September camp push: Did USMNT players boost or hurt their World Cup stock?
It’s the beginning of the end, or maybe the end of the beginning, for the 2022 cycle. Let’s get into it.
Later this week Gregg Berhalter will release the US men’s national team’s roster for this month’s European-based friendlies vs. Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27), their final gathering before the World Cup. The clock is ticking loudly, because everyone knows it’s unlikely anyone NOT in the September camp is going to Qatar.
So this past week’s club action was the final chance for players to make their case before Berhalter settled on his list. Check out the roster picks made by our own Tom Bogert and Matt Doyle.
A note for those who missed it: No action took place in England’s top four tiers and the rest of British professional soccer over the weekend, in deference to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
- James Sands (D/M, Rangers)
- Malik Tillman (M/F, Rangers)
There’s precious little on earth like a runout in UEFA Champions League or (to a lesser extent) Europa League competition, and several Yanks embraced that feeling – and that opportunity on a big stage – over the past few days.
The most encouraging outing from a USMNT standpoint was Gio Reyna’s 67 Champions League minutes for Borussia Dortmund vs. FC Copenhagen, the attacker’s longest appearance since his return from an extended injury absence and a dazzling one at that. Entering for the injured Thorgan Hazard in the 23rd minute, Reyna dished out two assists in a 3-0 win (granted, he and his teammates were much less impressive in Saturday’s 3-0 setback to RB Leipzig).
Elsewhere, Sergiño Dest made his AC Milan debut – following his loan from FC Barcelona – in their 1-1 UCL draw at RB Salzburg, playing 33 minutes and completing 65% of his passes, including one key pass. And Weston McKennie scored a consolation goal off a corner-kick header in Juventus’ 2-1 UCL loss to mighty Paris Saint-Germain, the highlight of a solid 45-minute substitute runout:
It was a tougher midweek for Scotland-based Cameron Carter-Vickers, James Sands and Malik Tillman as Celtic and Rangers were thoroughly beaten by Real Madrid and Ajax, respectively, with none of the trio standing out in a particularly positive way. And Christian Pulisic’s Chelsea suffered a downright disastrous 1-0 UCL loss to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia that triggered the firing of manager Thomas Tuchel – though that may yet benefit the USMNT star; more on that in a moment.
Matt Turner made his competitive debut for Arsenal in their UEL visit to FC Zurich. The goalkeeper got a penalty kick scored on him and showed a few jitters on nervy moments in the Gunners’ buildouts, but banked a 2-1 W nonetheless. With Zack Steffen recovering from injury, the ex-New England Revolution star will take every 90-minute runout he can while trying to maintain form ahead of the USMNT beginning Group B play on Nov. 21 against Wales and LAFC star Gareth Bale.
USMNT forwards continue to stake their claims to that much, much, much-discussed No. 9 job.
Jesus Ferreira was one of the standouts of MLS Week 30, scoring twice in four second-half minutes for FC Dallas to turn a 1-0 deficit at home vs. 10-man LAFC into a euphoric 2-1 win over the previous league leaders.
Cheetah has now matched FCD’s single-season club scoring record of 18 (with three more games to break it) and still has a puncher’s chance in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race. On Saturday night we went into some depth about his form, with insight from FCD boss and former USMNT assistant Nico Estevez.
Over in Germany, Jordan Pefok was centrally involved in Union Berlin’s very early goal vs. Koln, then saw his poorly-hit penalty kick saved by Marvin Schwäbe a few minutes later. But he didn’t get punished for it as the Iron Ones still secured a 1-0 road win that pushes them, quite surprisingly, into first place in the early Bundesliga standings. It wasn’t Pefok’s best day, but he still put in the work and was an absolute beast in the air as usual.
In the Netherlands, Ricardo Pepi made an excellent start to his loan move at Groningen, coming off the bench to notch a game-winning assist to Tomas Suslov in a 1-0 Eredivisie over Cambuur. At the close of the European summer transfer window, the former FC Dallas homegrown star secured a temporary move away from Bundesliga side Augsburg.
And Brandon Vazquez, who remains on the USMNT bubble, but might just sneak in this month, notched an assist in FC Cincinnati’s 6-0 demolition of the San Jose Earthquakes, running his 2022 total to 16g/5a.
- John Tolkin (D, New York Red Bulls)
- DeJuan Jones (D, New England Revolution)
While arguably a less pressing overall concern than other areas of the pitch, the fullback positions present some of Berhalter’s most intriguing considerations in the coming weeks.
Dest and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson still look like the first-choice starters, at least on paper. Yet Jedi’s ankle injury with Fulham and Dest’s difficulties at FC Barcelona have underlined the inherent unpredictability at play here, and the importance of reliable reserve options. Which brings us to MLS homegrown emeriti Joe Scally and Sam Vines.
Scally, who’s still just 19, has been starting regularly for Borussia Mönchengladbach, showing steadiness beyond his years via outings like Sunday’s scoreless draw at Freiburg, where he passed at a 92% completion rate, made one key pass, won the majority of his duels and drew three fouls. Despite his relatively limited time spent in Berhalter’s setup, the NYCFC product’s ability to earn consistent minutes in one of the world’s top leagues should keep him in the mix for Qatar.
Vines, meanwhile, is playing every week for Royal Antwerp, who have raced out to a five-point lead atop Belgium’s Jupiler Pro league with a perfect start to their campaign. The Colorado Rapids product has chipped in a goal and an assist so far, and in Sunday’s win over Cercle Brugge he logged 57 touches, going 27-of-36 with his passing and making five recoveries.
That’s before we even delve into other fullback options like Reggie Cannon, who’s earning PT at Boavista, Shaq Moore at Nashville SC, Inter Miami’s DeAndre Yedlin and impressive outsiders John Tolkin and DeJuan Jones, respectively of the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution.
How many fullbacks should make the final squad? Bring a specialist left-sider to back up Jedi, or get comfortable with inverted right-footers there? Decisions, decisions for Berhalter & Co.
For better or worse, no one in the USMNT player pool draws more attention, and headlines, than the program’s standard-bearer Christian Pulisic. And so it goes in the wake of Tuchel’s dismissal and the subsequent hiring of Graham Potter as his replacement, even with CFC idle over the weekend.
Potter’s sterling work at Brighton & Hove Albion, where he got the Gulls playing effective, progressive soccer on a limited budget, has raised hopes of a resurgence for Pulisic in west London. Yet his competition for playing time along the Blues’ front line is ferocious, particularly given the late-window arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the general expectation Potter will lean towards a three-man back line.
Will Pulisic assert himself on the training pitch as an irresistible option in the wide attacking slots, or might he have to get comfortable working as a wingback? Just what does Potter think of him, anyway? All this is yet to be revealed to the public eye and it will inevitably have at least a degree of a knock-on effect for the USMNT. And with Chelsea’s rugged, busy upcoming schedule highlighted by dates with RB Salzburg, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Milan, perhaps we’ll have some data points soon
Among other media coverage, The Athletic dedicated a piece to this topic that is worth reading for Yanks supporters. Berhalter will undoubtedly already be contemplating the matter in his own right.