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The changes in World Cup qualification mean Gregg Berhalter needs to open the player pool

Time for the manager to step out of his comfort zone

Mexico v United States: Final - 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The last we checked in on the USMNT, the team was flubbing chances against Mexico while the manager was forgetting to make good substitutions. The result against an El Tri ‘B’ team was inevitable. A decidedly second choice USA squad did have some decent results in the Gold Cup, but also struggled. On one hand, that’s Concacaf and those are growing pains, on the other, it’s worth asking why the team wasn’t better.

Luckily, the US probably did enough in the game to nearly seal its next trip to the World Cup. Concacaf rigged it so that the two most popular teams in the confederation would never miss the tournament and thus cost millions of dollars in lost revenue re-configured World Cup qualification to send the top six teams directly to the Hex. After the typical 10 game home and away set up, the 4th place team will take on the top team from those countries ranked 7-35 to decide who goes to the international playoff to decide the final World Cup qualification spot. Effectively, the change cuts out the 4th round of qualification for the USA.

For the USMNT it means that qualification will begin later and have fewer competitive games. It also means there’s no excuse for not fully preparing for 2022. There is no point in calling in players who will be too old for the World Cup roster and no point in calling players who can’t cut it on the international level because they might be one of the coach’s “guys.” The extra time between now and when the Hex starts in September 2020 opens the door for new players to emerge and the manager needs to see what he has in those he is unfamiliar with.

For the USMNT to improve, Gregg Berhalter needs to call in good players... to the extent that they exist

Let’s call this an exercise in Accam’s razor. Good players make it more likely to win games. The players in MLS aren’t that good as we have discussed, and those getting experience in better leagues against better players should start getting callups so Berhalter can get familiar with them.

There were certainly players who could have been called into the Gold Cup but weren’t that can be justified. Tim Weah reportedly wanted to be with the U-20s, Paxton Pomykal was with the U-20s and is having a breakout year, Duane Holmes, John Brooks, and Tyler Adams were injured, and Kenny Saief was injured or not very good or both while on loan in MLS. Presumably famed USMNT left back Anybody was unavailable...

Then there are those who raise some questions... Jordan Siebatcheu where are you? What about Josh Sargent? Did we really need to see Jonathan Lewis over Sargent? Or were Wil Trapp, Cristian Roldan, and Djordje Mihailovic so crucial to midfield depth that they just had to be there? Or was that just a terrible decision especially because he wasn’t with the U-20s? Then there were Antonee Robinson and Jonathan Amon who were somehow not selected over players like Jordan Morris and Daniel Lovitz.

Andrija Novakovich didn’t get a look in camp after a solid year in the Eredivisie and Lynden Gooch is toiling in obscurity in League One.

Then there are the long lost American sons traipsing across the European continent presumably never to wear the colors of their country again for... reasons? Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, and Alfredo Morales are solid starters on good teams, but they’re going to be a little on the wrong side of their careers to make a difference in Qatar. Still, it seems like they could have made a difference in the Gold Cup but were left off of the 40 man roster.

On the plus side, there were players who did impress in the tournament. Tyler Boyd seems to be in the running for future callups, Reggie Cannon is young, fast, strong and looks to fit Berhalter’s system, Aaron Long is big, physical, confident, and great with the ball at his feet, and Zack Steffen kept a cleansheet for 339 minutes before allowing a goal in the Gold Cup.

It also seems like there is a core that can be built around going forward. Christian Pulisic is obviously the best player on the team and is emerging as a leader. Tim Weah is not only overflowing with talent, but has the kind of positivity and self-belief that are critical for successful athletes and teams. Steffen has the gloves for now and if he goes bald by 2022 should be starting in the World Cup. In central midfield, hopefully, Tyler Adams is the best choice in the middle of the park and in defense it seems like if John Brooks can stay on the field the USA has a lock at one of the center back slots.

Players like Long, Boyd, and Cannon seem to be coming along while there’s an arising enigma in the team - Weston McKennie. The Schalke man can do a little of everything and that might be a problem. His positional discipline is non existent, which is good for marauding late runs but bad for defending, but he is totally fearless and wants to win every ball and has a competitive spirit that the team has been lacking in recent years. It almost seems like what he needs is for a coach to pick a position for him, train him on how to play it, and unleash him onto the world. Let’s hope that position is defensive midfield because he has the makings of a terrific no. 6 and in any case he should be on the team.

That’s nine players of a 23 man roster, the next 14 spots should be used to get familiar with guys who can be depended on in international matches. Some players in the Gold Cup do not fit that bill. Jordan Morris looked outmatched against Mexico. Wil Trapp was left on the bench time and again when the US needed to solidify the midfield. Cristian Roldan did not offer much in the games he featured in.

Nick Lima, Paul Arriola, and Matt Miazga had fine showings, but aren’t quite at “sure thing” levels. Daniel Lovitz is a left back and Gyasi Zardes might be a fantastic presence in the locker room and has a great soccer IQ, but his talent isn’t where it needs to be for a player on the national team. Then there’s DeAndre Yedlin who might be lacking some of the technical skills Berhalter wants in a right back and isn’t a winger, fitting him in will be something to watch in the upcoming international windows.

The veterans like Tim Ream, who won’t be going to Qatar, and Omar Gonzalez, who we have seen enough of, have had their time with the USMNT and it’s time to make way for the younger players. Of course we have to talk about Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Bradley was fine in the tournament, he wasn’t perfect, but he was fine, it doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere much to the rage inducing chagrin of comments sections and Twitter replies across the soccer internet. Jozy flubbed a chance in a big game as is the story of his career, but he’s the best all around striker in the pool and is going to Qatar if he is in form still. Keeping him healthy and getting a solid replacement when he isn’t will be crucial and that replacement is not Gyasi Zardes.

In short, there are some solid options for the national team but if there are fourteen slots that are up in the air, it also means the pool is still lacking in talent. This is a factor that is really important to consider for the Thirteen Stripes when stating expectations and asking unpleasant questions about what happens when key players are injured.

A quick note about the U-20s and yoots

Ah, the future. Remember when Brek Shea, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Davies, Dilly Duka, and Sean Johnson were the future? Things seem brighter now, half of the U-20 team that was in Poland is testing itself at the highest level and bypassing MLS, but nothing is certain. American fans love to ascribe the hopes and dreams of the entire men’s program onto a handful of young players, but most won’t end up making long term contributions to the senior national team. Then there’s the U-23s who will get a chance to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, something the team has managed just once since 2004. Their performance will be a solid indication of the state of the younger players, to the extent that the best players are made available by their clubs.

The future seems bright but it has seemed that way for about 20 years. If the US men are going to do something they haven’t done since 2002 and win more than one game in the World Cup, Gregg Berhalter needs to step out of his comfort zone and take some risks in the player pool.