World Cup: What Gregg Berhalter, USA must learn from September camp
The final pre-World Cup US men’s national team roster for the final pre-World Cup camp is out. There are 26 names on it, and each of those 26 names was predictable. There are no out-of-left field surprises.
There are, of course, some gripes about who was left off the roster. Haji Wright, for example, has followed up a disappointing June camp with an absolutely scorching start to the season in Turkey. He’s certainly got an argument, as does Tim Ream, who is, at age 35, in maybe the form of his life for Fulham. James Sands is starting at center back for a Champions League team – the best Rangers side in a decade – and theoretically provides cover at three different spots.
Eryk Williamson was very good last year at the Gold Cup, and has bounced back from an ACL tear to be excellent this year for the Portland Timbers, while FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez and Union Berlin’s Jordy Pefok both, quite clearly, have a shout.
But to get fixated on any one of these guys, or even all of them together, is to worry more about spots, say, 23 through 30 in the pool. If we were at a different point in the World Cup cycle, it’d be more worth talking about. As it stands, though, with 180 minutes remaining until the US kicks off in Qatar on Nov. 21 against Wales, what head coach Gregg Berhalter gets out of 1-through-22 – and how he arranges 1-through-22 on the depth chart – is infinitely more important.
We are clearly past the experimentation stage and have moved on to optimization.
With that in mind, here’s what I think we should care about most for the upcoming Europe-based friendlies vs. Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27).
I’ve written for about five years that Sargent’s development is/will be one of the most crucial things that determines the ceiling for the US this cycle. And for most of this cycle, he’d developed into a pretty miserable defensive winger who rarely even threatened the goal, let alone put the ball in the net.
But then Teemu Pukki got hurt last month, and Sargent got a run of games at center forward for Norwich City, and lo, it was good!
Sargent stagnated because he wasn’t getting time as a center forward, but he wasn’t getting time as a center forward because he wasn’t making the kinds of dangerous, backline-penetrating runs that any good center forward needs to make.
That’s changed this year, and it’s showing not just in the box score, but in the underlying numbers. For the first time in his career Sargent is consistently finding the kinds of chances that lead to sustainable goalscoring – one-touch finishes in the box. Make good, hard runs, and get rewarded.
If Sargent can do that, plus target forward stuff (he’s always been pretty rugged, if not necessarily physically dominant), plus pressing stuff (he’s excellent), plus the drop-in-and-link-up stuff that got some of the world’s elite teams to notice him in the first place… well, then, I really do think the US’s collective ceiling goes up.
This isn’t a knock on Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Vazquez or Jordan Pefok in any way. I’d be pretty comfortable with Ferreira, who just keeps improving, as the US’s starting No. 9 in November, and frankly, I wouldn’t throw a fit if Berhalter decided that actually it’s Pefok or Vazquez who’s best for that spot (I straight-up don’t think Pepi’s ready, but he’s young and a lot can change in two months). While there are stylistic differences among the No. 9 candidates, I mostly don’t think there’s a huge difference in quality.
What separates Sargent from the group, then – potentially, anyway – is his dimensionality. If he really is making those goal-scoring runs now, then he’s the only potential US No. 9 who checks every box at a “very good” level or above.
But also, Sargent’s been a pro for five years and the sample size of him actually doing that sort of thing is, like, four games. I’m pretty sure Berhalter will need to see him do it in Red, White & Blue before permanently adjusting his own depth chart. Which is, of course, the only one that really matters.
Miles Robinson’s torn Achilles’ with Atlanta United back in May opened up the single biggest question in the XI for Berhalter to sort out, because if Robinson had stayed healthy, I don’t think there’s any doubt he and Zimmerman would’ve been the presumptive starters in Qatar. As it stands, I think there are three main contenders to be his replacement:
Richards is the youngest, but pretty clearly has the highest upside. He also has a modicum of familiarity with Zimmerman, as the two started together twice in qualifying.
The issue, however, is currently he’s barely playing, as he’s managed just 135 first-team minutes since joining Crystal Palace over the summer from Bayern Munich. And a significant chunk of those minutes haven’t even come at center back, as Patrick Vieira’s more often used him in league play as a stopgap at fullback.
If Richards is completely out of sorts, that opens the door for Long or CCV. Both guys bring similar strengths and weaknesses to the table, though if you want to cut it pretty fine I’ll say that Carter-Vickers is quicker, while Long is better in the air. A big part of how the US have evolved under Berhalter is to keep the opponents pinned, which means plays like this one have significant value:
That’s been Long’s bread and butter for more than half a decade with the Red Bulls, and it’s a big reason why he’s been a part of virtually every USMNT camp he’s been healthy for since Berhalter took over in 2019.
As with Sargent, I don’t think Berhalter needs to have this entirely sorted out by the end of this camp. It’ll be an ongoing competition, one that’s clearly whittled down to these three guys.
I will admit some real surprise that James Sands isn’t here as a break-in-case-of-emergency option as a fifth center back/third d-mid/third right back. But maybe Reggie Cannon’s year of playing right center back in Boavista’s 3-5-2 has convinced Berhalter that it’s actually Reggie who’s the break-in-case-of-emergency option back there.
The biggest surprise of the June camp was that the US deviated from the 4-3-3, single pivot Berhalter has mostly preferred in favor of something that really was more of a Columbus Crew-esque 4-2-3-1. Berhalter’s used the double pivot for the US in the past, mind you, but that was always more of a modern 3-4-2-1.
Not the case this summer. The pyramid got flipped, which, when the US were playing against the ball, gave Tyler Adams license to push up and press to create turnovers rather than sitting to protect the backline. When the US were on the ball, Yunus Musah played a more central role in US build-outs and my god:
This is a level of dynamism out of deep central midfield the US often struggled to find during qualifying. Berhalter alluded to that when asked about the shape change, noting Adams struggled with some of the on-field orchestrator duties asked of a single pivot in the modern game.
Letting them share the burden, with Musah doing more of the lifting with regard to ball progression and Adams acting as more of a classic destroyer, makes intuitive sense. It also plays to the strengths of Weston McKennie, who’s a more dynamic final third presence, both as a passer of the ball and as a box-arriving runner, the folks seem to realize. He’d be playing as a 10 but not in the classic, South American way – it’d be more of a Michael Ballack thing. The same goes, I think for Malik Tillman, though I think of him more as positionless at this point.
The rub, of course, is Musah’s defensive awareness, especially when Adams goes hunting. At times it was… lacking:
Musah’s finally playing central midfield for Valencia and hasn’t had many moments like that – talented young players improve rapidly when they get reps in a good environment – so I’m bullish that he’s ready for the double pivot with the US.
If Berhalter intends to use it in November, then we’ve got to see it now.
Jedi’s ability to go endline-to-endline, providing both width and penetration, was literally inimitable for the US during qualifying. Flip Sergino Dest over to that side and the US became just an entirely different (and much worse) team, and the same thing happened this spring when Joe Scally made his debut there.
Well, Jedi picked up a knock a few weeks ago with Fulham (for what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a horribly bad one or we’d have heard about it by now), which makes this camp a very good time to:
Vines has been very good – starting and going 90 every game – for a Royal Antwerp team that’s five points clear atop the table in Belgium, and got some Europa Conference League experience over the past two months as well. He’s also got eight caps for the US and while he looked short of confidence and overwhelmed at last summer’s Gold Cup, it’s worth remembering that Robinson also looked overwhelmed for the US as a 22-year-old.
I’m gonna repeat the Musah thing: talented young players in a good club environment tend to improve rapidly. Vines has been in a very good club situation for a year now, and that’s translated to on-field improvement for his club. I expect we’ll see the same from when he gets on the field for his country in this camp.
Didn’t look bad in his competitive Arsenal debut, but didn’t look great, either. That’s… fine, I guess.
At any rate, Turner – even a rusty, non-playing Turner – has got to be the No. 1 at this point, and would be even if Zack Steffen was fit enough to be part of this camp. Both Steffen and Ethan Horvath are 1) error-prone and 2) struggling in the Championship, while Sean Johnson, who was superb for the US in June, has not been anywhere close to his best since then with NYCFC.
Between these two games and Arsenal’s Europa League/EFL Cup schedule, Turner’s likely to get at most seven games between now and the start of the World Cup (barring injury, either to him or to Aaron Ramsdale). That’s not optimal, but at least 180 minutes here could give us a feel for how he’ll handle jumping into the action with zero rhythm.
The truth is, this might be the single most important thing we learn from the camp. But because the goalkeeper depth chart is essentially “Turner or bust” at this point, I dropped it down to fifth.
Here’s the squad, sorted by position:
- CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Malik Tillman (Rangers)
- WINGER: Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas)
- FORWARD: Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), Ricardo Pepi (Groningen)
• As always, I’m going to advocate for playing Pulisic at right wing instead of on the left. When he plays on the right he tends to be more direct and willing to work off the ball, while when he plays on the left he likes to stand in one place and point at his feet.
• Sands’ presence as a deep reserve who can play center back, right back and d-mid would give Berhalter the flexibility to add more attacking pieces, but clearly he does not fit the game model. Berhalter made a decision about 12 months ago that if his team was going to press – and clearly, they are – then they needed center backs who could run. Sands, Ream and Mark McKenzie are all gifted on the ball, but none of them is the type to run down an attacker in the open field. Neither, obviously, is John Brooks. The game model demands footspeed. Richards, Long, Carter-Vickers and, to a lesser extent, Zimmerman all have it.
• Because of the potential for injuries or unstoppable hot streaks of the sort that can change any coach’s feelings about a player, I don’t think this roster entirely closes the book for guys who weren’t in this camp. But the writing is very much on the wall for the vast majority who aren’t here.
• That obviously does not include Tim Weah, who is only just returning from injury and isn’t expected to be fully fit until the end of the month. Same for Jedi and probably Steffen as well, though I would argue that Steffen’s been so poor over the past couple of years that he should not be in the top three of the current goalkeeper depth chart.