, would seem to make him a longshot for the back-up job.
Will Richards crack the regular rotation for Palace?
What the hell is going on at Chelsea, and how will it affect Pulisic’s role and minutes?
Does Turner have a shot at playing more than just FA Cup/Carabao Cup minutes?
How will Aaronson and Adams adjust at Leeds United? (Thus far, for what it’s worth, Leeds fans love Aaronson and, uh, do not love Adams.)
Will Jedi spend every game on the back foot with newly promoted Fulham? How much will Tim Ream play, and could it be enough to sneak back into the mix as a back-up CB?
Musah has finally been playing in central midfield for Valencia this preseason. Hopefully that means he can shake the defensive issues – his mind wanders – that have occasionally hamstrung him for the US, and kept him on the wing for his club:
If his defensive awareness improves, he’s going to be unreal.
Dest is, depending upon who you listen to, either on his way out of Barcelona as a cost-cutting measure or a crucial part of the next decade. I tend to think it’s the latter – Dest played the best ball of his life this winter under Xavi after seeming to have a come-to-Jesus moment, and just has the right kind of game for what Barca have tried to be for the past half-century.
Luca de la Torre, meanwhile, isn’t expected to play a huge role with his new side, Celta de Vigo. But as long as he plays a little bit, that’ll be fine.
There are also rumors that Konrad de la Fuente is on his way to LaLiga with Valladolid, while Matthew Hoppe is on his way out of Mallorca. No matter the outcome of those potential moves, I don’t think either will factor into Berhalter’s decision-making.
• I didn’t even mention Tim Weah, who was probably the US’s attacking MVP during qualifying. The short version is I think it’s fine he’s spending another year at Lille in Ligue 1 – I actually prefer that to the uncertainty of jumping to a new club with an undefined role.
• Reggie Cannon spent most of last year with Boavista as a RCB in a back five, which gives him a level of versatility the other back-up RB options (Scally, DeAndre Yedlin and Shaq Moore) don’t really have.
• I don’t think either Mark McKenzie (not playing at all for Genk) or James Sands (in the regular CB rotation for Rangers) really factor into Berhalter’s thinking with regard to a potential Zimmerman partner. Like Cannon, Sands has a chance to sneak onto the roster because of his versatility as a fifth CB/third RB, and can also throw third d-mid into the mix for fun.
• Between Sands and young attacker Malik Tillman, Rangers are worth tuning in for on the regular. I’m not sure I see it yet with Tillman – there’s a casualness and lack of intensity to his approach that screams “still a youth player!!!” – but he’s got great feet and good athleticism, and if it all clicks into place, he can be a factor.
• Gianluca Busio played himself into and out of Berhalter’s midfield plans, and hopefully a year in Serie B will be good for him. Same with Tanner Tessmann. Hoping for 30 starts each from those guys with Venezia.
• Ethan Horvath is finally starting somewhere – on loan at Luton Town in the Championship – which makes him a coinflip with NYCFC’s Sean Johnson for the third GK spot, I’d imagine. Though it’s hard to ignore how good Johnson was back in June vs. how poor Horvath was. And Gaga Slonina might be a factor here as well.
• I’m hoping for big things from both Richy Ledezma (PSV) and Taylor Booth (Utrecht) in the Eredivisie this year, but I can’t picture a realistic way for them to get into the mix.
• I do not think John Brooks is going to be on the plane no matter where he lands, though it’s notable that he’s still clubless.