The USMNT list remains unclear to Gregg Berhalter
This weekend he will be personally observing players in Scotland, Spain and Portugal.
In less than two weeks he will create a squad for the last two tests before the tournament.
In 10 weeks he will submit his 26-man list to FIFA.
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Never before has a US coach been blessed with such a rich cast of candidates to perform on the great stages of Europe. He also has an experienced MLS squad.
Berhalter said he narrowed the pool down to 38-40 players. What remains unsaid is, barring injuries (and it’s almost certain there will be), most World Cup spots are filled.
Final auditions will continue to take place every weekend across 10 time zones, capping a practice that 88 players have attended in Berhalter’s 54 games, including 56 national team debuts.
Berhalter’s work goes beyond performance assessment. He has core players like Christian Pulisic who don’t play regularly at their respective clubs. He has the most troubled goalkeeping situation of any modern US World Cup team.
There are also pleasant problems. His strikers, still the weak link in the program in early summer, are in top form at the same time.
“We’re not going to take five forwards, so there will be a couple of disappointed guys,” Berhalter said. “And that’s a shame because you want the players to do everything they can. And when they do everything they can and still don’t make the team, it’s not nice. It’s just not a nice thing and I have to tell them that and I feel bad.”
The forwards are a good starting point to analyze Berhalter’s options because without goals – or at least a strong presence in the centre-forward – the Americans will find it difficult to advance to the knockout stages.
Less than a month into the European campaigns, Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin) and Haji Wright (Antalyaspor, Turkey) are in hot demand. Josh Sargent (Norwich City, England) has reignited his career after a lost year with club and country.
Dallas FC’s Jesús Ferreira, who led the way in the World Cup opener against Wales, is the second-highest-scoring American in MLS with 15 goals.
First is FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, 23, who has 16 goals but no senior-level experience beyond MLS. Up until this season he was arguably unworthy of a call-up. Now he rises.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Berhalter said. The lack of an international past “makes it more difficult. But that doesn’t make it impossible. That’s the most important.”
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Berhalter said he has not yet decided whether to include Vazquez in the squad for the friendlies against Japan on September 23 in Dusseldorf, Germany and against Saudi Arabia on September 27 in Murcia, Spain.
The other wild card is Ricardo Pepi, 19, whose brilliant start with the national team fell during a miserable season at German club Augsburg last autumn. Pepi needed a fresh start and was loaned out to Groningen in the Netherlands this week.
Pepi was one of several US players looking for a new home before the transfer window closes this week.
The biggest move was made by right-back Sergiño Dest, who was loaned to AC Milan from FC Barcelona, where he was not expected to play much under manager Xavi Hernandez. Without regular playing time leading to a world championship, even the most valuable players are at risk of falling down the depth chart.
Well, maybe not Pulisic, an exceptional talent and an important piece of the US puzzle. Since Pulisic is on the bench under coach Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, the form of the national team has to suffer. Speculations that he would join Manchester United or Newcastle fizzled out.
Even with Pulisic staying at Chelsea, Berhalter’s confidence in him hasn’t wavered and he’s confident the attacker will find his way back into Tuchel’s favour.
“I’m a guy who backs Christian just because I’ve seen it before,” he said. “He’s not counted on [at Chelsea] in a way he wants, and [yet] He comes on the field and proves everyone wrong, and he ends up playing. I tend to think that’s going to happen and I think he’s in a good place and he’s going to fight for it because that’s the kind of guy he is.
Berhalter has no such concerns for his Leeds United duo of winger Brenden Aaronson and midfielder Tyler Adams. Or with Fulham left-back Antonee Robinson and Valencia striker Yunus Musah.
On Sunday he will see Musah play in person after watching defender and midfielder James Sands and forward Malik Tillman line up for Rangers in the Glasgow derby against Celtic, which employs US centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Berhalter’s last stop is in Portugal on Monday for Reggie Cannon, a US squad contender at right-back.
From afar he will continue to watch the four goalkeepers fighting for three World Cup spots: Zack Steffen, who is sidelined with England’s Middlesbrough; Matt Turner, an Arsenal backup; Ethan Horvath, the starter in Luton Town, England; and New York City FC starter Sean Johnson.
The case of starting at the World Cup remains wide open.
“We have time to evaluate that,” said Berhalter. “If you asked me today, is it a problem? We’re thinking about it, but there’s still time and we’ll have to see.”
On the difficult personnel decisions ahead of him, Berhalter addresses France, who won the 2018 World Cup without striker Karim Benzema – who was voted Europe’s best player 2021/22 last week – and Brazil, who are trailing world-class players.
“It doesn’t mean we’re at that level,” said Berhalter, “but it does mean that sometimes good players are left out of the squad. … That we’re at this point is pretty crazy.”
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