Tyler_adams_and_gregg_berhalter_-_asn_top_-_isi_-_usmnt_vs._panama_-_10-10-2011_-_john_todd John Todd/ISI Photos
USMNT analysis

Breaking down the USMNT roster for the final Octagonal window

ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks down the roster for the final USMNT Octagonal window by giving his thoughts on the big issue regarding the form of key players, replacing McKennie, the players who forced their way onto the team, the big absences, and how the team could lineup. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 17, 2022
10:00 PM

UNITED STATES NATIONAL team manager Gregg Berhalter today announced his 27-player roster for the final three games of the Octagonal World Cup qualifying tournament. These will be the most challenging window for the U.S. team as it will face Mexico in Mexico City on March 24 (10 p.m. ET), Panama in Orlando, Fla. on March 27 (7 p.m. ET) and Costa Rica in San Jose on March 30.

The roster is straight forward and contains only a few surprises. The most notable absences have been known for weeks – Matt Turner, Chris Richards, and Weston McKennie who are all injured. In one note, Berhalter denied that Turner’s injury was frostbite.

The biggest cause for concern, however, came earlier in the day when Sergino Dest left Barcelona’s 2-1 Europa League win over Galatasaray in the 56th minute with an injury. Dest is on this roster but Berhalter noted that if Dest can’t go for the upcoming qualifiers, he will be looking to add a left back into the team in the coming days.

On top of that, here is the roster and here are some thoughts.




(Club/Country; Caps/Goals)

Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 7/0), Sean Johnson (New York City FC; 9/0), Zack Steffen (Manchester City/ENG; 26/0),

DEFENDERS (9): Reggie Cannon (Boavista/POR; 24/1), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona/ESP; 17/2), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 21/3), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes/FRA; 2/0), Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG; 22/2), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United; 17/3), James Sands (Rangers/SCO; 7/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami; 71/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 25/3)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (LAFC; 48/2), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 24/1), Gianluca Busio (Venezia/ITA; 8/0), Luca de la Torre (Heracles/NED; 5/0), Yunus Musah (Valencia/ESP; 13/0), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders; 31/0)

FORWARDS (9): Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg/AUT; 18/5), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas; 43/8), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas; 7/2), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders; 43/10), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys/SUI; 8/1), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg/GER; 9/3), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 45/18), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund; 9/4), Tim Weah (Lille/FRA; 20/2)


Individual form questions


The form of several top players is certainly a big question mark heading into this camp. Not only does it raise questions in terms of how rusty they are but it also raises questions whether or not these players will be able to start all three games.

Tim Weah hasn’t started a game since February 2. He has played 1004 Ligue 1 minutes this season and 1355 minutes total this season for Lille. He’s played just 134 minutes since that February 2 start in a 5-1 loss to PSG and his minutes have generally been declining at Lille the past two months.

Gio Reyna has only recently returned from his injury. He’s made just three appearances since his September injury (with just one start).

Tyler Adams is another key player to the U.S. team. He has made just one start for Leipzig in the Bundesliga (and one in the Europa) since the last international window.

Ricardo Pepi hasn’t been part of the team as long as the other three players, but he was considered the top No. 9 for the team at key points during this tournament and his move to Augsburg has been tough and he is still yet to score.  

Those players have long been thought of being key to Berhalter’s plans for the team. All three are not coming into the window in a great place in terms of momentum and Berhalter touched upon all four.

With Reyna, Berhalter said he would not rule out playing Reyna in the middle and added that “the issue is just his rhythm, his fitness, and his gametime the past five months.”

The particular grind of playing in Mexico City makes it hard to see Reyna being considered as a starter for that game and how much of his role will likely come down to how he shows in training at the start of next week. Berhalter added that he is “mindful of his workload” the past few weeks.

With Pepi, he has made the team despite not scoring. Berhalter said he wants all his strikers scoring and said Pepi’s lack of goals “is a concern of mine but I’ve spoken to him at length and he’s ready to go this window.” He added that “it’s about getting back to the basics with him.”

Regarding Weah, Berhalter noted that Weah “has been getting a little bit more game time lately but certainly not the 90 minutes that we expect out of him. That is a little bit of a concern.” He added that he is probably going to have to use Weah in spots and that it’s not realistic to expect he can play three 90 minute games.

With Adams, Berhalter was blunt in that it comes down to “mind over matter” with Adams and that “he’s an important part of the team who has to be on the field.”

It was different answers to all three players. What’s to make of it? It seems that Tyler Adams will start unless he is suspended (he is carrying a yellow card). Weah will probably start one or two games in the upcoming window, but his minutes have been a concern. Pepi might be in a tough spot in this window to start and it seems like Berhalter has him involved to work with him. Reyna appears to be on a wait and see basis.


Replacing McKennie


McKennie has become such an important part of the team and he is so unique that he can’t really be replaced directly. It’s going to take a different approach.

Tyler Adams will surely start at the No. 6 unless he gets suspended, then it will be Kellyn Acosta. But even with Adams on the field, playing Acosta with him would provide for some of the defensive bite Mckennie brings – but it would lack the offense. Berhalter also added that Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio, and Brenden Aaronson were players he see helping to fill the void left by McKennie.

Meanwhile, Musah seems as if he will be more of the advanced/attacking midfield role in that formation (while he could be backed up by Reyna or Cristian Roldan).


EPB, Pefok played onto the team


Two players who played themselves onto the team were Jordan Pefok and Erik Palmer-Brown.

Jordan Pefok is a player who has just been scoring at an amazing clip in the Swiss Super League and is the leading scorer in the league. With 10 goals in his last nine games, he is the leading scorer in the league with 17 goals. He also has five goals in the Champions League (and qualifiers) for 22 in all competitions. His form has been lights out.

He might not have a complete skillset with his hold-up play and his passing, but he is scoring goals and he is very tough to defend close to goal. He’s scoring at rate where you simply can’t leave him off. Not only would it not be fair to him, it would send a bad message to others in the pool that form doesn’t matter. If other American strikers were scoring as well, that would be one thing. But they’re not – domestically or abroad. So, this was a no brainer and Pefok also has a great chance of playing a lot of minutes this window.

Erik Palmer-Brown wasn’t necessarily a no brainer. Aside for a few moments, central defense has been a source of strength for the U.S. team. But McKenzie has faded, Richards is injured, and there continues to be a saga with Brooks. Palmer-Brown has only been capped by the U.S. team in Dave Sarachan’s brief tenure. He’s been a journeyman with his loans from Manchester City but his current stint at Troyes in Ligue 1 has allowed him to play in a “Big Five” league. The past three months he has really seized the opportunity.

He also looks like a central defender who could give Berhalter what he wants. Compared with other players, such as Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who are looking to get into the mix, Palmer-Brown offers solid passing, good footspeed, and a high-level soccer IQ. Palmer-Brown might not play much this window as Zimmerman and Robinson should be the most reliable starters. But this is a good opportunity for him to start building his case for the future and perhaps making a late push to make the World Cup team, should it qualify.


The notable absence


As with every roster, there are notable absence. Here is a look at the most notable absences.

John Brooks is by far the most notable absence on this roster but given that he has not been with the team since September, it was hardly surprising. Last year he was dealing with an injury and then there were concerns over his form. Today, Berhalter said he spoke with Brooks at length but added that he didn’t fit how the team wanted to play this window.

Without knowing the nature of the discussions between Brooks and Berhalter, there are a few things in Brooks’ history that are important to note. He has historically had a tough time getting along with managers in his past. His relationship with Jurgan Klinsmann wasn’t smooth. He’s been called out a few times publicly in Germany by various managers and this past season, he’s been at the receiving end of very harsh stories in BILD (some speculating the source for the articles was Wolfsburg). Last month, the club announced Brooks was not going to return next season after his contract is up this summer.

Without even mentioning Berhalter, Brooks has had a tough time with managers in his career. He does generally work his way through things, but it is a process. Berhalter today said the door for Brooks’ return is open and I believe that. Brooks’ absences have been among the more talked about stories in the last several USMNT roster releases. Perhaps his return is best left to a time when there is far less pressure on the team than there is in the coming two weeks. Berhalter also noted that he has spoken in detail with Brooks recently.

Gyasi Zardes wasn’t called up and the answer for which is that he simply was outplayed as a No. 9 by Jordan Pefok. Jesus Ferreira is also on the roster, but he is a different skillset who offers a little Berhalter a little variety in how he can attack.

Josh Sargent was the same as Zardes in that he was outplayed by Pefok.  Berhalter continued to note on Thursday that he believes Sargent will become a top-quality No. 9 in the future but lately he’s been playing on the wing at Norwich and just hasn’t been getting the opportunities to score.

Sebastian Lletget was not a surprise to being left off the roster. While Lletget has been playing well to start the season for New England, his role on the U.S. team has been diminishing and he hasn’t played for the team in seven games. It seems like time that as de la Torre continues to impress, Reyna is returning, and even Roldan is playing really strong soccer for Seattle (while also embracing his role on the U.S. team as a high-energy, late sub) that there isn’t room this time for Lletget. He could get a look this summer, but he really needs to surge for New England in the months ahead.


How the U.S. could line up


There are a lot of questions for how the U.S. could lineup in these windows.

In goal, my guess is that it will be Zack Steffen or Ethan Horvath. I think Sean Johnson is number three at this camp. The fact that Steffen has returned gives him the edge, but it will probably be a decision. If Steffen passes the physical tests given to him, I think he starts at Azteca and in the other games.

Central defense is likely going to be Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson. Robinson hasn’t been great in the early season with Atlanta, but Zimmerman continues to be excellent for Nashville. Long is still only in his first few games back from injury and Palmer-Brown hasn’t played yet under Berhalter. James Sands looks like he’s on the team to cover in both defense and in the midfield.

Fullbacks right now are up in the air. Antonee Robinson is the starting left back and if Dest is out (which seems like a real possibility) another left back will need to be called in. That would also probably put Reggie Cannon into the starting right back role. Cannon is fine defensively, but he does not have the explosiveness in getting forward.

In the midfield, Adams is a lock to start (unless he picks up a yellow and is suspended). Acosta might seem like the logical replacement for McKennie in Azteca given his success against El Tri and the need for a more defensive approach. Against Panama and Costa Rica, it might be a situation that more favors Luca de la Torre. In the most advanced position, Musah looks like the top choice now and it seems unlikely that Reyna should be favored to start. If Musah can’t go, Brenden Aaronson might slide into that role.

Pulisic is a lock starter on the left wing. Weah is a bit of a wild card right now. He’s played well for the U.S. team but he is not playing a lot for his club. Meanwhile, Brenden Aaronson has been strong for Salzburg but he plays as a No. 10 there. Weah and Aaronson should split time on the right wing with Aaronson also likely playing in the midfield. If that happens, Morris could see time – and his form is picking up nicely for Seattle.

Finally, up top I think Berhalter will want to ride the hot hand with Pefok and I think Jesus Ferreira has a good chance to play some minutes off the bench. Pepi is a tough player to put on the field right now with his form and confidence. How many minutes he plays could come down to how he shows in training when camp opens next week.

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