The US men’s national team finally has its marching orders for the first of two World Cup prep camps leading up to the first kick against yet-to-be-determined opponents in Qatar on November 21. Now the question is who will be given the opportunity to make their case for the unclaimed World Cup tickets.
After qualifying after a non-historic loss in Costa Rica on March 30th, the US player pool can be divided into a few distinct categories. It will be difficult for manager Gregg Berhalter to narrow it down to 23 (or 26 if reports of potential squad expansion come into play) after fielding so many players (38) throughout qualifying.
For those called up to the friendly matches against Morocco (June 1st) and Uruguay (June 5th) and to the Concacaf Nations League group games against Grenada (June 10th) and El Salvador (June 14th), the categories can reduced to just two: those who need to prove it and those who are there to optimize it.
For those whose seats are secure — think core guys like Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams — they should seek more reps with each other beforehand Group B plays in Qatar. For those whose seats are less taken for granted, there isn’t much time to prove their allegiance. Just one more camp – in September, which is widely reported to be taking place in Europe (US Soccer even made that clear The games in June are the last games before the World Cup in the US) – players are left to show their worth for Berhalter and it’s not as if there’s been a plethora of consistent club excellence to review of late. The next month may be your last chance to make an impression.
A lot of time is spent figuring out who will be attending this two-week camp – and how long each player will be there. There is certainly a world where, due to club commitments or convalescence after long club seasons, for some players it makes little sense to join from the start. Conversely, it would not be surprising if some players left camp before camp was over, with a trip to El Salvador in June being particularly unattractive and stressful for those whose long club season has just ended.
There’s a lot to weigh up – a string of injuries didn’t help either – and the limited ability to assemble as a unit for the World Cup puts more emphasis on a pair of friendlies and a pair of friendlies than otherwise early Nations League games.
“The cycle is just beginning, it’s not over yet. That’s just the first step,” Berhalter said on the US Soccer podcast. “We talk about what we want to do as a team and qualifying was just the first step. From here, looking at this catwalk that this team is going to have, especially this group, I think they’re ready to do something special.”
Here’s what the next iteration of this group could look like in a month’s time, with a larger-than-normal gathering forecast given the potential for a rotating door in the couple of weeks:
Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest) Gabriel Slonina (Chicago Fire) Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
With Matt Turner finally returning to action this weekend after suffering a winter foot injury and knocking out Inter Miami in the process, the goaltender pool is the strongest it has been in three months. Steffen could be late if Man City advance to the Champions League final, which takes place on May 28, just days before the friendly in Morocco. Horvath, whose last minutes at club were in an FA Cup defeat by Liverpool on March 20, could find himself in a similar position should Nottingham Forest participate in England’s promotion play-offs on May 29 and have a chance to enter the Premier League . Forest are currently three points clear of automatic promotion, with a head-to-head game against Bournemouth on Tuesday could decide which team Fulham join in a bid to advance without needing the playoff route.
It all opens the door for 17-year-old Slonina, who has been officially courted by Poland. The latter’s manager visited the Chicago Fire goalkeeper in the United States and was reportedly able to extend an appeal for June’s UEFA Nations League games. This recruitment tug-of-war puts the ball in the USA’s court when Slonina really considers his options.
George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Bryan Reynolds (Kortrijk), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United) Joe Scally (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Sam Vines (Antwerp), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami) Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Sergiño Dest and Chris Richards are tied and unlikely to attend. That could open up a few extra minutes for a group that’s top heavy if not deep, with some intriguing options.
For Brooks, if he doesn’t get called up this summer, you can all but close the book on his World Cup hopes. Berhalter has claimed that Brooks’ exile with the national team since a poor qualifying window in September 2021 is only temporary and that his reintegration during high-intensity qualifying was not the right time to assess his progress. However, a low-pressure bearing like this would be. Given his experience, potential and what his inclusion would mean for those on the depth chart, he’s an absolute wild card at centre-back.
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In addition, there is the question of the depth of the full-back. If healthy, Dest and Antonee Robinson should be starters in Qatar, but then what? The question is particularly pressing at left-back, where relatively green Bello and Vines are next up, while Scally’s ability to play at both ends works in his favour. But for someone to stand out from the crowd, it takes a June call-up and a strong performance there to boot.
Depending on how big the Berhalters group wants to be, centre-back Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes) and right-back Shaq Moore (Tenerife) would appear next in line, although the latter could be involved in Spain’s promotion playoffs. Tenerife’s regular season ends on May 28 and they are currently in position to participate in the following four-team group.
Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) Gianluca Busio (Venice), Sebastian Lletget (New England Revolution), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Djordje Mihailović (CF Montreal), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), James Sands (Rangers)
McKennie’s fitness bears are watching the coming weeks, with Juventus claiming he could bounce back from his broken foot before the end of the Serie A season this month. If that happened, this unit would have the potential to reach full strength, which is no small feat given the US’s track record.
Squad intrigue would sit below the top flight, where it’s a matter of determining which veterans (Lletget, Roldan) still matter in the future, which younger players (de la Torre, Sands, Busio) can cement their places and which relative underdogs (Mihailović didn’t qualify but has been one of MLS’s most prolific creators for over a season) can break through.
Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys), Jeremy Ebobisse (San Jose Earthquakes), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Tim Weah (Lille), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
Let’s start with the injuries first. Gio Reyna’s hamstring is expected to keep him from that camp, while Josh Sargent’s renewed aggravation of an ankle injury just 14 minutes into his return this weekend could prevent the Norwich striker from getting his much-needed opportunity to get back into Berhalter’s favor. The prognosis doesn’t seem too bad for what it’s worth.
“It was a bit risky to play against him but we knew there would be consequences depending on our result and other results elsewhere. He’s only gotten worse [his ankle] easy, it won’t be that bad, but that was the reason why he left,” said Norwich coach Dean Smith after the result of the weekend when the Canary Islands secured relegation.
A fringe player can already be ruled out as Daryl Dike will not be part of the camp. The striker, who has struggled with injuries abroad for most of his time since joining West Brom from Orlando, will remain at his English club to cement his place and regain full fitness.
“I spoke to Gregg,” West Brom manager Steve Bruce, who once coached Berhalter, said last week. “They have been very, very reasonable and understand the situation.
“Daryl will not be taking part in the internationals. There’s another one in September so he’s focusing on that. It’s good for Daryl too, so it’s good to clear that up. He can focus on what we have in place to make sure he has a really good summer before he returns to preseason. We’ve waited so long so we need to make sure he’s right.”
That leaves the above group with Jordan Pefok in the best club form of the bunch, amid a four-goal streak. The question is how costly his dreadful failure against Mexico at the Azteca in March was in terms of his international standing. Had he converted (and likely given the US a historic qualifier win in Mexico City) he would likely be the front runner to capture the position. Now, despite a 22-goal season in Switzerland (27 goals in Champions League qualifiers and in the group stage), he’s still in the “Proof” category. A gold shoe in Switzerland will only get him so far.
Ebobisse’s five goals in MLS is second only to Jesús Ferreira (six) among US players in the league and he could be something of a wildcard amid the firmer figures in US attack. One of them, Pepi, could really benefit from a string of productive performances with the USA considering he has remained goalless since joining Augsburg from FC Dallas in the winter.
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