Weston McKennie back from USMNT suspension, but Christian Pulisic likely out for World Cup qualifiers
Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have been U.S. men's national team players for a combined 13 years and three months, and still, to this day, almost four years after McKennie and Adams debuted, they have not played 90 consecutive minutes of soccer together.
Earlier this month, just when it appeared that the USMNT's young core would finally coalesce for a World Cup qualifier against Canada, McKennie broke team protocol and got suspended.
Now, ahead of three more World Cup qualifiers, McKennie is back — but Pulisic is injured, and the search for continuity continues.
U.S. Soccer announced its roster for the October qualifiers on Wednesday, and Pulisic isn't on it. The 23-year-old star injured his ankle in a Sept. 8 qualifier against Honduras. At the time, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter called it a “slight ankle injury.” But Pulisic has not played for Chelsea since, and likely won't take part in the upcoming U.S. games against Jamaica (Oct. 7), Panama (Oct. 10) and Costa Rica (Oct. 13).
Berhalter, however, hasn't completely ruled Pulisic out of those games. Although he told reporters a late call-up was unlikely, given that Pulisic has not been a full participant in Chelsea training, Berhalter described the situation as "day-to-day."
Gio Reyna will also likely miss out with a hamstring injury. He, like Pulisic, is not on the roster. "But with players like that, you want to leave the door open as long as possible," Berhalter said.
Adams' health was also in question — he missed RB Leipzig's last Bundesliga game with what the club called a "muscle injury" — but he is on the roster after appearing for Leipzig as a sub in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Among the other notable inclusions are 18-year-old midfielder Yunus Musah, 20-year-old forward Matthew Hoppe, and 21-year-old center back Chris Richards.
Josh Sargent, who started two of three September qualifiers, was left off the roster, but Berhalter hinted that that situation is also "fluid" and "day-to-day." He acknowledged that country-specific travel restrictions — players based in England, like Sargent, will not be allowed to travel to the Panama game — were considered in his decision-making process.
Here's the full 27-player squad — from which Berhalter will select 23 players for each of the three matches.
USMNT roster for October World Cup qualifiers
GOALKEEPERS (3): Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
DEFENDERS (10): George Bello (Atlanta United), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Shaq Moore (Tenerife), Tim Ream (Fulham), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
FORWARDS (6): Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Matthew Hoppe (Mallorca), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Weston McKennie returns from suspension
Perhaps the biggest news, though, is McKennie's inclusion. While in Nashville with the USMNT earlier this month, the 23-year-old midfielder reportedly spent a night outside the team's bubble, and brought an "unauthorized individual" to his hotel room. Berhalter confronted him on the morning of a Sunday, Sept. 5 match against Canada.
"Did this happen?" Berhalter asked his star.
McKennie, according to Berhalter, looked him in the eyes and said it did.
Berhalter met with his staff — though not with players — and suspended McKennie for that evening's game. The following day, after a disappointing draw, with one September qualifier remaining, Berhalter sent McKennie home.
The controversy enveloped the team for days. U.S. Soccer sources were tight-lipped on specifics, but former U.S. star Landon Donovan, speaking the following day on Grant Wahl's podcast, said he was "privy to what happened," and "incredibly disappointed in Weston, incredibly disappointed."
McKennie had, previously, while with his Italian club team Juventus, been suspended for hosting a house party that violated COVID-19 protocols. "Look," Donovan continued, "I can understand being at Juventus during a long club season, you're sitting at home for months and months and months and you want to have people over. Is it the smartest thing to do? No, but I get it."
Then, turning back to McKennie's latest protocol violation, he said: "This is one week of your life with three massive games, not only for yourself but for your teammates and for your country to go to a World Cup. And the level of selfishness in that moment is beyond me. Honestly, it's beyond me."
Two underwhelming on-field results, a 0-0 draw in El Salvador and then a 1-1 draw at home against Canada, only heightened the tension. Donovan added fuel when he said that the situation was "almost beyond repair." The following day, McKennie's father, John, tweeted that McKennie "could have by now named dropped [sic] more violators," and felt the need to defend his son's character.
But Berhalter never put a finite length on the suspension, and certainly didn't close the door on McKennie's short-term or long-term future with the team.
“People make mistakes. Things happen," Berhalter said on a U.S. Soccer podcast. "It’s not about holding it over their head for an extended period."
"He served his punishment, so to speak," Berhalter later continued. "He has the right, like any other player, to be brought back into the team. There is a period where he’s going to have to earn both his teammates’ and the staff’s trust again. And I think that’s also fair. It’s not something where you say, OK, we have amnesia, and we act like this never happened. It did happen. And now it’s on him to earn everybody’s trust. But it’s not like he won’t be given the opportunity to do so.”
And he will almost certainly get that opportunity immediately. When healthy and not suspended, he is one of the team's best and most important players. He'll likely start at least two of the upcoming three games — all of which, like the other 11 in this World Cup qualifying gauntlet, are crucial.
The protocol violation is now in the past. "As far as I'm concerned," Berhalter said Wednesday, "this is something that's done."
"His behavior was unacceptable, he took responsibility for it, and we move on," Berhalter later continued. "We really do move on."
USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule
The USMNT kicks off another jam-packed window in Austin, Texas against Jamaica, then flies to Panama, then returns to Columbus, Ohio to face Costa Rica.
It enters the window on five points, having come back to beat Honduras 4-1 in the final September qualifier.
Here's the schedule (all times ET):
Thursday, Oct. 7 — vs. Jamaica (7:45 p.m., ESPN2, Univision, TUDN)
Sunday, Oct. 10 — at Panama (6 p.m., Paramount+, Universo)
Wednesday, Oct. 13 — vs. Costa Rica (7 p.m., ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN)