Mathematically, this means that four World Cup spots are up in the air. Plus, Berhalter still has to lock in a potential starting XI at the World Cup.
That makes this September window so important for the USMNT. There are players that are yet to lock up a starting role, much less a spot on the plane to Qatar. Supporters of the side understand that the striker position is perhaps the one with the biggest question mark. While the United States has relative security and depth on either wing and in the midfield, no striker put forth a consistent and promising effort with the national side.
Instead, it comes in spurts. Ricardo Pepi thrived upon his debut with the USMNT during World Cup Qualifying. Former FC Dallas teammate Jesús Ferreira scored a couple of times in the same qualification process. Then, there are players on scintillating club form, looking to carry that over into the stars and stripes.
Of course, while the striker position gets the headlines, it is not the only blank spot on the USMNT squad. Questions over defense, largely as a result of injury, linger. Similarly, concerns exist over goalkeeping, with the leading candidates for the position not playing at a top level, or playing behind starters.
5 USMNT players who have most to prove
With certain changes to the lineup coming just days before the first game, Gregg Berhalter lost two players from the original squad. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards, both at the center back role, withdrew due to injury. Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown step in at the same positions.
1. Malik Tillman
Malik Tillman, who plays his club soccer at Rangers, is one of the more promising midfielders in the USMNT system. At just 20, the attacking midfielder rose through the youth system of Bayern Munich, making his first team debut last season in the DFB-Pokal. Plus, he made a substitute appearance against Barcelona in the Champions League.
Tillman takes a back seat to players like Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams and Luca de la Torre. The one thing Tillman has going for him is potential. However, Gregg Berhalter has ambitions at this World Cup, not just the future.
When the manager went to watch Rangers play in Old Firm, he was not overly pleased with the midfielder.
“He’s done well, but he needs to do better,” Berhalter said when addressing the media on Monday. “I’m disappointed with his last couple performances against Ajax and Celtic, but he’s got a ton of quality. He can help this group, but he needs to pick it up a little. He’s a guy the coaching staff is highly impressed with, and we think he has a huge ceiling.”
That shows the importance of the next two games. If Tillman can get the minutes and make the most of them, there is reason Berhalter should bring him to Qatar. The experience can help in the player’s long-term development, but he can also provide in the now. The major challenge is getting past the already-solidified likes of Musah, Adams and McKennie, all of whom are part of the September squad.
2. Matt Turner
Matt Turner leads the way in terms of the goalkeeping ladder for the United States. Previously, that title belonged to Zack Steffen. However, a combination of a dip in form and injuries did the Middlesbrough goalkeeper no favors.
Part of the reason for that dip in form came because he did not play regular minutes with Manchester City. Steffen served as backup to Ederson, much in the same way as Matt Turner to Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal. Matt Turner has just one appearance for the Gunners in this young season, coming in a 2-1 win against FC Zürich in the Europa League.
The reason Turner is one of the USMNT players looking to prove something in the September window is because his challengers for the spot get regular minutes. Ethan Horvath is the starter for Luton Town in the Championship. He has 10 starts in Luton Town’s first 11 games of the league season.
Plus, Horvath rivaled Turner in international play. The duo split starts in June during the CONCACAF Nations League. Turner held a clean sheet against a lowly Grenada side. Then, four days later, Ethan Horvath allowed a goal on the road to El Salvador as the USMNT only mustered a draw.
For Turner, these two games are a chance to not only get more minutes with the national team. With good performances against World-Cup-bound sides, he can solidify his spot between the sticks. Shaky play could call form into question, which is always a concern for coaches prior to the World Cup.
3. Ricardo Pepi
As stated, the striker position is a point of contention. Many USMNT fans wanted to see Jordan Pefok called up to the September international window. His play with Union Berlin helps the club up to the top of the Bundesliga table.
In any case, the two strikers Gregg Berhalter selected to battle it out against Japan and Saudi Arabia are Ricardo Pepi and Josh Sargent. Certainly, the other names in the hat are Jordan Morris or Jesús Ferreira. However, Ferreira appears to have the first-team experience to catch the eye of Gregg Berhalter. In terms of Morris, it may be too little too late for the Seattle Sounders forward to make the trip to Qatar. Yet, nothing is out of the question regarding this position on the field.
Pepi burst onto the scene with the United States. Early goals in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying had supporters salivating over the potential of him scoring goals on the biggest stage. However, that blistering start tapered off. A transfer to Augsburg perhaps brightened the spotlight too much for the teenager. No goals or assists in 16 appearances had the Bundesliga side ship him off to Gronigen in the Eredivisie. However, he hopes a good start to his time in the Netherlands can translate to the international side. He has a goal and an assist in just two games played.
— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) September 20, 2022
4. Josh Sargent
Josh Sargent is the other name at the top to keep an eye on. Like Pepi, a move to a top side in Europe strained the young forward. Last season, Norwich City acquired Sargent from Werder Bremen. Despite playing regular minutes with the Canaries and playing in 29 total games, Sargent only scored four goals. He also added three assists. As Norwich suffered relegation, Sargent picked up the pace against the relatively weaker opposition. In 10 games in the Championship, Sargent already has six goals, good enough for second in the Championship scoring chart entering the international break.
Josh Sargent did not feature for the United States during World Cup qualifying, which makes his outlook on the eventual tournament perhaps more limited. Yet, if he can continue his club form, and manage to impress Gregg Berhalter during the USMNT September window, he could be a dangerous option up top.
Introducing your #NCFC Player of the Month for August… 🥁
— Norwich City FC (@NorwichCityFC) September 2, 2022
5. Sam Vines
Antonee Robinson will be the starter for the United States at left back when the World Cup rolls around, if he is healthy. ‘Jedi’ Robinson started 11 out of 14 games in the octagonal, playing a key role defensively. Plus, he is a starter in the Premier League, and actually fared well against Mohamed Salah, one of the best right wingers in the world, let alone the Premier League.
So, Sam Vines, barring an injury to Robinson or a simply miraculous run of form, is an option to be Robinson’s back up. Vines is 23 and plays for Royal Antwerp. There, he is a regular starter in the Belgian top flight. Last season, an injury to his collarbone stunted his season, and his availability with the national team.
However, when playing for the USMNT, he looks decent. His strength of competition is the biggest drawback. Even then, he did manage to score as a defender in the Gold Cup against Haiti, the only goal of the group stage game.
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