USMNT World Cup roster and lineup projections as Qatar 2022 nears

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter used a September training camp to get one last look at players before he names his 26-man roster for the 2022 World Cup. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Gregg Berhalter has 11 players in mind who, “ideally, in a perfect world,” would start for the US men’s national team in its 2022 World Cup opener.

The USMNT coach knows, of course, that “that’s not international soccer”; that this world is far from perfect and that injuries will surely disrupt his plans. But he has been concocting them, gradually, for years now. On what is effectively World Cup Eve, with his final warmup friendlies played, he has just about all the information he needs to pick a starting lineup — and, for that matter, a roster.

Berhalter has not yet settled on a 26-man squad for Qatar 2022, but he is close. The roster, he indicated, was 80-85% set prior to a September training camp. A 2-0 loss to Japan last week and a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia on Tuesday provided further clues — and for Berhalter, “some clarity.”

He and US Soccer will reveal the World Cup roster on Nov. 9. He’ll then sweat through one last weekend of club games before submitting his final list of 26 players to FIFA by Monday, Nov. 14. By then, the entire USMNT will have gathered in Qatar, at their luxurious hotel on The Pearl, and at their Al-Gharafa training base.

And by then, barring any last-minute fitness doubts, the starting 11 will also be decided. Here, with less than two months to go, is what we think it will be.

USMNT projected starting lineup for 2022 World Cup

Over the past 12 months, Berhalter’s ideal starting 11 has crystallized. Assuming full health, with the exception of Miles Robinson, it appears to be this — with a few caveats below:

Goalkeeper: Matt Turner
Right back: Sergiño Dest
Center back: Walker Zimmerman
Center back: Chris Richards
Left back: Antonee Robinson
Defensive midfield: Tyler Adams
Central midfield: Yunus Musah
Central midfield: Weston McKennie
Right wing: Tim Weah
Striker: Jesús Ferreira
Left wing: Christian Pulisic

Caveat no. 1: In his “perfect world,” Berhalter would love to start Zack Steffen, who’s more capable than Turner with the ball at his feet. But Steffen’s form and fitness have been unstable. He would need to get back onto the field and into a groove for Middlesbrough, his English Championship club, if he is going to start at the World Cup ahead of Turner — who played all 180 minutes (and played well) in the September friendlies.

Caveat no. 2: Same goes for Chris Richards. He is the most talented center back in the US pool, but missed all six World Cup tuneups due to injury. In his place, Aaron Long was the only USMNT player, regardless of position, to start all six. If Richards isn’t ready to play 90 minutes — and given that he has no clear path to regular playing time at Crystal Palace, he might not be — Long appears to be the deputy, no matter how uncomfortable he has looked. (Long might also be the best matchup for 6-foot-5 Welsh striker Kieffer Moore.)

The only other slight question mark is at the striker. Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi remain in contention to start up top. But Berhalter heaps praise on Jesús Ferreira whenever he can, and said this month that Ferreira “checks all [the] boxes.” If Weah and Pulisic are both in the lineup against Wales, Ferreira should also be in it — with some rotation possible further into the tournament.

USMNT 2022 World Cup roster prediction

The roster is a tad more complicated. But 20 outfield players and one goalkeeper appear to be locks or near-locks. Before we get to position-by-position analysis, and identify those locks, here’s our best guess at the 26:

Goalkeepers: Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Sean Johnson
Fullbacks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon
Center backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers
Central midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta
Attacking midfielders/wingers: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Malik Tillman, Paul Arriola
Strikers: Jesús Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Ricardo Pepi

GOALKEEPERS

Locks: Matt Turner
Likely: Zack Steffen
Bubble: Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath, Gaga Slonina

Turner will be either the starter or the No. 2.

Steffen could be the starter. If not, he could be the No. 2, or he could be off the roster altogether.

For the remaining one or two slots, Berhalter has two options: pick a “locker-room guy,” or peer into the future.

In the first scenario, Johnson versus Horvath is a coin flip. In the second, the 18-year-old Slonina is an obvious choice. He’s the best goalkeeper prospect the US has produced in some time, and the early favorite to start in 2026. He hasn’t played for the national team yet, but could be brought to Qatar for the experience.

FULLBACKS

Locks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson
Likely: DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon
Bubble: Joe Scally, Sam Vines

Berhalter dropped a massive hint on Tuesday when he started Dest at left back and Yedlin at right back, rather than giving Scally a legitimate look on the left. Scally was somewhat impressive off the bench — but on the right, which is telling.

The takeaway is that Dest, in addition to his role as the starting right back, is the backup left back. If Antonee Robinson were to go down in Qatar, Dest would switch flanks, and either Yedlin or Cannon would slot in at right back, depending on the situation and opponent. (Cannon is valued for his ability to play on the right side of a back three in possession.)

So, Scally would, in theory, be the third-string left back and fourth-string right back. Vines, who looked a bit out of his depth against Japan, would be the third-string left back. Both seem unnecessary.

With Robinson injured, Berhalter brought only one left-footed fullback to September camp, and his reasoning — “we didn’t feel like we had enough depth on the left side to go with two left-footers” — could probably apply in November as well.

CENTER BACKS

Locks: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long
Likely: Cameron Carter-Vickers
Bubble: Mark McKenzie
Long shot: Tim Ream, James Sands

Zimmerman and his two potential partners are on the plane. Carter-Vickers is the clear favorite to join them. Those were the four on this September roster until Richards and Carter-Vickers pulled out with minor injuries. In their absence, Berhalter called in McKenzie and Eric Palmer-Brown, but, rather than giving them real opportunities, he kept trying to forge a viable Long-Zimmerman partnership.

The question is whether he’ll take a fifth center back. The extremely logical option would be Ream, who A) is currently captaining a Premier League club, B) has all sorts of experience, C) would be the left-footed ball-playing center back that the US so sorely lacked against Japan and D ) could serve as the third-string, in-case-of-emergency left back.

But Berhalter’s September decisions and words suggest that Ream is, at best, seventh on the depth chart and out of the picture.

“Some of the things that we’re looking for in our center backs is to play a high line, cover a lot of space behind them, be dominant in the air, dominant on offensive and defensive set pieces,” Berhalter said after naming the roster. “And that’s not Tim’s strength.”

(McKenzie played in the second halves of both September games, and, although he’d seem redundant if the top four options are all available, he could be the fifth choice.)

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

Locks: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta
Longshots: From Cristian Roldan
Can play here too: Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Malik Tillman

The midfield seems simple. The three starters — Adams, Musah and McKennie — are obvious. Acosta is the backup to Adams. De la Torre is a backup at either of the other two positions. So are Tillman, Reyna and Aaronson, who, as a trio, give Berhalter enough flexibility to feel comfortable taking only five true central midfielders.

There remains an outside chance, though, that he could use the 26th roster spot on a sixth, which could be Roldan, a well-liked and versatile veteran who’s currently injured — and whose stock might have risen in absentia.

WINGERS/ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS

Locks: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson
Likely: Malik Tillman
Bubble: Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris

We’re hesitant to lock in Tillman only because his USMNT track record is so short. Booth Berhalter clearly rates him. Speaking prior to camp, he essentially challenged the 20-year-old attacking midfielder to “increase his level,” then said: “He can help this group, but he needs to pick it up a little. He’s a guy that the coaching staff was highly impressed with, and think he’s got a huge ceiling.”

Berhalter then used Tillman in both September games off the bench, once in midfield and once on the left wing. That he didn’t stand out isn’t all that relevant, because nobody did.

With creativity more than accounted for, then, by that locked-in group of four or five, the conventional wisdom is that Berhalter will take a more direct winger as the sixth player in this category. It’ll likely be whoever between Arriola and Morris concludes the MLS season in better form.

STRIKERS

Locks: Jesús Ferreira
Likely: Josh Sargent
Bubble: Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok

Ferreira will be on the plane, even if he doesn’t start. Sargent should be, unless he falls back into a rut at Norwich. And then we arrive at the most controversial decision of all.

Berhalter would do anything to reincarnate 2021 Ricardo Pepi. He called the 19-year-old into September camp despite 11-plus months without a goal. (Pepi finally scored one the following weekend.) He praised him effusively in news conferences, and handed him a start against Saudi Arabia. He desperately wants Pepi to make this 26-man squad, and to be his third striker — or something more.

Whether Pepi ultimately does will depend on his performances for his new club, FC Groningen; but also on Berhalter’s answer to an infrequently discussed question: Might he take four strikers to Qatar?

He certainly doesn’t need four. But he doesn’t need a fifth fullback, a fifth center back or a sixth central midfielder either. The separate scenarios that call Pepi and Pefok into action are far more plausible than the ones that summon Scally, or Vines, or McKenzie, or Roldan.

Pefok, as the third striker, would serve a very specific role. He’d never start, because his profile doesn’t jibe with Berhalter’s system; but he’d be the penalty-box target that Berhalter would turn to when systems fly out the window, with 15 minutes remaining and in need of a goal.

Pepi would then be the fourth striker who could deputize in any of the three roles, and who, in the absolute worst-case scenario, would soak up the experience and store it away for 2026.

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