Framing the roster discussion
Let’s talk about why we analyze rosters. The roster is not the most important thing for the national team. Lineups, tactical setup, and ultimately player performances are all much more important. But the roster does set a foundation for what can be built — lineups, tactics, and player performances are limited by roster picks.
Grading the roster
Every national team has players who are “lock” call-ups. It is no credit to the manager that he chooses them, since any competent manager would do the same.
In order to evaluate a roster in terms of a manager’s positive or negative effect on the team, we have to set aside the locks, and focus on the call-ups where the manager actually had to make a decision. This allows us to grade the manager against the optimal.
Lastly, I don’t intend to harp on roster choices beyond this article. The manager has made his decisions. These 26 players will be the ones fighting for the US crest in Qatar. And I will be rooting for every single one of them! We give the roster a fair and critical analysis, and then move on to support the team, and talk best possible lineups and tactics.
Breaking the players into categories
There are 13 players - exactly half the 26-man roster - who are “locks”. Given our current player pool and injuries, no competent manager would exclude them. They are:
- Matt Turner, GK
- Tim Ream, CB
- Walker Zimmerman, CB
- Sergiño Dest, RB
- Joe Scally, RB/LB
- Jedi Robinson, LB
- Tyler Adams, DM
- Weston McKennie, CM
- Yunus Musah, CM
- Gio Reyna, W/CM
- Brenden Aaronson, W/CM
- Christian Pulisic, W
- Tim Weah, W/ST
Now, there was doubt around one or two of these players actually making the roster. Berhalter’s hesitance to integrate Joe Scally into the team made it an open question whether he would come to Qatar. But his weekly performances in the Bundesliga are a higher standard right now than any other US fullback except perhaps Antonee Robinson. Leaving him off would be incompetent.
Then there’s Tim Ream. There was a very real possibility of him being left off the roster, but given his body of work with Fulham this season, and our lack of strong options, that would’ve been an incompetent decision, so I’ve included him in the list.
Good selections - helped the team!
So, we had 13 locks. Of the 13 remaining choices, I look at 8 of them as positives. In each case, competent managers could’ve chosen differently, but each of these selections helped build an optimal team.
- Ethan Horvath, GK
Horvath has showed up big time when called upon for the USMNT. His shot-stopping numbers are down in the Championship compared to last year, but he doesn’t shrink from big moments, and he’s absolutely beloved by his teammates. His ability to come off the bench and deliver is ideal for a backup GK at the World Cup.
ETHAN HORVATH DENIES MEXICO A CHANCE TO EQUALIZE pic.twitter.com/N4AXjqGZ0s— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 7, 2021
- Sean Johnson, GK
I think there are several GKs who would be fine as the #3 (Johnson, Steffen, Slonina, and a few others). I do actually rate Zack Steffen slightly ahead of Johnson as a player. But this selection is a good one, because it allows the fans to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that Matt Turner will be the #1, and that Gregg isn’t going to shoehorn Steffen into a starting role.
- Cameron Carter-Vickers, CB
If everyone was healthy, I don’t think CCV is a World Cup player, but there are injuries in play, and CCV is a very tough defender. He’s crisp on the ball, extremely strong and physically tough, good in the air, and his top speed isn’t too bad. He’s also faced (and largely been dominated by) Champions League opposition this fall, which is good preparation for Qatar.
CCV’s first few steps aren’t the quickest, nor is his change of direction, and I could see crafty opponents dribbling past him too easily. But he’s very focused, alert, and responsible defensively. He’s a good option as a backup CB.
Key moments involving CCV vs Dundee Utd— americanwigends (@americanwigends) November 6, 2022
- DeAndre Yedlin, RB
Yedlin is probably the next-best fullback in the pool after Dest, Scally, and Jedi. With Dest and Scally able to flip over to the left side, that means we can bring DeAndre. He’s also an extremely likable character, and the only World Cup veteran on the squad. His performances in MLS haven’t been amazing this year, but his play against Mexico at home in World Cup qualifying goes a long way.
- Shaq Moore, RB/LB
I was originally against the idea of bringing a fifth fullback - especially a fourth natural RB - but with Shaq able to flex over to the left side if needed, there’s no harm in having him, especially if Dest is affected by the minor injury he’s been dealing with. He’s a quality player, capable of getting forward into the attack with his dribbling ability, whipping in good crosses, and doing the dirty work defensively.
- Kellyn Acosta, DM
Acosta has absolutely staked this place with the team as a backup defensive stopper, especially due to the lack of other competent 6’s in the pool. I almost included him in the “lock” category, but I wanted to give Gregg credit for bringing him into the national team, because it certainly is possible that other competent managers might’ve gone a different direction (and likely worse).
- Luca de la Torre, CM
It took Berhalter far too long to integrate Luca into the setup, but he’s proven to be a valuable depth piece, especially with few other players able to step into the box-to-box role and fill in for MMA. If Musah or McKennie can’t go, the only other realistic option is to drop Reyna or Aaronson into midfield, which makes Luca truly valuable.
He didn’t play well in September camp, he’s struggled for minutes in La Liga, and he’s just now recovering from an injury. However, his unique ability to receive the ball, turn, and drive forward, pushing the tempo and dishing to open teammates, is incredibly useful to this team.
Luca de la Torre vs Morocco (6/1/22)— Justin Moran (@kickswish) June 2, 2022
all involvements pic.twitter.com/dXS9Fps9Ix
- Josh Sargent, ST/W
The Ginga Ninja has gone in and out of favor with Berhalter, coinciding with being asked to play a defensive winger role for Norwich in the Premier League last season. Sargent is a terrifically talented and versatile player. Skillful in receiving the ball, holding up play, and cleverly finding open teammates, he’s also a dogged pressing defender, a physical target in the box, can win battles in the air, and capable of finishing with technique as well.
The Canaries’ relegation to the Championship has resulted in Sargent being moved central, where he’s surged, racking up 8 goals and 2 assists in 18 matches while the club maintains top-4 position.
Alright, we’ve covered the positives. It’s time to break down the roster decisions that were poor. Better options were available. We’re grading against the optimal here.
- Aaron Long, CB
Much ink has been spilled over Aaron Long, and Gregg Berhalter’s decision to continue including him in the national team despite poor performances here and not even being a standout in MLS. I don’t need to spend a bunch of time here covering old ground. There are several CBs who offer more to the national team, whether it’s a World Cup veteran with special on-ball talent (John Brooks), a player vastly outperforming Long in MLS (Matt Miazga), or relative youngsters experiencing success in Europe (Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown).
John Brooks vs Caldas— smoothie comps (@smoothie_comps) October 20, 2022
last Saturday (Oct 15, 2022) pic.twitter.com/J8EOaYCDr1
It’s stunning to consider that Long has started 6 straight games for the USMNT, going back to the Morocco friendly in June. If he comes to the World Cup as a depth option off the bench, the team ultimately shouldn’t be hampered by his presence. But if Berhalter insists on starting him, his inability to build out of the back and average defensive ability could become shackles for this talented group of players.
- Cristian Roldan, CM/W
Roldan is a good MLS player who has simply never been impactful for the USMNT against any except the weakest of teams. The man who famously described himself as bringing “eyes and vibes” might be there for those exact reasons, but it’s hard to see any on-field reason for his inclusion.
Alex Méndez 21/22 season highlights pic.twitter.com/l5nRmhbaov— Justin Moran (@kickswish) June 29, 2022
If Berhalter wanted a better depth option in midfield, there were several to choose from, depending on what skillset he wanted: Alex Méndez, Djordje Mihailovic, Eryk Williamson, Richy Ledezma, and even Keaton Parks. Most of them are unproven at the international level, but unproven is preferable to a player who has been tested and found wanting.
- Jordan Morris, W
In 2019, Morris was a very impactful player for the USMNT, driving at defenders 1v1 and blowing past them with his explosive speed. Unfortunately, injuries have taken a toll on the Seattle Sounders winger. His technical ability has improved somewhat in his veteran years, but he’s not going to be creating danger on the dribble, and his athleticism is no longer the massive advantage it once was. It was jarring watching him not even able to make an impact against 170th-ranked Grenada this summer.
Jordan Morris vs 170th-ranked Grenada (6/10/22) pic.twitter.com/enYgJPCoEC— Justin Moran (@kickswish) July 8, 2022
Malik Tillman would be an ideal replacement for Morris. Tillman is a more skillful player on the ball, possessing the athleticism to glide by defenders, and cleverness to create magic in tight spaces. The questions about Tillman have been about off-ball movement, defense, and ability to stay locked-in and focused during a game. These questions are poignant when it comes to Tillman as a midfielder, but none of them prevent him from being an ideal winger to bring in off the bench if needed. Tillman is also fantastic in the air - which has been one of the specific reasons people have cited for Morris’s inclusion.
From midfield all the way to the back of the net!— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) October 16, 2022
- Jesús Ferreira, ST
Ferreira is a talented player. He’s been extremely productive for FC Dallas in MLS this season, notching 18 goals and 6 assists in 33 games. His speed, off-ball movement, good first touch and precise passing, combined with his ability to drop deep into the midfield to receive the ball, give the team a “false 9” to play off of. He’s also notched 7 goals in 15 MNT caps.
The problem is that Ferreira is entirely unproven except in MLS and against the weakest international opponents. Essentially all his US success has come against nations you could call “minnows”. In addition, his small stature and wiry frame make it easy for defenders to push him off the ball and keep him from getting involved. He’s not able to compete for balls in the air, or be a target for crosses in the box.
Essentially, Ferreira can only be successful when the team is playing one specific way - playing fluid, attractive, fast-paced, possession soccer. Unfortunately, that’s not something this US team has shown it’s capable of doing - especially against World Cup-level teams.
Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi both do a great job of the “Ferreira role”: finding the ball, holding it up under pressure, and finding open teammates with clever passes. However, Sargent and Pepi also check all the other boxes: they can win aerials, win physical battles with defenders, and serve as targets in the boxes to turn crosses into goals. They also don’t share Ferreira’s track record of high-profile misses across a fairly large sample size.
Jesús Ferreira's good scoring opportunities since World Cup qualifying started. pic.twitter.com/hy3jXPg5wu— smoothie comps (@smoothie_comps) September 12, 2022
Simply put, it’s redundant to bring Ferreira when we already have Pepi and Sargent, both of whom offer the same strengths he brings - but with far broader skillsets, that allow the team to play multiple styles, even switching back and forth between different methods. A team with Ferreira as its 9 is locked into playing only one style of soccer. If they go away from it, there’s no choice but to sub him out or watch him be ineffective.
Ricardo Pepi - 5 goals, 2 assists in 8 Eredivisie games pic.twitter.com/eJFxvUGcDr— smoothie comps (@smoothie_comps) November 10, 2022
- Haji Wright, ST
Haji is a player I rate highly and whose cause I’ve championed in the past. He’s also on an absolute tear, scoring 9 and assisting 1 in 12 matches to start the Turkish season. If you go back to the end of last season, that’s 18 goals and 3 assists in 22 games. He’s absolutely on fire.
My concerns with Haji are simple: his game is too similar to Sargent and Pepi, they are more skillful and better suited to their MNT teammates, and they’ve had more chances to play together with the team.
There’s also a fundamental misunderstanding in how Gregg Berhalter sees Wright. In June, Gregg started Haji at the 9 in terrible conditions, and bemoaned his poor performance after the match (emphasis mine):
“It’s always difficult when players get an opportunity and don’t fully capitalize on it. It’s not nice for a coach, it’s not nice for the player, it’s not nice for the group. We’re all rooting for Haji to be a force. We purposely played more direct in the first half, because we thought he could be the force that would unsettle them. And it just wasn’t his night tonight.”
Looking at this quote, it’s clear what Berhalter wanted Haji to do. He wanted him to stand up top, fight for headers, physically battle defenders, and win the ball for his teammates. There’s only one problem: that isn’t Haji’s game at all.
Take a look at the graphic below. Notice the one area that’s way lower than all the others? Headed goals. While Haji is a large human being, he is not a target man. He does not want crosses sent onto his head. He wants to run aggressively at the defense using his speed, receive the ball into his feet, and strike it powerfully toward goal.
Haji Wright - Antalyaspor— Marc P. Lamberts (@lambertsmarc) August 18, 2022
The problem is that Gregg Berhalter doesn’t recognize this. His comments to Brian Straus after the roster release made that clear:
“We were evaluating Haji versus Jordan Pefok, and that’s what it came down to. And in this particular case, we felt like Haji is in great goalscoring form. They’re both physical strikers.”
Haji Wright and Jordan Pefok are not similar players at all. Both of them are tall strikers, that’s it. I’ve already described Haji’s skillset - and it’s built on speed. Pefok is a slower, strong physical presence who excels in the air, holds off defenders, and is a massive target man in the box. A poacher, a “fox in the box” who always finds himself in the right place to finish chances.
That skillset Pefok brings is a unique in the top end of the US pool. The one other similar player is Daryl Dike, but Dike just played his first game in months for the West Brom U-21’s after working his way back from injury. He’s nowhere near ready for Qatar.
Bringing Haji Wright in addition to Sargent and Ferreira (three similar skillsets, no clear changeup), while leaving off Jordan Pefok (the one player who’s capable of providing that obviously unique skillset) is a limiting factor for the US, and one that will prevent them from being able to play a certain way at the World Cup.
It depends on how you approach it. For me, as I laid out, the 13 “lock” players would be selected by any competent manager. With Berhalter going for 8-for-13 on the remaining selections, that puts him at a 61.5% hit rate, which ranges from a D to D- on most grading scales.
If you’re more generous, and you want to take every pick into account, we could say Gregg was 21-for-26. That’s an 80.7% hit rate, which is a B- on most scales.
A word on “vibes” and chemistry
Much has been said about the importance of calling up players who like each other. It’s true that this is part of the consideration when picking a roster. You certainly don’t want bad blood in the locker room. These players will have to travel together and live in hotels together for weeks at a time. Past World Cups have seen extremely talented sides like France suffer because of personal conflicts among teammates.
However, the problem I see for using this rationale as the basis for including certain players (Cristian Roldan is the one I hear mentioned the most), is that all the players in this US player pool like each other. I can’t think of a single one who has a problem with another. It’s a diverse group of exciting, energetic young men, who seem to feed off each other’s energy in very positive ways. So I can’t see how you can use the rationale of “bring Cristian Roldan, he’s a good locker room influence,” when there are other players who clearly offer more on-field ability and also have no negative affect on team chemistry.
Actual concerns for the tournament
There are only a few specific problems that the roster poses for the World Cup games:
- If Long starts, our ability to build out of the back (and defend) will suffer.
- If Ferreira starts, that limits our attack to only one style that he can be effective in.
- We only have one CB who is a proven distributor (Ream) when we could’ve had two (Brooks).
- Our options are limited because all 3 are fairly similar players when have one who is just a very good player, in fantastic form (Pepi), and another offers a completely different skillset that can be very useful when we need a goal, especially coming off the bench (Pefok).
Now we move on
Those are my critiques. They’re out of my system. Now I’m ready and excited to cheer on this team. We are playing in the World Cup! We face Wales in 10 days!
Let’s buckle up. Go, go USA!