Wednesday, September 28, 2022

FIFA 2022 World Cup USMNT roster prediction 4.0: Chris Richards’ minutes will be key; Pepi still on bubble

With less than 100 days until the World Cup, time is running out for fringe players to prove their worth

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It’s crunch time for Gregg Berhalter and the United States men’s national team as fewer than 100 days remain until the World Cup in Qatar kicks off. With the September international window around the corner, Berhalter’s last chance to view his team before taking them to Qatar is almost here, so the squad will need to be settled soon. Teams will be able to take 26 players and use five substitutes per match. 

It’s a massive year for the red, white, and blue to prove their ability on a global scale after missing out on the 2018 edition. It has been a summer of movement for members of the national team headlined by Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams to Leeds United, Chris Richards to Crystal Palace, Luca De La Torre experiencing a new environment at Celta Vigo, and the keeper battle between Ethan Horvath and Zack Steffen heading to the Championship.

So how is that roster looking here with European seasons underway? Let’s take a look:

USMNT roster locks

When it comes to picking who will make the trip to Qatar, barring an injury or a situation where they’re no longer starters for their team — and for a few players even losing their starting spots at their clubs wouldn’t stop them from going to the World Cup — the players below will be on the trip:

  • Zack Steffen (Goalkeeper)

  • Sergino Dest (Defender)
  • Weston McKennie (Midfielder)
  • Christian Pulisic (Forward)
  • Gio Reyna (Forward)
  • Tyler Adams (Midfielder)
  • Antonee Robinson (Defender)
  • Matt Turner (Goalkeeper)
  • DeAndre Yedlin (Defender)
  • Kellyn Acosta (Midfielder)
  • Brenden Aaronson (Forward)
  • Yunus Musah (Midfielder)
  • Walker Zimmerman (Defender)
  • Tim Weah (Forward)

  • Jesus Ferreira (Forward)

Transfers see two players fall from being locks in Aaron Long and Luca De La Torre. Long is in an interesting place as he could be the starter in Qatar or lose his spot to Chris Richards if he’s able to secure consistent playing time with Crystal Palace. If Richards is the starter, Berhalter could opt to go with a versatile defender on the bench, but it’s something to keep an eye on. De La Torre had a move of his own to Celta Vigo, but it’s one that could negatively impact his playing time. He did not play in their league opener. With the other 15 members who are locked in, things are more or less the same outside of a few moves and injuries looming. 

While there are no new entries into the locks category, there are quite a few changes to some situations. Antonee Robinson is now in the Premier League with Fulham, and the team is looking good to kick off the campaign. Joining him in the Premier League are Aaronson, Adams and Matt Turner. Aaronson and Adams have taken well to Leeds United, while we’ll have to wait for Europa League and cup matches to see Turner in action. 

Steffen is now with Middlesbrough on loan but Horvath has also gone to Luton Town on loan as the battle for the number one shirt could go down to the wire. Steffen has had a rocky start, but with so many years of inconsistent playing time, he could find his footing before the World Cup to ensure that he keeps his spot in the lineup. Weston McKennie has a shoulder injury, but he has returned, and Gio Reyna is healthy but Dortmund are bringing him along slowly to ensure that he doesn’t pick up any further injuries.

Christian Pulisic doesn’t seem to be in Chelsea’s plan and has drawn interest from Newcastle United and Manchester United, but starting for Chelsea or not, the left wing is his with the national team. Hopefully, he isn’t in a situation where he isn’t playing ahead of the World Cup, but there isn’t a world where a healthy Pulisic doesn’t start for the national team. Sergino Dest is in a similar situation as he’s not in Xavi’s plans this season for Barcelona but will be the starting right back for the national team as long as his legs work. Not much has changed with the other locks, and that’s a good thing considering how many looming questions Berhalter has to answer between now and November. 

On the bubble

  • Luca De La Torre (Midfielder): After Heracles Almelo were relegated from the Eredivisie, De La Torre was free to move to a new club and he has landed in Spain with Celta Vigo. While it’s a good move for De La Torre’s long-term development, seeing how much playing time he gets will be important. An unused sub in his debut for the club, he’ll need to earn minutes beginning from the bench. If De La Torre isn’t playing consistently, his role as the fifth midfielder should be filled by someone who is.
  • Aaron Long (Defender): Long and the Red Bulls have taken a dip in form, but what impacts him the most is the move that has happened to Richards. Long’s situation says a lot about how close all the defenders in the pool are that it’s as likely that he starts in Qatar as it is that he doesn’t make the trip. I think that at minimum he’ll be a depth option, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Long left out, especially considering the playing time changes to some of the other defenders that we’ll be covering. 
  • Chris Richards (Defender): Richards finally has a home after moving to Crystal Palace. After making his debut to close out a draw versus Liverpool on Monday, Richards shows that he already has Patrick Vieira’s trust. The most interesting question for me is will Richards be a center back in a back three or a right back in a back four? Either situation is a good one for Berhalter as it would see one of his defenders with the highest ceiling starting regularly, providing him with more options and potential insurance for Dest.
  • Paul Arriola (Forward): Comfortable playing on the wing or in an advanced midfield position, Arriola is another glue guy who can help make a roster tick. His vision and work rate are important to have in the squad and his leadership skills and intangibles make him as close to being a lock for the final roster as he can be. Arriola’s work on the national stage isn’t pretty but it’s effective enough to keep him on this roster.
  • Ethan Horvath (Keeper): After being loaned to Luton Town, there’s a battle of the keepers in the Championship. Starting for the team,he has been average in net conceding four goals from an xG of 3.2. In four games for a team that has only scored one goal in the young Championship season, that’s all that you can ask for from Horvath as he’s doing what he can to stay in the conversation for the number one shirt. If Steffen performs well enough to keep his spot, Horvath could end up not heading to Qatar at all though.
  • Jordan Morris (Forward): Sometimes all it takes is a goal to move from the outside looking in and to a spot where you’re probably heading to the World Cup. Morris is one of the best guys on the roster for closing out matches with both his defensive work rate and ability to get into dangerous positions. Also fitting in with the locker room, unless another forward catches fire, he in a great spot. The Sounders haven’t had a great season but six goals and three assists from the wing is enough to keep Morris in the squad.
  • Ricardo Pepi (Forward): It’s time to be concerned about Pepi’s chances of going to the World Cup. The forwards behind him are performing and he didn’t even enter the pitch until the 75th minute of Augsburg’s opening week 4-0 loss to SC Freiburg in the Bundesliga. Pepi has a lot of work to do between now and November to restore the faith of his coaches, and he’s running out of time to do that. I still think that it would be a good idea for Augsburg to loan him out if they aren’t confident enough to start him, because at 19, minutes are what’s most important for Pepi’s development right now.
  • Joe Scally (Defender): It took a while for Scally to get into the picture but he’s here now and likely here to stay barring an injury. The only thing keeping Scally from being a lock is seeing him called into another national team camp and actually performing well. It felt like he tried too hard to make an impression over the summer but with the work that he has done in the Bundesliga, along with there not being an appropriate backup at left back, Scally should be on the trip.
  • Cristian Roldan (Midfielder): Dinged a little for the fact that recently some of his best performances for the Seattle Sounders have come on the wing, where the USMNT is overflowing with options and not in midfield, Roldan keeps up the trend of versatility, boosting the player’s case as he can play almost anywhere on the pitch.
  • Cameron Carter-Vickers (Defender): Now a permanent member of the Celtic squad, Carter-Vickers will be playing at the highest level of any of the center backs for the national team due to Celtic taking part in Champions League. A trusted member of the squad expected to start every game that he’s available for, Carter-Vickers will likely be heading to Qatar.
  • James Sands (Defender): It’s early, but Sands seems to have won a starting spot at Rangers, and it’s not just the fact that he’s playing but where. Sands has turned out as a center back, bringing his club role in line with his international one. Sands could also end up in Champions League as Rangers have one more leg to play versus PSV to determine who will make the group stage. With Sands playing on the left side of the defense for Rangers, a strong season could also see a situation where he starts at the World Cup, again underscoring just how close these center backs are after Zimmerman.

Roster projection 4.0

Goalkeepers (3): Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough), Matt Turner (Arsenal), Ethan Horvath (Luton Town).

Defenders (9): Sergino Dest (Barcelona), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), James Sands (Rangers).

Midfielders (6): Weston McKennie (Juventus), Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Kellyn Acosta (Los Angeles FC), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders).

Forwards (8): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Ricardo Pepi (FC Augsburg), Tim Weah (Lille), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders).

On the outside looking in

This is a fluid group. Anything from a transfer during the summer to a slight shift in playing time could vault them right into the picture for the World Cup squad. An interesting mix of players in MLS and abroad make up this group.

  • Sean Johnson (Goalkeeper): The loan moves for Steffen and Horvath likely end Johnson’s chances of making it to Qatar, but if one of the experienced three get injured before November, he’ll be the next man up due to keeping calm under pressure and being the best keeper with the ball at his feet of anyone in the pool.
  • Gabriel Slonina (Goalkeeper): His move to Chelsea is finally complete and Slonina has performed better for the Chicago Fire with the pressure now off. If Steffen is the starter, it makes sense for Slonina to be the third keeper for experience ahead of the 2026 World Cup. But if Steffen falters in the Championship, an experienced third like Horvath may go instead. Until further notice, 2026 is Slonina’s, but this winter is murky at best.
  • Haji Wright (Forward): Wright made a permanent move to Antalyaspor during the summer after scoring 14 goals and assisting two more in the Turkish top flight last season. He has picked up where he left off, already scoring once this season but has yet to bring that form to the national team. If he’s called up during the September international window, it will be critical for Wright to score from open play because any forward from the fringe group can make the trip over Pepi with just a few goals to their name.
  • Gianluca Busio (Midfielder): After Venezia’s relegation, Busio decided not to leave, instead signing a long-term contract with the club. It’s good to see as consistent playing time should be important to him as he grows as a midfielder that can dictate play. Playing in Serie B may keep Busio from going to Qatar, but it’s a good move for his overall growth as a player.
  • Erik Palmer-Brown (Defender): After a strong season with Troyes, Palmer-Brown is the biggest loser with Carter-Vickers being back on the scene. As both are fighting for one spot on the bench, whoever has the stronger start to the season will likely go to the World Cup. The advantage is to Carter-Vickers at the moment.
  • Brandon Vazquez (Forward): While Mexico could call Vazquez, he hasn’t heard from the federation while in the middle of a stellar season with FC Cincinnati. Vazquez and Ferreira are tied for second in scoring in MLS with 15 goals each, but they’re doing it in different ways. Vazquez is a more physical forward which is also why he has been monitored by Leeds United. Berhalter will hopefully get a look at him during the September window at which point it will be on Vazquez to impress.
  • Djordje Mihailovic (Midfielder): Picking up an injury at the worst time possible, I still feel like Mihailovic missed his chance at the World Cup during the summer. Berhalter has stated that Mihailovic is still in their plans, but it could be down to him and De La Torre despite Mihailovic’s strong form for CF Montreal this season. The point in Mihailovic’s favor is that De La Torre needs to earn playing time in Spain while he’s playing in MLS.
  • Malik Tillman (Midfielder): Tillman’s star is rising by the day. Not only is he now on loan with Rangers with the team having an option to purchase him permanently, but he also has two goals in all competitions for the club in the young season. Playing on the wings could hurt him with the national team as he’d be the fourth choice player on the right or the third choice on the left, but if he keeps scoring, he’ll be hard to keep home. Tillman has an additional dynamic of being able to take set plays and could provide lightning in a bottle off of the bench. 
  • Jordan Pefok (Forward): Now in Germany with Union Berlin, if Pefok can keep scoring, his league goals can no longer be discredited due to the strength of the other teams. Union Berlin will also be in Europa League this season, so Pefok will also be tested at the highest level to repeat the European success that he had at Young Boys. In a position full of questions, a proper goal scorer who is getting the job done can’t be left home in November.
  • John Tolkin (Defender): While the Red Bulls have struggled, Tolkin has been among the best left backs in MLS this season. Leading the league in interceptions while also winning close to 60% of his tackles, Tolkin has been solid defensively. He’s not as strong as Robinson going forward, but when all the backups are right backs, being a solid natural left back gets a few points in Tolkin’s favor.
  • Matthew Hoppe (Forward): Hoppe has yet to make his debut after moving to Middlesbrough yet, but he’ll have a better chance at playing time than he did in Spain with RCD Mallorca. Hoppe fits in with any forward who is playing, but he needs to show that he’s more like the forward that scored six goals in 22 appearances with Schalke instead of the one that only got five appearances last season. Having Steffen with him in the Championship should help with acclimating. 
  • Josh Sargent (Forward): With Teemu Pukki out of Norwich CIty’s clash with Huddersfield, Sargent finally got a start in a central position and showed why Dean Smith needs to play him centrally more. Scoring a goal and being involved in the Canaries’ second goal, Sargent was lively, but he needs consistent playing time. Can he get a proper run out and gain confidence in the Championship? If so, Qatar isn’t out of the question for him.

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