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USMNT depth chart coming into focus heading into October World Cup qualifiers
United States

USMNT depth chart coming into focus heading into October World Cup qualifiers

Updated Sep. 14, 2021 6:22 p.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

As a noted tactics wonk, U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter loves to use the term "data points" when explaining how he evaluates individual player performances.

He got plenty of data points during the first three games of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.

After using 22 of the 28 players he invited to camp by the end of last week’s 4-1 win over Honduras — leaving the Americans with five points and a 1W-0L-2T record following ties in El Salvador and vs. Canada — Berhalter has a much clearer snapshot of his depth chart going into three more crucial qualifiers next month.


How does he see the pecking order within his 50-plus-deep player pool? It’s difficult to know exactly. Injuries, opponents, travel, experience and many other factors go into every roster and lineup choice. There have also been unforeseen circumstances, such as Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen testing positive for COVID-19 or Weston McKennie getting sent home for flouting team rules.  

Still, the past few weeks have provided a cache of valuable information, especially on the heels of the Nations League and Gold Cup successes earlier in the summer. With matches against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica on the horizon, here’s the best guess at how the USMNT’s depth shakes out within the 4-4-3 formation Berhalter mostly used in September.

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The day before the opener in El Salvador, Berhalter revealed that Steffen wouldn’t start because of back spasms. He also seemed to let slip that Steffen, who missed the following two games because of his positive COVID test, was still his No. 1 goalkeeper.  

Not anymore. Matt Turner took his opportunity with both gloves, making several steady saves, conceding just two goals and proving himself in the process. Turner is also seeing regular games with the MLS-leading New England Revolution while Steffen, still in COVID protocol as of Monday, has missed two full weeks of training with country and club.

It would be a surprise if Berhalter doesn't stick with Turner in October, even if Steffen makes his season debut in Manchester City’s English League Cup match against the third-tier Wycombe Wanderers on Sept. 28.

Sergiño Dest struggled in his first two qualifiers before getting hurt, but it’s still his spot to lose, assuming he recovers from his sprained ankle in time. (Dest missed Barcelona’s Champions League match Tuesday vs. Bayern Munich.) The experience will force Dest, an all-world attacking fullback who remains an option on the left, to improve defensively.

DeAndre Yedlin played in all three games and performed well, other than getting beaten on a goal created by Canadian star Alphonso Davies, one of the world’s fastest players.

Reggie Cannon, who's better defensively than both Dest and Yedlin, will be back playing at club level soon. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Joe Scally, who is starting weekly in the Bundesliga, should be in line for his first invite. Bryan Reynolds is struggling to establish himself under Jose Mourinho at Roma. Finally, the wild card is the LA Galaxy’s Julian Araujo, who hasn’t decided whether to represent the U.S. or Mexico.

Exceptional in all three September games after a stellar Gold Cup, Miles Robinson is a lock in the heart of the back line. McKenzie was quietly excellent in his one appearance in Honduras. Walker Zimmerman didn’t play this month, and while he remains on the bubble of the first team, he might not be if Aaron Long hadn’t ruptured his Achilles tendon in May.

Like Dest, John Brooks didn’t look like a Champions League-level defender this month. But while he was yanked at halftime of last week’s win in Honduras, the 28-year-old remains an important player with no obvious upgrade. 

But there are options. Tim Ream, 33 and left-footed like Brooks, was flawless against El Salvador. Matt Miazga could stake a claim if he becomes a regular for Alaves in La Liga, but Bayern Munich prospect Chris Richards — on loan with Bundesliga Hoffenheim for a second straight season — is the best bet to climb the ranks quickly.

Antonee Robinson capped his best three games for the national team by scoring the equalizer in Honduras to spark the comeback. As a result, the historically shallow left back spot is his. 

George Bello, just 19, struggled in San Pedro Sula, but the experience should help him along the road to Qatar. Sam Vines is still adjusting to a new team/league/country in Belgium but could provide cover next month if needed.

Tyler Adams was one of just three Americans, along with Turner and Miles Robinson, to play all 270 minutes. And for good reason: There’s a steep drop-off at the "No. 6" spot after Adams.

Kellyn Acosta can play there but is more of a box-to-box type. James Sands has been used mostly as a central defender by Berhalter, and Eryk Williamson was trending up before tearing his ACL playing for Portland. Gianluca Busio isn’t quite robust enough defensively but should improve tactically in Serie A. Same for his Venezia teammate Tanner Tessmann, who has the tools to become a U.S. regular.

Berhalter hinted that McKennie will return next month, but the hard-tackling Juventus standout has lots to prove. Acosta assumed a bigger role with McKennie out and continued to show why he deserves major minutes. A healthy Yunus Musah should be a key add in October; the Valencia midfielder can also play wide. Julian Green is starting in the Bundesliga, but for a bad team, and doesn’t appear to be in Berhalter’s immediate plans.  

With consequential goals in the final two contests, Brenden Aaronson took a huge step this month. Add his ability to play wing, and he’ll be hard to keep off the field in October. Sebastian Lletget replaced McKennie admirably against Canada and scored off the bench in Honduras, too. And Cristian Roldan has carved out a key role as a sub.

Giovanni Reyna is questionable for October after pulling his hamstring in San Salvador. Tim Weah is also injured but could eventually make the spot his if (when?) Reyna assumes the playmaking role he occupies for Borussia Dortmund

Berhalter appreciates the selfless and dogged Paul Arriola, who just returned from his own hamstring ailment. Nicholas Gioacchini played wing in the Gold Cup, and Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi’s in-form running mate at FC Dallas, can also be deployed wide.

A natural lefty, Konrad de la Fuente spelled Pulisic in the opener as the Chelsea star regained his fitness. Matthew Hoppe could also contend at striker if he starts scoring in La Liga for new club Mallorca. Jonathan Lewis has been more of a super-sub for Berhalter. Jordan Morris (ACL) is out, but he’s a nightmare for opposing defenses when fit and remains in the coach’s longer-term plans.

With a game-winning goal and two assists in his debut in Honduras, it’s Pepi’s spot to lose after Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok both failed to take advantage of their respective starts. 

Don’t sleep on Gyasi Zardes, though. Proven and popular with his coaches and teammates (if not some U.S. fans), Zardes returned to MLS action with Columbus last weekend and will be relied on heavily next month if healthy.

After that, it’s still wide open up top for the USMNT.

One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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