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Analysis: Thoughts and takeaways from Berhalter's media call

On Wednesday afternoon after the September USMNT roster was released, head coach Gregg Berhalter spoke at length with the media to discuss his roster decisions and various issues involved with the state of the team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta was a participant on the call and he offers his thoughts on some of the many topics that were covered. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 15, 2022
10:05 AM

ON WEDNESDAY, United States national team manager Gregg Berhalter spoke to the media at length to address many topics surrounding the team – but mostly the September roster that was announced earlier in the day.

Among the many questions, Berhalter gave revealing responses.

Here are some thoughts on many of the topics covered.


Pefok’s omission


Jordan Perfok has been off to a terrific start in the Bundesliga this season with Union Berlin. He has two goals and two assists in five Bundesliga games for a team that is atop the table early in the season.

Pefok, 26, was not among the three forwards chosen for this pivotal roster. To date, he as been called up four times: a camp for friendlies in March 2021, the Nations League final rounds in the summer of 2021, the opening of World Cup qualifying in September 2021, and the final round of World Cup qualifying in March 2022. His performances have been mixed.

His best moment was scoring the winner against Honduras in the Nations League semifinal against Honduras. But he struggled in World Cup qualifying and had an especially tough outing against Mexico in a scoreless qualifier in March.

“Regarding Jordan, again it is a difficult one,” Berhalter said. “We wanted to take a look at Pepi and take a look at Josh due to his hot start, and he's been away from the team for a while as well.”

“It's never easy and it was a decision that we weren't going to bring in four forwards, so we didn't,” he continued. “We didn't feel like we had enough game time to give four forwards an opportunity. We went with these three and we're pretty confident we know Jordan's profile. We know what he can do. and we didn't feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he could be on the roster or not.”

What to make of this?

Berhalter lamented it was tough to tell Pefok he wasn’t on the team and it doesn’t bode well for Pefok that his last appearance with the national team was poor. Berhalter also went on to stress that he wants to choose forwards who fit the right profile of how the team wants to play.

For Pefok, the biggest competitor is probably Ricardo Pepi. When you look at the six forwards in the mix (Ferreira, Sargent, Pefok, Vazquez, Wright, and Pepi), Pepi is the only one who is not scoring goals for his club at a healthy rate right now.

If Pepi comes into this camp and doesn’t score and does not turn around his slump at Groningen in the coming weeks, the door probably reopens for Pefok again if he continues to play well. But he needs things to break his way to get to Qatar and it is an uphill climb at this point.

“Jordan should be in consideration,” Berhalter said. “He was in consideration - major consideration – but in the end we decided to go with these three strikers for this camp to be able to evaluate it, and with Jordan, he's been putting a hell of an effort. I don't know if you guys watch his games. But he's been working hard he's been a handful to play against, and he's doing a lot of things right.”


The remaining forwards

After Pefok, there are five other forwards in the mix, including the three selected: Sargent, Ferreira, and Pepi.

Berhalter did not speak much about Sargent, although his return seemed obvious given his history with the team and his terrific start to the Championship season with Norwich. He also cited that Sargent had been away from the team for awhile but had a history of playing in important games with the U.S. team in his history.

He also praised Jesus Ferreira for his profile for fitting the profile he wants in a forward.

“One of the ways, is to run behind the backline and then arrive in the penalty box, making good runs inside the penalty box, and then finally starting our defensive pressure,” Berhalter said of what he wants in a forward. “We want to be a high pressing team with the forward to understand the press, know how to trigger or initiate the press, and then actually execute the press. You look at a guy like Jesus. He checks all those boxes.”

The return of Pepi was perhaps the most surprising inclusion on the team and it was one many did not see coming. But what was clear in the comments about Pepi is that Berhalter believes in Pepi but this camp also seemed to be very much a tryout.

“Pepi has also had some good history with us. He's started really important games and we just weren't willing to give all that up right now on Pepi. We still think there's a big upside with him. We still think he's got really good potential. Let's not forget in our last qualifying window, he started two of the three games in a crucial qualifying window. Here is a guy that we've counted on in the past, and we want to give him an opportunity in this window.”

“Watch this game this weekend for Groningen and you can see that he can be dominant in the Dutch League and now it's a question of if he actually is?” Berhalter explained. “Can he really take his game to the next level? We saw some good things from him, and we'll get him in the group, and see what he can do with us.”

Of the other forwards not in camp, Berhalter only mentioned Haji Wright briefly in passing. He did spend some time answering questions to explain the absence of Brandon Vazquez who has been one of the best center forwards in MLS this year in anchoring the Cincinnati turnaround.

“Regarding Brandon, again another very difficult conversation,” Berhalter said. “We think he's done well and for us, it's comparing him to what we have, comparing him to other guys, and then the body of work both with his club and with us. It's very difficult for him.”

While Berhalter was quick to point out that this is not the final roster and a lot could happen between now and November, he also cited Vazquez’s lack of a “body of work” with the national team. If he was not willing to give him a body of work now in September to build his case, he’s going to have none by November. It’s hard to see his first every U.S. national team call-up coming for the World Cup. Then you combine it with the fact Cincinnati’s season could end in early October as well.

Without a ton of injuries, it seems like Sargent and Ferreira are in a good spot. Pepi has a much better chance than previously thought, but he must raise his level to seal the deal.


Fullbacks depth


Berhalter also spent a lot of time talking about his fullback situation – and for good reason. It’s clear to anyone following the team that if everyone is healthy, Antonee Robinson is the starting left back and Sergino Dest is the starting right back.

The back-up positions are not clear on either side and Robinson is out from this camp due to a sprained ankle.

On this roster, Berhalter brought five fullbacks – one left back (Vines) and four right backs (Dest, Yedlin, Cannon, and Scally). But after this camp, we should have a better idea what the plan is after Dest and Robinson.

About the four right backs,” Berhalter said. “One of them will be cover on the left side… We didn't feel like we had enough depth on the on the left side to go with two left footers, and so we won't.”

With that, Berhalter bluntly shut the door on other left-footed options such as George Bello (who was the backup for most of the past year), the up and coming John Tolkin, or Jonathan Gomez (who was called-up last December).

But it seems clear that Berhalter will be eager to look at Sam Vines, who is a regular starter for a Royal Antwerp team that has a perfect 24 points from eight games to start the Belgian season. Berhalter has clearly been doing his due diligence in recent weeks - and is impressed by the former Colorado Rapids homegrown.

“One of the things we're preparing for if Antonee Robinson can't go…who can fill his shoes?” Berhalter said. “Could Sammy Vines? I think this is a great opportunity to look at him. He's a guy that is in the form of his life. I've been speaking with his coaching staff and they've been very impressed with him and then the other option is to look at a right footer there, which I'm sure will do in this camp.”

As for the right footed options at left back, that will either be Sergino Dest or Joe Scally moving to the left side. Berhalter has explored both options in the past.

As the backup right back options, Berhalter made a few comments that reflect positively about both Reggie Cannon and DeAndre Yedlin. At this point, it seems like even on 26-man roster it will be tough to take both if everyone is healthy. That would require taking five fullbacks as neither Cannon nor Yedlin play on the left. The only realistic solution is if Dest becomes either the lone back-up left back or the starting left back (should Robinson be injured).

The positives for both Cannon revolve around how Berhalter said he wants players “who are working for each other, fighting for each other.”

Then you compare that with Berhalter’s recent scouting trip to Europe where he spent time specifically with Cannon and watching him play.

“The first thing I’d say is the Portuguese league is crazy, competitive, especially when you're looking at these mid table teams playing against each other,” Berhalter said in response to a question I asked him on the call. “It is an absolute war, and that was good to see. Reggie embraced that side of the game. The first half of the game – six yellow cards probably could have been about eight yellow cards. It was one car crash after another, and just really a competitive game. That was good to see, and then see how Reggie is coping with that.”

Cannon might not be playing right back (he is mostly playing as a right side central defender in a three-man backline) but he is embracing the battle his league represents and it seems to be what Berhalter values in the U.S. team.

Regarding Yedlin, this quote from Berhalter on the call was not specifically about Yedlin, but it is relevant to Yedlin. It was also one of the most important statements made on the call.

“We're not going to be the most talented team at the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “We're going to have to compensate for that, by being, a cohesive unit, by working for each other, fighting for each other, and having a great team spirit. We're going to have to do that. We want to be successful at the World Cup. So, part of it is leaning on guys that have been there before [emphasis is mine] and been around the group before. And understand the team culture and understand their teammates really well. That is part of it. It’s not the only thing but I would say, that is part of the discussion that we go through when we're picking rosters.”

When talking about guys who have been there before, he is clearly talking about Yedlin as he is the only guy in the pool who has played in a World Cup, [fyi, John Brooks was not mentioned once on the call – for the first time in ages]. Beralter clearly values the experience Yedlin brings and Yedlin, by all accounts, is a popular player within the team. But is that enough to account for inconsistent outings at Miami and a season that seems likely to end on October 9th?

We don’t know the answers, yet. But this camp is going to go a long way to sorting out Yedlin, Cannon, and Scally on the right, Vines, Scally, and Dest on the left, and how many fullbacks Berhalter needs to bring to Qatar.

On one more note, should there be a major dip in a player’s form or should there be injuries, Berhalter spent time praising Shaq Moore as a player who just on the outside of this roster. He seems like the next player up that is not on this list.


Tillman on the edge


Malik Tillman made this roster – probably due to injuries to Tim Weah and Cristian Roldan. But Berhalter was quick to send a warning sign to the young German-American winger/attacking midfielder that his recent performances at Rangers have not been good enough. One of the outings, a 4-0 loss to Celtic, Berhalter was in attendance to watch.

“He needs to do better,” Berhalter said. “He needs to increase his level. It was disappointing with his last couple of performances against Ajax and Celtic, but he's got a ton of quality and that's the conversations I’m having with him - is that he can help this group but he needs to pick it up a little because he's a guy that the coaching staff was highly impressed and think he has a huge ceiling. It's great to see the start he had. Now it's going to be about in these next bigger games, when he's in the Champions League, can he do the same type of thing he's doing in the Scottish league.”

It was a show of confidence in his natural ability but a signal that he has to play up to his ability. This camp will help be a deciding factor if he makes the team. With any minutes he gets against Japan or Saudi Arabia, Tillman cannot afford to be passive like he was against Celtic or Ajax.


Zendejas in the mix


The Alejandro Zendejas saga continues to evolve. For those who haven’t been following, Zendejas is a talented attacking midfielder/winger for Club America who has three goals and two assists this season. He grew up in the FC Dallas academy before being sold to Chivas.

Internationally, he played for the 2015 U.S. U-17 World Cup team which also included Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Brandon Vazquez, and Haji Wright. When he moved to Mexico, he began playing with Mexico’s youth teams (in unofficial games) and then recently to the full national team for friendlies.

Lately, it was revealed Zendejas played in these full national team games before he filed his one-time switch. When Tata Martino asked him to sign the document, he declined. Club America subsequently told Martino to back off.

Is Mexico in trouble for playing Zendejas in those games? Is Zendejas now committed to the United States?

Berhalter was asked about Zendejas, and Zendejas admits they have spoken. But Berhalter did not reveal much other than he is still in consideration. This seems to indicate that Zendejas doesn’t appear to be imminently ready to commit to Mexico.

“Regarding Zendejas, keep in mind that this is a guy that's been in our youth programs,” Berhalter said. “You ask if he's on a radar, he's been on a radar all along, and he's a guy that that participated in you national teams and is grown up in the in the youth soccer system.”

“With Alex we've been we've been watching him. We've been monitoring. I actually spoke to him on the phone, and he's in a good spot. We'll continue to monitor him in his next couple of months.”

Berhalter did not mention Mexico’s national team or its federation. Which was interesting because that is the most important issue on Zendejas. But Zendejas remains a U.S. player, for now, and maybe for good.

For clarification, ASN reached out to the agent of Zendejas who said they would not comment on his international situation right now.

A World Cup spot seems tough for Zendejas given the same reasons that surround his 2015 U.S. U-17 World Cup teammate Brandon Vazquez. But this could be an issue that becomes important at the start of next cycle – which is just a few months away. Both players will be in their 20’s for the entire 2026 cycle.


Other position battles


Berhalter spoke about a lot of position battles.

In central defense, he singled out some of the players who were not selected to this roster. He noted the accomplishments of Matt Maizga, Mark McKenzie, and Erik Palmer-Brown. As mentioned earlier, Brooks was not mentioned (and Brooks has yet to play a game since May 14th – his last game for Wolfsburg).

“Matt Miazga is doing well with Cincinnati,” Berhalter said. “Mark McKenzie is doing well at Genk and finally nailed down a starting position… Timmy Ream is captain of the Fulham side that is in the top eight in the Premier League, which is great. Then Erik Palmer-Brown is playing every week in Ligue 1. So very difficult decisions for us.”

The decision to leave Tim Ream off the roster was explained in detail following a question.

“He's been captaining the side and some of the things that we're looking for in our centerbacks is to play a high line, cover a lot of space behind them, be dominant in the air dominant on offensive end defensive set pieces, and that's not Tim’s strengths,” Berhalter said bluntly. “But he's a guy that can help the team with the ball. He reads the game really well and is a very good player. In this particular camp we went with slightly different profiles and we'll give these guys an opportunity to see what they can do.”

Ream does not seem like a perfect fit for the U.S. team but on the flip side, should Berhalter want to bring him into the team for the World Cup, Ream also does not seem like a player who would take long to reacclimate to the team.

Berhalter also mentioned James Sands but later pointed out how he, along with Tillman, did not play well recently for Rangers. After the media call, Sands was sent off and conceded a penalty for Rangers in a Champions League game against Napoli. Clearly his hopes have taken a major hit in recent weeks.

Regarding one player who did make the roster in Chris Richards, Berhalter was asked about his lack of playing time at Crystal Palace (Richards has played fewer than 600 first-team club minutes in 2022 dating back to Hoffenheim last season). Berhatler did not seem concerned.

“Chris Richards played 90 minutes with the second team,” Berhalter said. “He played 90 minutes with the first team in a cup game. He's getting to fitness as well.”

Berhalter was also praiseworthy for Cameron Carter-Vickers who got back into the team in June following a great season with Celtic. But Berhalter went into detail regarding his due diligence on the central defender.

“But speaking to Cameron’s coach, they're very happy with him, very happy with his calmness, his intensity and defending,” Berhalter said. “The fact that he's willing to lay his body on the line to prevent goals was really good to see.”

In the midfield, Berhalter also cited both Eryk Williamson and Johnny Cardoso as being players who have been monitored and who are impressing despite not making this roster.

“We only have 180 minutes of game time. Keep that in mind as well,” Berhalter said. “It had something to do with the decisions.”



Goalkeeping situation


While there has been a lot of speculation over the hierarchy of the four goalkeepers in the pool (Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, and Sean Johnson), Gregg Berhalter did not go into too much detail.

He did indicated that the injury which has kept Steffen out from this camp is a knee injury and he recently received an injection.

He said on his recent scouting trip he spoke with Ethan Horvath and met with Arsenal’s staff to watch Matt Turner train.

“I had a chance to sit down with Arsenal's goalkeeper coach, and to talk to him about Matt's development and match progress,” Berhalter said. “We got to look at some video and see where what is his starting point. It was, and where he is now, and I think he's made a ton of progress. I got to see him in training, see him defending shots against guys like Saka and some of their talented attacking players. He's in good form, and he's in a decent spot… I don't expect fitness to be an issue. Maybe a little bit of rhythm and rust could come into play.”

“Would I like him to be playing every week in the Premier League? Yes. But that's not the case.”

As of now, it would seem as if Turner has an excellent chance of being the starter in Qatar given that he is healthy and now has a strong body of work with the U.S. team. His situation at Arsenal does not seem to be a dealbreaker for him to start based on Berhalter’s comments.


After this camp


Berhalter made a point to heavily emphasize that this is not the World Cup roster.

“It's not the final roster for the World Cup,” Berhalter stressed. “A lot can happen between now and November 9th, when we're announcing the final roster. The actual date for FIFA is November the 14th, and a lot can happen between the 9th and the 14th.”

He estimated with the roster he is 80% done but then went on to say that injuries and other issues always pop up. During qualifying, most windows saw situations where players were named to a roster only having to withdraw due to an injury picked up in the weekend club games between the naming of the roster and the opening of national team camp.

“With the roster I think we're 80% done - still, things can change from there,” Berhalter said. “They're playing up until the last weekend of before the World Cup. Think about how many guys pulled out of qualifiers on the last weekend [before camp]. We have to be monitoring these players. We're having ongoing conversations with guys in the camp and not in the camp, because we know that things can change where they quickly.”

Berhalter is correct. It is naive to believe that an unexpected or unfortunate event won’t happen leading up to the World Cup. Earlier in the year, Berhalter recalled a discussion he had with former U.S. head coach Bruce Arena who told Berhalter that something will always happen. Berhalter knows he must be prepared to tap deeper into his player pool.

In an ideal situation, there are the 26 players on this roster plus the four injured players (Tim Weah, Cristian Roldan, Antonee Robinson, and Zack Steffen) for a total of 30 players. Most of the entire team should come from that list. But there will be things to watch in addition to injuries.

For one there is Jordan Pefok who could be the next man up if Pepi does not raise his level at this camp or beyond.

Also, Berhater made this revealing statement.

“If a guy's not playing at all from now until the World Cup, it's going to be a challenge for us… to really understand where the players is at from a fitness standpoint.” Berhalter said.

Some players might not play much in the coming weeks/months because of their return from an injury. Matt Turner’s situation as a goalkeeper doesn’t seem to bother Berhalter. But there are also healthy players where it must be a deep concern over playing time.

Chris Richards is limited to brief cameos and Carabao Cup matches. Luca de la Torre has still only played a handful of minutes for Celta Vigo. The question then becomes how many of these players can Berhalter take and how much can he rely on them when they’re there? A player like de la Torre is the key backup at the No. 8 position behind McKennie. Does this open the door for another midfielder.

Then there are the MLS players where the league is set to conclude the regular season on October 9th – one month before the final roster is named. While most of the MLS players seriously in the player pool are on playoff teams, eliminations will come quickly and most players won’t have played a game for more than a month before the World Cup opener against Wales.

Berhalter is planning for the U.S. players in the pool to be part of a camp in October in conjunction with the U.S. U-20 team where they will “hopefully” play games. But how much does this help players maintain their fitness and form?

“With some of the MLS players, it becomes even more tricky because the season ends October ninth, and if their teams don't make the playoffs, it's another opportunity to work with the guys in October, keep them fit, maximize their fitness levels, and hopefully play some games. We're planning an October camp as well for that group of players that that won't be playing soccer.”

For Berhalter, these are issues he knows will be looming after this camp. For now, he is not locking himself into any decisions. This camp opens with some uncertainties and some open races for remaining roster spots. The performances here will help resolved some issues but with things such as form, injuries, and the coming MLS offseason continuing to change things, Berhalter insists he is not tied to anything right now.

“For us, it's evaluating this group in this camp, and after this camp continue on the evaluation period. So a lot can change,” Berhalter said. “Then this isn't something where we need to lock in the roster right now.”


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