The surprise meter certainly didn’t rise to “Landon Donovan in 2014 level” as the latest United States World Cup roster dropped, but USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter certainly gave media and supporters plenty of meat to chew on as the official 26-man squad was officially named.

Discussions will certainly drag on over a few selections, particularly at goalkeeper and striker, and over Berhalter’s sudden infatuation with right backs, all reducing the U.S. national team boss to something of a slow moving target for critics should his young band of U.S. brothers fail to emerge from a fairly forgivable group in Qatar. On the other hand, most of the drama (and therefore the fan consternation) was the province of the tail end of his 26-men selection.

Surprises in USMNT squad selection

Ricardo Pepi’s omission is the big talker, as much for his ostensible replacement as much as for his absence. Rather than a place for the FC Dallas academy product, who never got going at Germany’s Augsburg but made big noise lately with prolific scoring on loan to Dutch soccer’s Groningen, there was room on the roster for Haji Wright. Yes, the same Haji Wright who barely seemed in the conversation lately. Consider that Wright wasn’t even among eight forwards named for those recent friendlies.

So that’s as close as we’ll come this go-round to Jürgen Klinsmann’s notorious Donovan drop, when the fickle U.S. boss threw us all in a tizzy by excusing one of the country’s top attackers from duty ahead of World Cup 2014.

Other than Pepi, the only choice Wednesday that merits more than garden variety incredulity, the stuff that’s typically reserved for fans who haven’t been paying much attention or can’t see the big picture, is the Zack Steffen omission.

That one did raise eyebrows from everyone who watched Steffen play so regularly under Berhalter over the last three years. It must also have been a disappointment for those certain that Berhalter “had his favorites” — whatever that means — and would doggedly stick with them. The U.S. manager clearly took note that Steffen’s performances on loan at Middlesbrough of England’s second-tier Championship have been a mixed bag.

So now we all hold our breath while hoping Arsenal shot-stopper Matt Turner can overcome a recent injury setback. 

USA’s search for a proven striker continues

Back to the Pepi omission, Wednesday’s serious head-scratcher. If the goals come pouring in against Wales, England and Iran, well, Berhalter will be off the hook on this one. That seems unlikely — especially as the team failed to find the net even once in recent tune-ups against Japan and Saudi Arabia. And considering how top American threats Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Timothy Weah haven’t always been in the best places lately in terms of form, injury or general ability to talk their managers into playing time, choice of strikers was always going to be a touchy and important subject.

Jesus Ferreira has settled in as the manager’s go-to No. 9 recently. Although his MLS hit rate slowed considerably through late summer, the FC Dallas 18-goal scorer’s selection never seemed in doubt. Josh Sargent might be listed under “mild surprise,” although his fast start this season at Norwich City, coupled with his physical presence and ability on set pieces, surely had the Sargent backers feeling better about things lately.

But Berhalter’s choice for a third striker is more difficult to explain. He did his best in comments Wednesday evening, remarking simply on the cruel vagaries of timing and form. If the World Cup roster had been selected two months ago, he said, Jordan Pefok would likely be headed to Qatar.

The Haji Wright surprise

So rather than Pepi or Pefok or even Brandon Vazquez, whose skill set may be slightly limited but who would have been brilliant as a designated “banger” in late-game moments of desperation goal chasing, the spot went to Wright. Yes, the same Wright who seemed to be out of favor back in June, called out singularly by Berhalter for squandering a chance in a muddy 1-1 qualifier draw in El Salvador.

Wright’s 6-foot-3 frame might be imposing, but he’s not the absolute bulldog near goal that Vazquez was in his brilliant year for FC Cincinnati. Now, if Berhalter needs to reach deep enough into his choices of forwards, which seems quite possible given Reyna’s propensity for injury and Pulisic’s in-and-out form for club and country, he’ll be pinning a lot of his ongoing job security on Wright.

Elsewhere, Wednesday’s reveal was less dramatic. Unless that is your name is Paul Arriola, another frequent Berhalter ride-or-die who got left behind. Or Boavista’s Reggie Cannon, who lost his reserve right back spot to Nashville SC’s Shaq Moore. Or Rangers midfielder Malik Tillman, who still seemed to have an outside shot.

There will be those who cite Gaga Slonina’s absence as a mistake. And they’ll be wrong. Slonina’s ceiling looks remarkable, which is why the 18-year-old goalkeeper is currently on loan at Chelsea. But most World Cup bosses aren’t on board with the “take him for experience” strategy. If one ‘keeper gets hurt or has to serve a red card suspension, that would leave the U.S. precariously close to guarding goal with a guy who made his share of mistakes last season at Chicago.

Questions remain in defense

We still don’t know who will partner Walker Zimmerman in central defense, but at least we know Berhalter’s final choices, underwhelming as they are. It’s most likely New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long, although getting posterized by Vazquez (who, remember, didn’t make the U.S. squad) for a game-winner in recent MLS playoff action stands as a disconcerting moment.

Chris Richards (Crystal Palace) or Miles Robinson (Atlanta United) would have had the inside track on that starting assignment, but injuries took them out of the roster equation. So it’s dealer’s choice now in a concerning center back situation. And that’s a central defense now protecting a U.S. goalkeeping situation that hasn’t been this unsettled going into a World Cup in … well, in ever really. 

The tactical wonks will point out Ream’s imperfect fit if Berhalter chooses to play a high line in defense and press aggressively in front of them, which has always been the U.S. plan in this current regime, sometimes working and sometimes not so much. Ream was never blessed with blazing speed, and now he’s 35. But his splendid play lately at a surprisingly resilient Fulham was something of a lifeline for Berhalter, who would have been starved for better choices otherwise. (That lack of choice may help explain the coach’s selection of four (!) potential right backs.) And something else that doesn’t hurt: Ream’s experience against plenty of attackers the United States will see against Wales and England.

The balance in midfield

No surprises in midfield, with Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah looking quite likely to form the triangle when the United States lines up against Wales on Nov. 21. Only Cristian Roldan’s name may have rang a soft bell of surprise. He’s been a roster regular under Berhalter, although a rare starter. Maybe he gets on the field in Qatar, maybe not. But when rosters were expanded to 26 players (formerly 23) for 2022, taking a “locker room” guy became a luxury that was easier to justify.

Sounders teammate Jordan Morris, who can provide a tactical “something different” with his speed and his direct-to-goal style from wide starting points, was likely another beneficiary of the expanded roster.

The list isn’t final. That happens with official submission to FIFA no later than November 14. Even then, injured players may be replaced on the roster up to 24 hours before the U.S. opener against Wales.

GOALKEEPERS: Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson, Matt Turner

DEFENDERS: Cameron Carter-Vickers, Sergiño Dest, Aaron Long, Shaq Moore, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman

MIDFIELDERS: Brenden Aaronson, Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan

FORWARDS: Jesús Ferreira, Jordan Morris, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Haji Wright

Photo credit: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final