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Who should be on the November USMNT roster?

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Will Gregg stick with the same group after the backups disappointed in Panama, or open things up for competition?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

November is here, and the international break is nearly upon us once more. Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the November World Cup Qualifying window is expected to be released later this week. Here’s the USMNT’s shortened two-game itinerary:

  • Fri, Nov 12: Host Mexico in Cincinnati, OH
  • Sat, Nov 13: Travel 1500 miles to Kingston, Jamaica
  • Tue, Nov 16: Face Jamaica in Kingston

Last month, I started the roster-building piece by identifying which players were automatic callups, and focusing on the rest of the roster. Unfortunately, Gregg proved me wrong in October, leaving two of my assumed “locks” off the roster (Konrad and Horvath).

I want to apply similar logic this window, but back it off a little bit, with respect to Gregg’s ability to surprise us all.

So here is my list of players who appear to be automatic callups right now, submitted with more humility than last month’s list:

  • Matt Turner, Zack Steffen
  • Miles Robinson
  • Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson
  • Tyler Adams
  • Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah
  • Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah
  • Ricardo Pepi

That’s 11 players (see how I backed off last month’s “automatic” list?). So while Gregg may not have half his roster picking itself for him, he at least has several obvious choices as he gets going.

Tier 2 and Gregg’s favorites

I’m also submitting a list of “Fairly Obvious” selections. I’m not assuming they’re automatic, but they’re... fairly obvious.

  • John Brooks, Chris Richards
  • Joe Scally
  • Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio
  • Konrad de la Fuente

If all those fairly obvious selections are included, that bumps the squad up to 18 players. There’s also some Gregg Favorites to consider:

  • Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman
  • Kellyn Acosta
  • Sebastian Lletget
  • Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan
  • Gyasi Zardes

While Zardes’ is likely unavailable due to injury, adding these other 6 would bring the total to 24 players, with only 2 goalkeepers. Which would mean essentially no new faces in the squad beyond Joe Scally. We’ll take a deeper position-by-position dive into the options, including Tier 2 players and Gregg’s favorites.

Decisions that remain for the window:

Do you shrink the squad with only 2 games?

Berhalter opted for 26 players in October and 27 in November, which were both three-game windows. Given that November is only 2 games, which means less wear and tear (and less travel), will Gregg cut the list to 23 or 24? There would be some sense to doing it that way, but there are pros and cons. He may opt to keep the larger squad in order to maximize his options and flexibility across the two games. He may also want to keep continuity, with the same players building cohesion and camaraderie together.

It’s worth repeating that if there are any players Gregg is at all interested in bringing who play club soccer in Europe or South America, it would be wise for him to include them in his original list. If he needs to make last-minute replacements for any reasons, MLS players will be available on short notice - that isn’t the case with the European or South American contingents.

Pulisic and Reyna

Just like last window, Gio Reyna is very much in doubt due to fitness. However, Pulisic is in Chelsea’s Champions League squad for their match tomorrow — great news! It will be interesting to see if he plays tomorrow. He could be an option for the November roster, but it’s also possible he’s left to continue his recovery with club, with the hopes of being brought back in at closer to full strength and fitness for the next World Cup qualifying window in January. Chelsea will certainly not be eager to see him rejoin the USMNT, as he’s just now recovering from an injury sustained on international duty in September.

Once again, let’s take a look at the players who are locks (in this case I’ll tempt fate and include near-locks, as well).

That’s the first 17 names on the roster. The only one I really have any doubt about is Konrad, because he was left off in October. But if club form is being taken into account at all, he should be an obvious choice. With those 16 or 17 players selected, that leaves Gregg a few areas to affect the roster: backup DM, fullbacks, forwards, and third ‘keeper. As I said last month, it’s the question marks where Gregg has the greatest chance to affect the team, for better or worse.

Let’s dive into each position.

Goalkeeper

Turner and Steffen are expected. Will Gregg opt for Sean Johnson as his third ‘keeper again, will Ethan Horvath see a return to the fold, or will Gregg go with someone entirely different? The typical MLS options like Bill Hamid, Stefan Frei, Tim Melia, and Brad Guzan are available, as is youngster Gaga Slonina.

Center back

Brooks, Miles Robinson, and Richards are expected. Mark McKenzie, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Ream, and James Sands have WCQ callups already. Sands is the only one of those four to not be included in any semblance of a roster last month. Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers could be options to bolster the squad, despite both seeming to be out of favor with Berhalter. Miazga has put in good performances for Alavés (despite not playing in their last two), and CCV has been a regular starter for Celtic since joining on loan from Tottenham, currently making WhoScored’s team of the season in the Scottish Premiership.

Fullback

Dest, Antonee, and Scally are expected. Does Gregg intend to play Scally primarily on the right, the left, or both? That will inform who else might be called in. DeAndre Yedlin and Shaq Moore have been options on the right in qualifying so far, and George Bello on the left. Sam Vines is back to health with Antwerp, and could supplant Bello.

Reggie Cannon just returned from injury with Boavista, but suffered “severe trauma to his knee” Saturday in only his third game back. However, that same report also said Cannon is being evaluated to see if he can be fit for Boavista’s game this Friday. Maybe something was lost in the translation from Portuguese.

Bryan Reynolds provides a unique combination of attacking and athleticism. He appears to be completely out of José Mourinho’s plans at Roma, after taking part in a 6-1 loss to Bodø/Glimt in the Europa Conference League. With Dest and Antonee the starting fullbacks, and Scally able to deputize capably on either side, there could be an opportunity to call up Reynolds. His talent and potential are both sky-high, and he was playing extremely well in MLS before making the move to Serie A. He showed some of his attacking ability in his first and only USMNT cap vs Northern Ireland in March, with a driven entry ball that led to Christian Pulisic’s penalty, and this run that created a tap-in opportunity for Daryl Dike.

In most situations, it doesn’t make sense to call up a player who is out of form and not getting regular minutes for his club. The only exceptions to that rule are when that player can clearly add something to the team relative to the opponents they will be facing. Reynolds clearly has a unique attacking skillset, partially due to his size and athleticism. He could be an interesting option to bring off the bench in Jamaica to run against tired legs.

Lastly, it would be fantastic to see Jonathan Gómez called up to train with the team. The 18-year-old Mexican-American left back is moving to Real Sociedad in January, and has already trained with El Tri. He’s on the record that he wants to train with the US before deciding his international future. This window is the last chance for him to train with the US’s first-team players. A reported December game vs Bosnia and Herzegovina means there will likely be a domestic-only camp outside FIFA international windows, and it’s possible Berhalter intends to invite Gómez then. That would not be ideal from a recruiting standpoint, since he would only be able to train with a few of our top players. Gómez has 2 goals and a whopping 10 assists for Louisville City in the USL Championship this year; the club is second in the Eastern Conference and seems poised for a deep playoff run.

Defensive mid

Adams is expected. It would not be a surprise at all to see Kellyn Acosta on the roster as well. Acosta has been the backup 6 since the summer, and his outstanding performance vs Mexico in the Gold Cup final will surely be on the minds of Berhalter and many fans. However, Acosta’s performances in World Cup qualifying have not come close to the level he showed in the Gold Cup this summer, especially the putrid midfield display he and Lletget produced in Panama City last month. His magnificence against El Tri in August is beginning to look more and more like an outlier. Will Gregg opt to go with the familiar, comfortable option, or open things up for competition?

If Gregg does decide to bring someone else, either in addition to Acosta or instead of him, there are several options to choose from. James Sands is the most obvious, having played in the September qualifiers (albeit out of position). Christian Cappis could also be included, having been in multiple Berhalter camps before, and playing regularly for Brøndby in both the Danish league and Europa League. Cappis is more of a box-to-box midfielder, but has the frame and physical tools to defend well as a 6, in addition to clean touch and crisp passing.

Tanner Tessmann is another option. The FC Dallas product has seen very little time in Serie A since joining Venezia, but got his first start Sunday and went the full 90’ in midfield. Tessmann has shown his on-ball ability every time he steps on the field. Like Cappis, he has the frame and athleticism to defend stoutly, but might still have some learning to do when it comes to team shape and defensive positioning. Last but not least, Johnny Cardoso is playing regularly as a defensive midfielder for Internacional, who are sixth in the Brazilian league table. Johnny played in the USMNT’s European camp in November 2020. He’s a technical player who also has good technical awareness and hard tackling.

This is one of the areas where Berhalter has the greatest ability to affect the team. There are multiple ways to approach the backup 6 spot: bring Acosta only, bring Acosta and a challenger, or bring one or two challengers while leaving Acosta out. You can probably guess my opinion, just based on the amount of digital ink I’ve already spilled on the topic. I think the team would do just fine with Tyler Adams and one or two challengers. The flip side is “We know Acosta can perform well vs Mexico - we don’t know these other players can.” That is a fair point, but we also know Acosta can perform terribly - against much weaker opponents, like Panama. We also shouldn’t need Acosta against Mexico. Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Gianluca Busio, and Luca de la Torre should all be on the roster. That’s plenty of options to cover defensive midfield, whether as a single 6 or a double-pivot.

Ultimately, it comes down to consequences and expectations. Spots on the national team can be won and lost with performances. Acosta won a spot on the team with his performance vs Mexico in the Gold Cup final. In my view, he’s lost his spot on the team with his mediocre performances in World Cup qualifying so far, especially in Panama. That doesn’t mean he is banished from the team, never to return. He can be brought back in the next window, or the window after that. But it does mean the team should explore options and give chances to some other players. Maybe those other players will be able to help the team more, or in different ways.

It’s a shortened window, with only 2 games. To some, that will mean there isn’t time to bring in new players or evaluate alternative options. But this is all the time the national team has. It’s up to the manager whether to use that time to evaluate options and open up a competition, or to continue investing callups and minutes in the same players he continues to lean on.

Center mid

McKennie, Musah, de la Torre and Busio are expected. Four center mids are enough to fill out the roster, but Berhalter could choose to bring five. If so, he’ll likely turn to Sebastian Lletget. Alternatives include Julian Green, Alan Soñora, Djordje Mihailovic, Jesús Ferreira, Duane Holmes, and Alex Méndez, who put in a good showing vs Benfica in Portugal last week.

The situation with Lletget is very similar to that of Acosta, with the difference being that Lletget did less than Acosta to earn his spot in the first place, and has done more to lose it recently.

Winger

Aaronson and Weah are expected. Konrad is expected too, but that is not at all certain after Gregg left him off in favor of Cristian Roldan and Paul Arriola in October. Arriola’s situation is different than Acosta and Lletget. Acosta and Lletget have performed badly enough in qualifying to lose their spots, at least for one window. Arriola hasn’t been terrible (although he was part of the disaster in Panama). He simply lacks the attacking skills to work in a cohesive team alongside players like Aaronson, Pepi, Weah, McKennie, and Musah. Arriola’s effort, defensive work rate, and hard running off the ball have made him a favorite of Gregg’s, but once the ball does reach his feet with the USMNT, the results are often disappointing.

Cristian Roldan has also had little to no impact on the team, amassing 69 minutes in 4 substitute appearances so far. The Seattle player has excelled with the Sounders in MLS once again this year, but that form hasn’t translated into any major impact for the U.S.

Other wingers available include Konrad de la Fuente, Niko Gioacchini, Emmanuel Sabbi, and Jesús Ferreira. Konrad has been creating chances for Marseille in Ligue 1 due to his technical ability and creativity on the ball. He didn’t set the world on fire in his qualify debut in El Salvador, and was left out of the squad in October. His club performances since then have shown more than enough for him to be included in the team once more. He’s an extremely useful player, and has the technical ability to combine with our very best players in the attack.

Gioacchini is off to a relatively slow start in Ligue 1, earning just 81 minutes across 7 substitute appearances. He’s been playing well when given the opportunity, though, and already has his first assist for Montpellier. He’s also shown his attacking ability with the USMNT multiple times in the past.

Emmanuel Sabbi might be the most in-form of the fringe winger options. He’s notched 4 goals and 4 assists for OB in 1,203 minutes to start the season, and been named the club’s player of the month multiple times already. Sabbi is a complete outsider when it comes to the MNT under Gregg Berhalter, but his direct attacking style, dribbling ability, athleticism, ability to create quick one-twos, free kick precision, and backflip celebrations could all be welcome additions to this team.

Striker

Pepi is expected. With Berhalter favorite Zardes out injured, that leaves Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike, and Jesús Ferreira as the most likely options to pair with Pepi. Dike is on an absolute tear in MLS, scoring 6 goals in his last 8. He could see a return to the roster this time around, although Pefok and Sargent also offer unique talents - especially Sargent’s ability to drop deep and combine to help key the attack.

Summary

The biggest decisions up to Gregg this window will be whether to stick by his favorites despite poor performances, or to change things up:

  • Will Scally be included? Will Bello be dropped, after disappointing showings?
  • Will Jonathan Gómez be called up to give him the experience of a camp?
  • Is Kellyn Acosta’s spot secure, or will any challengers be included?
  • What about Lletget, Arriola, and Roldan? Will they continue in their reserve roles, or will Gregg elect to bring some new faces?

Here’s a snapshot of Gregg’s options as we go into the November window:

How would you fill out the rest of the roster? Which decisions of Gregg’s are most important?