After failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2017, the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) faced a reality check. The first goal, and the only goal in the wake of that game against Trinidad & Tobago, was to get back to the World Cup.
Prior to Russia 2018, the U.S. qualified for every World Cup from 1990 to 2014. While never doing better than the quarterfinals in 2002, the Stars and Stripes were a quiet contender to escape the group stage.
After the hiatus, the U.S. returns to the World Cup, this time in Qatar. Now, the Americans carry the most exciting crop of young talent in the history of the nation. A mix of players from prominent European clubs as well as home-grown talents in MLS make up a roster that offers a lot of potential.
A Gold Cup and CONCACAF Nations League trophy brought U.S. soccer some much-needed hardware on the men’s side of the sport. Then, despite a 2-0 loss against Costa Rica, the U.S. punched its ticket to Qatar.
With potential comes great responsibility
On paper, 2021 and 2022 treated the USMNT quite kindly. A FIFA World Ranking place of No. 15 is fine, somewhat disappointing considering the U.S. reached as high as No. 11 in 2021. However, those do not matter too greatly in the bigger picture.
What will matter, however, is the roster. USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter coped with injuries to his players and different runs of form in qualifying for the World Cup. Not all of these players will be on form come November, and it is wishful to think they will all be at maximum fitness with the World Cup coming in the middle of the club calendar in Europe.
Still, Berhalter has holes to plug when it comes to developing this side and picking the best roster to bring to the FIFA World Cup.
The USMNT World Cup issues
The U.S. does not have the same glaring issues it faced in 2017. This is not an aging roster relying on past glory. Nor are these players not getting exposure to playing some of the world’s best players. In fact, Gregg Berhalter notes that this U.S. squad is one of the youngest in the world.
For example, the starting XI against Costa Rica had an average age of just under 24. Plus, that did not include a 21-year-old Brenden Aaronson or Sergiño Dest or the 23-year-old Weston McKennie. These are main factors in the U.S. lineup, which contributes to the depth factor the USMNT provides.
Even then, Berhalter noted following the side’s qualification that he and his staff have areas to solidify over the next eight months.
A No. 9
One of the biggest problem areas for the last handful of years is that of an out-and-out forward. Someone to capitalize on the creativity of Pulisic, McKennie, Weah and Aaronson.
The U.S. has options there. Josh Sargent, who now plays for Norwich City, is one. Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes are two of the more-experienced players in the position. Then, other contributions come from Jordan Pefok or Jesús Ferreira. Finally, Ricardo Pepi started three of the final four qualifying games up top for Gregg Berhalter. The 19-year-old burst on to the stage, leading to a transfer to Augsburg in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately, since then, the FC Dallas product has lost some of his scoring touch.
This speaks to the streakiness of strikers when it comes to form. No one would deny the talents of Ricardo Pepi. He showed what he can do after bagging the winner in his debut with the senior squad before a brace in the following game against Jamaica.
Berhalter will hope that Pepi, as well as his positional counterparts, can develop form over the next eight months. Berhalter added in his press conference that his eventual team selection takes into account form at the club level leading up to November.
The bottom line, though, is that the United States lacks a proven striker who can score on a consistent basis.
Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson earned their spots as lockdown center backs in Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT. The two MLS players were not perfect, but they were consistent enough to prevent an overwhelming number of goals throughout qualifying.
The duo allowed three goals in the six qualifying games they started together. Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie and John Brooks also filled in throughout qualifying.
Gregg Berhalter did mention that he wants to see depth develop out of the left back position. Antonee Robinson emerged as the best left back available for Gregg Berhalter. He started 11 of 14 games and appeared as a substitute in two more. However, Berhalter does not want to develop an over-reliance on the 24-year-old playing for Fulham.
George Bello, Shaq Moore and James Sands are all potential names to fill in for Robinson in case he picks up an injury or loses some of his form.
Having depth for the World Cup is more precautionary than anything. Chris Richards and Mark McKenzie are fine options, as is John Brooks, to back up Zimmerman and Miles Robinson. Still, some experience should be afforded to those that can play behind Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin and Antonee Robinson.
We have to remember that the opponents the USMNT will face in the World Cup will be of better quality than what we experienced in Concacaf. Defense needs to step up between now and Qatar 2022. That includes eradicating a lot of the slips in concentration across the defensive line.
Injuries to the shot stopper position became a theme for the U.S. in 2021. For instance, three different goalkeepers had major roles in the three games against Mexico in 2021. Matt Turner and Zack Steffen are likely the two most prominent options for Berhalter to choose. Of note, CBS Sports’ soccer analyst Charlie Davies says that Zack Steffen is Berhalter’s first choice goalkeeper.
That being said, while Steffen did man the sticks for most of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, he showed some areas for improvement. Perhaps it was miscommunication with his two center backs, but Steffen looked unsure on certain clearing attempts against Costa Rica and Panama over the last two matchdays.
In CONCACAF, few would deny that Keylor Navas from Costa Rica is the best goalkeeper in the region. Costa Rica’s expected goals against throughout qualifying was 18. However, he singlehandedly prevented five goals. Meanwhile, Zack Steffen had a negative goals prevented statistic, showing that he could have done better based on the chances he faced.
Steffen is fine. It is hard to argue the fact that he is among the U.S.’s best options. However, he may just need more game time to find form, which can be hard considering he backs up one of the world’s best goalies in Ederson at Manchester City.
Otherwise, Matt Turner or even Ethan Horvath have experience playing in major games for the United States. They would not be out of the question to feature in Qatar in eight months. Matt Turner’s upcoming transfer to Arsenal will likely make him a backup goalkeeper, though. Turner would be expected to make rare first-team appearances for the Gunners, mostly in League Cup action.
Overall, the United States has a considerable amount of room for improvement in key positions (striker and goalkeeper). While Berhalter will experiment throughout the year with different options, the USMNT coach is planning on scheduling friendlies against African and Asian opponents. If the United States plans on avoiding friendlies against South American and European opponents before this World Cup, the concern is that the squad may not face its next major obstacle until Qatar 2022.
Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images
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