Having won two trophies, both at the expense of rival Mexico, the expansive pool of US men’s national team players has good reason to feel pretty good about everything. The Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup triumphs were exercises in validation and momentum, and things could not have worked out more productively for coach Gregg Berhalter over the course of the two competitions.
Now, the stakes get even higher and the expanded pool will shrink a bit.
The United States is a month away from qualifying for the World Cup, with the compressed road to Qatar starting in El Salvador on September 2 and hardly slowing until the end of qualifying on March 30. The point of the Nations League and Gold Cup, beyond competing to win, was finding out who could break it in high-intensity environments where winning and losing had far greater ramifications than they do in friendlies. The US European core and core competed in the Nations League final four, while a heavier contingent from the MLS took the baton for the Gold Cup, and both succeeded despite varying levels of chemistry, cohesion and expectations.
Late goals and heroism have emerged as a theme for both groups over the past couple of months. There was Jordan Siebatcheu’s diving header in the 89th minute against Honduras to secure the United States’ place in the Nations League final. There was Weston McKennie’s immediate response to Diego Lainez’s go-ahead goal in the 82nd minute to push him into extra time. And it was in those additional 30 minutes that Christian Pulisic scored from a penalty and Ethan Horvath blatantly kept Andres Guardado out to secure the trophy.
After a Gold Cup group stage where the United States actually took the first goals to victory to change, the knockout stage showed its ability to be late again. Matthew Hoppe’s 83rd-minute goal eliminated Jamaica in the quarter-finals, while Gyasi Zardes’s 86th-minute goal against Qatar kicked off the final. There, Miles Robinson’s 117-minute header captured his seventh US title and ended his phenomenal tournament on both sides of the pitch.
like Berhalter he said in his post-final team speech, “Once again, over 80 minutes, it’s our time, baby. That’s when we’ll make it.”
Now is the time to see who can make it into Concacaf’s new qualifying phase, where eight teams enter the octagonal and only three come out with tickets to Qatar (a fourth will go to the intercontinental playoffs for another World Cup place). In the last two races 43 players were used. Of the 23 Nations League squads, four were transferred to the 23 Gold Cup squads and an injury substitute was made (Henry Kessler for Walker Zimmerman) for the duration of the competition.
While the Nations League and Gold Cup teams were to be limited to 23, there is no such limit for World Cup qualifiers. Teams for the day will be limited as usual, but Berhalter can call as many players as he wishes to camp and reduce for each match from there, which gives the manager a little more leeway, something that will come in handy in this compressed version of qualification, where four of the five windows feature three games apiece. Calculating that each field will have a total of around 26-28 players or so, here’s what the first group might look like for September, using all the data from the last two months:
Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Steffen is still almost certainly the No. 1 and the most likely candidate to start against El Salvador on September 2, but it’s not as dry as it once seemed. Horvath’s heroism off the cold bench against Mexico will not soon be forgotten, and Turner was an absolute rock in the Gold Cup on his way to winning the title of best goalkeeper in the competition. What once looked like a group with questionable depth now appears to be one with three very viable and reliable options, and Turner’s rise likely contributed to Real Salt Lake’s David Ochoa – the third goalkeeper on the Nations League squad –reportedly opting for the switch international loyalty to Mexico.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (NYCFC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)
The answer as to who should start alongside Brooks in the center of defense has become a little clearer. McKenzie recovered from a Nations League gaffe to show his courage and prove his worth, while Robinson was arguably the biggest individual winner at the Gold Cup. Besides them, Richards, who missed the Nations League with a hamstring injury, he needs to fix his club’s situation for the season – another loan from Bayern seems likely – while Sands has shown glimpses of what makes him so much hyped in the Gold Cup. Aaron Long’s Achilles tendon injury will keep him out for the foreseeable future, while Zimmerman’s hamstring condition also puts his availability at risk.
On the outside, there are some choices to be made. The right back depth chart is provided, with Dest, Cannon and Yedlin on top and Roma’s Shaq Moore and Bryan Reynolds not too far behind. Moore, in particular, proved he deserves a return call after a three-year spell in the international wilderness. The left still doesn’t have a clear starter that would keep the versatile Dest on his favorite right and, subjectively speaking, Sam Vines hasn’t shown enough on the defensive side of things to fully fit into the conversation – it’s evident from the relatively untested George Bello that he was favorite to start the Gold Cup final.
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
You can put McKennie and Adams in a US starting lineup as long as they are in good health, but beyond that, you might have some arguments.
An injury to Yunus Musah, sustained during the Valencia preseason, threatens to keep him out of the game for the first three qualifiers and also opens up more space in the center for Roldan and Williamson, who have shown what roles they can fill during the Gold Cup in terms of win the ball and push things forward. Acosta, however, was the big winner given his participation in both the Nations League and the Gold Cup and the role he played in securing the trophy in the latter. His playing prowess, leadership, and veteran cunning proved useful, and his service to Robinson for the Gold Cup winner was sublime.
Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Matthew Hoppe (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew ))
Pulisic and Reyna are expected to take both sides of a front three, while Berhalter himself has stated that Aaronson is pushing for a starting spot there. Hoppe, who played central for Schalke but has done very well in a large area on the Gold Cup squad, also brings tools, an eye for scoring and a move that should be useful. Aside from what is quantifiable, something about him just seems to be the part. However, he needs to fix his club’s situation and ensure a smooth transition, with news of a Schalke move swirling.
The only question that remains unanswered is that of the center forward, but it is difficult to argue against Siebatcheu. He started the new season for Young Boys (under German-American manager David Wagner) with two league goals and one more in Champions League qualifiers, and no one else has emerged to support a compelling case otherwise. Daryl Dike could very well become a star in that role. He has all the tools to inherit it and has been given multiple opportunities in the Gold Cup to catch it, but a shoulder injury against Canada seemed limiting. He could make his way to a safer place in the coming weeks with Orlando, or elsewhere if a move abroad transpires. Depending on how big the team Berhalter wants to take, he could be included in the September group.
Although the roster can be expanded, this group can only contain so many components. In addition to Dike who is on the cusp, there is Nicholas Gioacchini, who provided a consistent spark off the bench in the Gold Cup, and Paul Arriola, whose experience and skill on the wing was appreciated by Berhalter. If injuries or other factors come into play, they are the next men at stake. Since this is the Gold Cup theme for the US, they should have no problem answering the bell.
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