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USMNT 2022 World Cup roster projection: There are plenty locks, but none at striker

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With five months but only two games to go until the 2022 World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team’s roster is both taking shape and riddled with uncertainty.

On one hand, a core coalesced over seven months of qualifying, and a three-week, four-game training camp — which concluded Tuesday night in the mud in El Salvador — offered head coach Gregg Berhalter his most extended, intimate look at players before the finalized team gathers in Qatar.

On the other hand, plenty will happen between now and the Nov. 14 roster deadline. Berhalter’s only in-person evaluation window will be 10 days and two friendlies in September. His decisions will hinge on club form, and as he said this spring: “Things do change quickly in soccer.”

Complicating the process is that, five months out, FIFA has not said how big World Cup rosters will be. At an April 1 meeting in Doha, coaches discussed an expansion from 23, the traditional number, to 26. FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Monday that “a big majority of coaches” favor expansion, and Berhalter is among that majority, but nothing has been confirmed.

On Monday, however, IFAB, soccer’s international rule-making body, changed the matchday roster maximum from 12 to 15, paving the way for 26-man World Cup rosters. Infantino said a final decision will be coming “very soon.” The expectation is that 26 will be the final number.

So it’s the number we’ll use for a roster projection that, surely, will be wrong. Injuries and autumn performance will shape the final product. But here are the 26 USMNT players most likely to go to Qatar, followed by some analysis of the roster bubble at each position.

(Miles Robinson is considered "out for the World Cup,” in Berhalter’s words, with a torn Achilles. These projections assume full health for every other player come November.)

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 10: Head Coach of United States Gregg Berhalter looks on during CONCACAF Nations League match between Grenada and United States at Q2 Stadium on June 10, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter will pick his World Cup squad in November. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

USMNT 2022 World Cup roster prediction

Goalkeepers: Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Sean Johnson
Fullbacks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally
Center backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers
Central midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, James Sands
Attacking midfielders/wingers: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Paul Arriola
Strikers: Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok

Goalkeepers

Locks: Zack Steffen, Matt Turner
Bubble: Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath, Gabriel Slonina

There are two distinct questions here: 1. Who’s the starter? 2. Who’s the third keeper?

Berhalter essentially answered both this past month by reminding us all that he doesn’t have to answer them yet. “Because we just don't know what their situation's gonna be,” he said of the leading candidates for both jobs.

Steffen hasn’t been a regular starter for two years now, and it’s unclear if he’ll go on loan from Manchester City this summer in search of playing time. Turner, after starring for the New England Revolution in MLS, is off to Arsenal to serve in a backup role similar to Steffen’s.

Johnson made one spectacular save in his clean sheet against Uruguay earlier this month, and is the only option with both USMNT experience and a certain club future. But Steffen and Turner together logged every single World Cup qualifying minute. One of them will almost surely start in Qatar. (Turner is the superior shot-stopper; Berhalter seems to prefer Steffen in part for his ability with the ball at his feet, though Turner has improved in that department.)

Johnson, meanwhile, is the slight favorite for the third slot over Horvath — who’s also been a backup at club level, and who doesn’t know where he’ll be playing come August, and whose positioning was responsible for El Salvador’s goal on Tuesday night. Johnson is also favored over Slonina, who, as one of the world’s top teenage goalkeepers, could soon sign with Chelsea or Real Madrid, and is the favorite to start for the USMNT in 2026.

“It may come down to small differences amongst the group,” Berhalter said Tuesday. “Right now, it's really too early to give an in-depth comment on it.”

Fullbacks

Locks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson
Bubble: Reggie Cannon, DeAndre Yedlin, Joe Scally
Longshots: George Bello, Kevin Paredes

The starters, Dest and Robinson, are all but locked in if healthy. The backups are overwhelmingly right-footed, and therein lies the dilemma.

Cannon and Yedlin are the next-best fullbacks, and neither has a lick of experience on the left. Scally, a right-footer who does, got just one call-up and zero minutes during qualifying. Bello, a lefty, got just 30 minutes in the four June games — and they were 30 meaningless minutes at the end of the Grenada game. He didn't even dress on Tuesday.

Scally enters the summer as the favorite for a roster spot. He wasn’t anywhere near as bad against Uruguay as initial reactions suggested. The USMNT’s backup left back, though, is likely Dest, with either Cannon or Yedlin filling in on the right. The darkhorse is Paredes, a 19-year-old D.C. United product who moved to Wolfsburg in January. But he’s never played for the national team, and almost certainly wouldn’t be trusted to debut on the sport’s biggest stage.

Berhalter, then, has three roster-construction options:

  • Take three right backs (Cannon, Yedlin, Dest) and one left back (Robinson)

  • Take Scally, cut either Cannon or Yedlin

  • Take all five

The latter is the most logical, and a probable use of the flexibility afforded by 26-man squads. Cannon’s value is his ability to tuck in as something akin to a third center back, in the 3-2-2-3 possession shape that the USMNT toyed with this month. Yedlin’s value is his straight-line speed and World Cup experience — something this team, without him, would not have. And Scally’s value is … well, Dest isn’t the most durable fellow. With no other deputy left back on the roster, it’d be silly to not prepare multiple contingency plans for an injury crisis.

Center backs

Locks: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards
Likely: Aaron Long
Bubble: Cameron Carter-Vickers, John Brooks, Erik Palmer-Brown
Can play here too: James Sands

Zimmerman is a rock. With neither Long nor Carter-Vickers seizing the other starting place in June, Richards — who missed this camp in the final stages of recovery from an injury — is the favorite to partner Zimmerman.

The question, as ever, is: What’s the deal with John Brooks?

He’s the most accomplished left-sided center back in the pool. He wants to play for the national team like his "American identity is at stake." It’s not quite clear why Berhalter hasn’t wanted him since the fall. Whatever the reasoning, he appears to be on the outside looking in, behind Long — whom Berhalter trusts — and Carter-Vickers, who just signed a permanent deal at Celtic, where he was superb this past season.

Central midfielders

Locks: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre
Likely: Kellyn Acosta
Bubble: James Sands, Cristian Roldan, Gianluca Busio
Can play here too: Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Malik Tillman, Djordje Mihailovic

With Reyna and Aaronson capable of playing centrally, this is the USMNT’s deepest position. Adams will definitely start. Musah and McKennie almost surely will too. And Luca de la Torre has dazzled almost every time he’s donned a U.S. jersey recently. He had an "excellent" June camp, Berhalter said, and surely locked up a place in the 26 with his performances, which concluded with the majestic cross that spared the Americans defeat in El Salvador.

"He’s a guy that is really is carving out his role," Berhalter said Tuesday. "Whether that’s as a starter or a guy who can come in and impact the game from an offensive standpoint."

Acosta seems secure as the most defensive-minded midfielder off the bench. With Aaronson, de la Torre and Reyna in the mix, Berhalter might not need another attacking-minded No. 8, which is why the sixth central midfield slot could go to Sands, who’d also be the fifth center back.

Sands, like, Busio, was left off the June roster after a grueling first European season, which climaxed with a substitute appearance in the Europa League final with Rangers. The reason, Berhalter said, was “for them to rest and recover. Doesn't mean that they don't have a chance … to participate in the World Cup.”

Attacking midfielders/Wingers

Locks: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson
Bubble: Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Djordje Mihailovic

Pulisic will start, obviously. Weah probably will, too, because he gives this USMNT a directness that it otherwise lacks, even if Reyna is the more talented player. Aaronson is somehow a reserve despite being the second-most expensive American player ever. If he starts strong at Leeds, Berhalter will agonize over how to jam him into the starting 11, but these are good problems to have.

Given the positional flexibility of the locks, there’s likely room for at least one more winger. Arriola is the favorite, but Morris could usurp him with a goal-scoring surge over the second half of the MLS season.

Strikers

Locks: None
Likely: Jesus Ferreira
Bubble: Ricardo Pepi, Haji Wright, Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike
Longshots: Brandon Vazquez, Any Striker Who Gets Hot In September And October

Don’t read too much into Ferreira’s four-goal fiesta in a 5-0 win over Grenada last Friday. But read into the way Berhalter talks about the FC Dallas No. 9. “We don’t judge him just based on goals,” Berhalter said after Ferreira’s breakout. “He does a lot of other stuff that really helps this group be successful.”

In the absence of a bonafide finisher, Berhalter loves Ferreira’s pressing and withdrawn link-up play alongside two wingers who can get vertical. A crescendoing chorus of fans and pundits have called for lineups featuring Weah at striker, but, “playing as a high winger, threatening the back line,” Berhalter said last week, Weah is “getting chances like we think forwards do at times.” And Ferreira’s propensity to drop deeper allows him to do that. It’s non-traditional. But it works. “We’ve considered [Weah] at striker I think only in special circumstance situations,” Berhalter said.

So Ferreira, in current form, is the preferred option. Of course, form is fickle, especially among USMNT strikers. Pepi was the Next Big Thing last October, and hasn’t scored since. Wright broke out this spring in Turkey, but had an up-and-down June camp, and will now sort out an up-in-the-air club future.

Berhalter spoke lukewarmly about Wright multiple times this month, and said Tuesday after substituting him at halftime: "It’s always difficult when players get an opportunity and don’t fully capitalize on it. It’s not nice for a coach, it’s not nice for the player, it’s nice for the group. We were all rooting for Haji to be a force. … And it just wasn’t his night tonight. It doesn’t rule him out for anything in the future. … But it was an unlucky night for him tonight for sure."

Pefok and Dike have, at times over the past two years, found the type of form Wright did in recent months. Whoever among this group begins scoring goals in September and October will earn a trip to Qatar. Ferreira is the only one who, with everything he does outside the penalty box, has risen above the fray.