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Building a USMNT October World Cup Qualifying roster

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The bulk of the roster picks itself. So what are the biggest decisions left to Gregg this week?

Moises Castillo/Associated Press

It’s that time again. Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the October World Cup Qualifying window is expected to be released sometime this week. Here’s the USMNT’s itinerary:

  • Thurs, Oct 7: Host Jamaica at Q2 Stadium in Austin, TX
  • Fri, Oct 8: Travel 1800 miles to Panama City, Panama
  • Sun, Oct 10: Face Panama in Panama City
  • Mon, Oct 11: Return 2100 miles to Columbus, Ohio
  • Wed, Oct 13: Host Costa Rica in Columbus

Last month, I started with no assumptions and simply listed players available at each position. However, there is a fairly large group of players that are automatic callups when healthy and fit.

This led to the question, if many of Gregg’s decisions are essentially made for him by the players, what decisions is he making, specifically with the roster? What decisions are left for him?

For reference, here’s a group of players who appear to be automatic callups right now, when healthy and fit:

  • Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, Zack Steffen
  • John Brooks, Miles Robinson, Chris Richards
  • Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson
  • Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta
  • Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah
  • Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Konrad de la Fuente
  • Ricardo Pepi

That’s 18 players, which would be almost 70% of Gregg’s most recent 26-man roster. It appears that Pulisic and Reyna may both be unavailable due to injury, and McKennie’s situation is complicated by him being sent home from camp last month, so things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they could be otherwise.

So, what decisions are left for Gregg?

How many players should be called in?

Gregg opted for a 26-man roster last month, and chose not to make any changes when Tim Weah went down hurt prior to camp. This turned out to be less than ideal, as 6 players were sidelined for various games, leaving us especially light at fullback, center mid, and winger. The only replacements Gregg added were Jackson Yueill and keeper Sean Johnson.

Flying a player across the Atlantic last-minute to join the team certainly isn’t ideal; once camp begins, the coach is essentially limited to domestic options. This puts even more emphasis on the initial roster. With how poorly last window went from a roster construction standpoint, it makes sense to call up at least one extra player at each position. That would lead to at least a 30-man squad. We’ll see if Gregg agrees.

Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie

This young trio is part of the team’s most obvious core, but Pulisic and Reyna are likely unavailable due to injury. Even if their clubs do make them available to the national team, it’s a major risk to bring either one of them, as neither has even been in the matchday squad at club level since being injured in the September qualifiers.

The only question with McKennie is whether he would be excluded from this camp as futher discipline after being sent home last time around. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to expect McKennie to be left out, but it is one of the decisions Gregg faces, even though it seems relatively straightforward.

Positions, positions

A number of our top players are capable of playing multiple positions. Where will Gregg choose to deploy them? Will he attempt to spread players over multiple positions during the window? Here are some of his options

  • Sergiño Dest at RB or LB - Dest has played plenty on both sides under Gregg. Will Antonee Robinson’s emergence on the left keep Dest on the right more consistently?
  • Kellyn Acosta at CM or DM - Acosta made a good impression playing as a defensive mid at the Gold Cup, but played 194’ at center mid last window - over two full games.
  • Yunus Musah at CM or wing - Gregg has played Musah exclusively in central midfield, and hopefully that continues. While Musah acquits himself well playing wide midfield in Valencia’s 4-4-2, we’re much deeper on the wing, and he’s one of our top center mids.
  • Brenden Aaronson at CM or wing - Aaronson has played both positions under Gregg, with far more success on the wing. He failed to impress against El Salvador when paired with McKennie and Adams in midfield. Perhaps Gregg will shift to a formation that includes a number 10 in the future to suit players like Aaronson and Reyna.
  • Tim Weah at ST or wing - Weah has played exclusively on the wing under Gregg. I’m eager to see him at the 9 spot, but Pepi and Hoppe are both playing very well there, and Weah is an excellent winger. He may be more needed on the wing, especially with Pulisic and Reyna assumed out.

The second tier

Three players who are very close to that “automatic callup” level are Joe Scally, Matthew Hoppe, and Gianluca Busio. None of them are truly automatic, but these should be very easy decisions for Gregg.

Scally has been a revelation for Gladbach in the Bundesliga, and we need at least 5 fullbacks on this roster, so he’s an obvious selection. Hoppe was our most dangerous attacker at the Gold Cup, despite playing out of position, but isn’t obviously cemented in Gregg’s first team yet. He was unavailable for the September window due to his transfer to Mallorca.

Busio is slightly less of an obvious choice, but he’s adjusted quickly to life in Serie A. The skillful midfielder has put in good performances against the likes of AC Milan while playing for a Venezia team that looks like relegation fodder. He could help improve our midfield, or add depth at the very least.

The “Red List” debacle

Because Panama is on the United Kingdom’s “red list”, English clubs can reject national team callups for players who would be traveling there. That possibility includes national team regulars Christian Pulisic, Antonee Robinson, Josh Sargent, Ethan Horvath, Zack Steffen, and Tim Ream, as well as others like Duane Holmes.

This situation is constantly changing and evolving. If Gregg isn’t able to include these players, left back and goalkeeper will be the first places in need of reinforcement.

Summary

With all that said, here is a group of players to expect Gregg to include on the roster that are essentially locked in:

That’s the first 16 names on the roster. If we stretch it to include Scally, Hoppe, and Busio, it’s 19 names. It’s those question marks where Gregg has the greatest chance to affect the team, for better or worse.

Now let’s go position-by-position to see Gregg’s options to fill out the rest of the roster. As a reminder, Aaron Long, Sam Vines, Eryk Williamson, Richie Ledezma, and Jordan Morris are out injured.

Goalkeeper

Turner, Horvath, and Steffen are expected locks. Will Gregg add an extra body or two in case Horvath and Steffen can’t travel to Panama? If so, here are some options:

Berhalter went with Sean Johnson as his fourth GK last window; Johnson and Guzan have been favorites for Gregg. Brad Guzan and Bill Hamid have also spent time with the team.

Center back

Brooks, Miles Robinson, and Richards are expected locks. Last window, Gregg went with 6 nominal center backs, including James Sands, who played only in midfield. Will he go with 6 again? 5 should be enough if we aren’t using a 3-man back line. Here are some options:

McKenzie, Zimmerman, Ream, and Sands were in September camp. Miazga wasn’t available due to a club move, but could make his return after helping Alavés defeat Atlético Madrid on Saturday - no small feat.

Fullbacks

Dest and Antonee are expected locks. Yedlin and Bello joined them in the past window. It would make sense to add at least one fullback to this roster.

Joe Scally seems like the obvious third fullback, but the question is, do you bring him primarily as a RB or LB? DeAndre Yedlin also seems an obvious call, although he has played nearly 5 entire games in less than 3 weeks - over-use is a concern. None of Shaq Moore, Reggie Cannon, and Bryan Reynolds are playing regularly at all. Does Bello reprise his role on the left? Do things open up for a new face?

If so, that could mean a chance for Julian Araujo, Henry Wingo, Jonathan Gómez, Justin Che, Kevin Paredes, or John Tolkin? Four of those potential new faces are dual nationals: Araujo (Mexico), Gómez (Mexico), Che (Germany), Paredes (Dominican Republic).

Henry Wingo and Ferencváros just missed out on the Champions League group stage thanks to losing a playoff to Jordan Pefok and Young Boys. They are into the Europa League, and this could be Wingo’s opportunity, with Shaq, Cannon, and Reynolds sidelined.

Defensive mid

Adams and Acosta are expected locks. Does Gregg opt for a third holding mid? He went with just the two in September, although James Sands did slot into midfield against Honduras, and Jackson Yueill was a late add to the roster. Here are some options if he adds a third six:

Busio and Parks are top options, although there are questions about either of them being strong enough defensively. Busio is also an option further forward in the midfield, which might be a better fit for his skillset. Christian Cappis has been getting regular minutes for Danish champs Brøndby, and scored a brace for them in a recent cup match. He has the frame, athleticism, and work rate for the 6 role, as well as progressing the ball forward quickly. Tessmann, Johnny, and Atencio are also intriguing, although it’s fair to wonder how fit Tessmann and Johnny are with their lack of minutes.

Center midfield

McKennie and Musah are expected locks. Lletget and Roldan were the other 8s in the September roster. Gregg only brought 3 nominal 8s on that team, with McKennie, Lletget, and Roldan. Hopefully we see 5 or 6 center mids this time around. Here are some options:

This might be the one position where Gregg has the most ability to affect our roster. Lletget and Roldan both have useful skillsets, but they and Acosta struggled woefully to bring the ball through the midfield in September. Perhaps Busio was left out last window to let him get settled at Venezia; he’s certainly done that. Outsiders like Julian Green and Luca de la Torre also have skills to offer.

A note on Paxton Pomykal: FC Dallas is playing him on the wing for the moment to keep him away from too much physical contact, which makes one wonder if he’s ready for national team duty at all. It certainly seems doubtful he should be playing center mid for the MNT if they’re trying to take that much care of him at this point.

Wing

Aaronson, Weah, and Konrad are expected locks. Those three and Pulisic made up the September WCQ roster, and it was Weah’s injury that caused issues due to him not being replaced. Here are some options to add a fourth and fifth winger:

Hoppe and Gioacchini are the exciting picks, after both made moves to top 5 European leagues on deadline day, but it’s possible both could be left off due to lack of minutes. Both are also options at striker. Emmanuel Sabbi is on a tear right now in Denmark, with 2g 2a in his last 5 games, and 3g 3a in his last 9. Berhalter favorite Paul Arriola could make his return, after missing the September window due to injury.

Striker

Pepi is an expected lock. Gregg brought Sargent and Pefok as well in September, with Hoppe and Gioacchini unavailable due to a club move, and Zardes out injured. Here are some options for who Gregg could bring along with Pepi. Will there be 3 or 4?

Hoppe played well against Real Madrid, picking up an assist on a well-played one-two combination. Pefok and Zardes each have 3 goals since the last window, with all 3 of Zardes’ coming in his past 2 matches. Haji Wright also has 4 in 7 to start the season for Antalyspor in the Turkish top flight.

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