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World Cup 2022: Five USMNT tweaks to complete before Qatar
United States

World Cup 2022: Five USMNT tweaks to complete before Qatar

Updated Apr. 5, 2022 8:20 p.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

A few hours after the United States Men's National Team qualified for the World Cup last week, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was at New York's JFK airport on his way to the draw in Qatar, which this fall will host soccer’s marquee event.

Berhalter was asked during that brief stateside layover what his team, which survived a roller-coaster ride in CONCACAF and barely edged Costa Rica on goal difference to earn one of the region’s three automatic World Cup spots, needs to do between now and Nov. 21 to compete on the global stage.

"Just continuing to improve. How do we get the team better?" Berhalter said. "The World Cup is about small margins. It’s about the little things. And so now it’s about just focusing on details and getting that right."


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Contrary to what the calendar suggests, there isn’t much time. The USMNT will convene just twice more before the main event. Before meeting El Salvador and Grenada in the group stage of the Nations League in June, the Americans will schedule two high-profile friendlies at home against opponents to be announced. In September, they’ll play their final two World Cup tuneups, likely in Europe. That’s it.

With the clock ticking, the fine-tuning must begin immediately. Here are five things Berhalter and his staff can do to bolster the Americans' chances of success in Qatar. 


It’s the biggest question facing the USMNT. With huge stakes and stout defenses, scoring chances are scarce at the highest level. Just about every team that makes a deep run at a World Cup relies on efficient production from its center forward(s). 

But following the 14-match qualifying marathon, Berhalter is no closer to finding an answer up top.

Five different strikers started games in the Octagonal. Among them, they managed just four goals. Ricardo Pepi led the way with three in two games in September and October. Jesus Ferreira got one in the 5-1 victory over Panama last month. Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent and Gyasi Zardes didn’t convert at all.

For context, U.S. defenders contributed five goals during qualifying. Winger Christian Pulisic had five himself — despite starting just seven matches. The lack of viable options at forward is a serious and vexing concern.

Yet while the U.S. won’t get many more reps as a group between now and November, there’s plenty of time for a striker to emerge at the club level. Pepi’s Augsburg and Sargent’s Norwich City are relegation candidates in Germany and England; the pair could actually benefit from dropping down a level, where goals might be easier to come by, in the lead-up to Qatar.

Perhaps Daryl Dike, who was injured for much of the Octagonal, gets hot at the right time for West Bromwich Albion in the English second tier. Maybe Ferreira or Zardes will be lighting up MLS in October. It’s even possible that someone such as two-time World Cup veteran Jozy Altidore or San Jose Earthquakes youngster Cade Cowell comes out of nowhere to play himself onto the squad. That’s what happened in 2010, when then-coach Bob Bradley couldn’t ignore the hot feet of Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez.

"We’re hoping that one of our [strikers] gets in good form by the time the World Cup comes around," Berhalter said.


All available evidence suggests that Steffen, who doesn’t play regularly for Manchester City, is Berhalter’s No. 1 goalkeeper.

That isn’t likely to change. Matt Turner isn’t expected to immediately win the starting job when he moves from MLS New England to Arsenal of the Premier League this summer. (Stranger things have happened, though: Tim Howard beat out World Cup winner Fabian Barthez at Manchester United in 2003.) Ethan Horvath was back on the bench for Nottingham Forest last weekend, following his first extended string of club appearances since 2018-19.

The rust on Steffen showed several times in the Octagonal, including in last week’s 2-0 loss in Costa Rica. With just a week to prepare for the Nov. 21 opener against Scotland, Ukraine or Wales, Berhalter can’t field an out-of-rhythm keeper and, boom, here comes a Gareth Bale free kick.

As the presumptive starter, Steffen must find a way to get minutes. Ideally, both Steffen and Turner would go out on loan, at least for the beginning of next season, for the pre-Cup reps they need. That wouldn’t be unusual, either; Steffen spent the 2019-20 season on loan to Germany’s Freiburg after signing for City.


A nasty hamstring tear limited the 19-year-old Reyna to one start during qualifying. The start came at right wing, where Berhalter has preferred the son of former U.S. World Cup captain Claudio Reyna and USWNT winger Danielle Egan so far.

But the younger Reyna has been deployed centrally this season by Borussia Dortmund. If he stays there in early 2022-23, a similar role with the U.S. makes sense for two reasons.

First, wing is the deepest position in the U.S. player pool, with Pulisic, Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris and Tim Weah vying for two jobs. Second, there’s room for more creativity in Berhalter’s three-man midfield. And Reyna would be an upgrade over Luca de la Torre, especially when Weston McKennie or Yunus Musah isn't available.

"I wouldn't rule out Gio being able to play there," Berhalter said last month. "Eventually I think it's a position he can play."


Since his first training camp in January 2019, Berhalter has rotated the armband. Michael Bradley, Omar Gonzalez and Wil Trapp have worn it. So too have Pulisic, McKennie, Steffen, Tyler Adams, Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, Aaron Long, Tim Ream, DeAndre Yedlin and Walker Zimmerman.

Adams, Pulisic and Zimmerman each captained the squad last month. Sharing the leadership responsibilities made sense then. Not heaping extra pressure on Pulisic — who has spoken about the burden he feels at times to carry his country — was smart coming off the World Cup miss in 2018.

Now that the Americans are in, though, Berhalter should pick a permanent captain: Pulisic. The team’s most important player, Pulisic led the team out of the tunnel against Panama, and the responsibility clearly elevated his game.

This is Pulisic’s team. He’s ready to be The Man, and the U.S. will need him to be if they are to make noise in Qatar. Others will still lead. But if wearing the armband makes Pulisic play better, it’s an easy call.


On any team, role players are crucial. Cooped up in close quarters during a month-long competition, they become even more important.

Not only are the backups counted on to stay positive, spell injured regulars and provide a spark off the bench, but they also can’t upset the delicate ecosystem of the team. They have to reinforce it. That's why guys such as Arriola, Cristian Roldan and Sean Johnson are considered key members of the USMNT locker room, even if fans who judge players solely by their club résumés don’t always understand it.

Still, the main priority at the World Cup is to win.

"Any player that emerges, we’re open to looking at them and giving them an opportunity," Berhalter said. "It’s a great group, a welcoming group. It’s a close-knit team. But we also want to be successful."

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That means having an open mind regarding personnel. Could central defender John Brooks, a 2014 World Cup veteran, get one final chance to make the team this summer? Will youngster Joe Scally be given a chance to compete with George Bello and Sam Vines for the wide-open spot behind Jedi Robinson at left back? After Kellyn Acosta, who rounds out the understudies in midfield? As at striker, performing well as the tournament approaches will help.

"It will be about taking the guys that are in the best form if they’re on the margins," Berhalter said. "We’ll try to pick the best roster possible to do well in the World Cup."

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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