How the MLS calendar could impact the USMNT’s World Cup squad

Quick Hits
  • With less than 100 days until the World Cup, it’s time to start thinking about how the U.S. men’s national team’s roster will look in November
  • Putting together the USMNT’s roster won’t be easy, as some position groups in the player pool could be impacted by the differences in the MLS and European calendars
United States coach Gregg Berhalter works with his team during practice at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

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The European club season is now fully upon us, which means the performances of Americans abroad will stay under the microscope for the next three months.

In fact, there’s extra importance to the form and fitness of Americans abroad heading into this uniquely scheduled World Cup. The last matchday for European club soccer before the World Cup break will be November 13. In contrast, the MLS season ends on October 9 and MLS Cup is on November 5. 

Even if U.S. men’s national team players on MLS clubs qualify for the playoffs, several MLSers in the pool will still be eliminated well before the USMNT’s first group stage match against Wales on November 21. Keeping the domestic portion of the pool prepared for a World Cup was always going to be a challenge.

Frankly, it’s one that may not be adequately accounted for in all of these predicted U.S. lineups and squads for Qatar.

Following the June international window, Gregg Berhalter discussed the potential strategy for dealing with players entering the World Cup break at different times.

“We’re gonna have to look at the group and plan accordingly,” Berhalter said. Look at how many players we’re gonna be affecting, how many players will need training, and then decide if we’re gonna do it on a group or individual level. We’ve discussed bringing youth national team players into the player pool to round out the group, and make it a functional group that can actually train 11-v-11. So we’ll see, we haven’t finalized the plans yet but that’s what’s in the works.” 

Recently, Berhalter addressed this calendar imbalance issue again, saying, “We’re gonna have to make special considerations for guys in Major League Soccer that are in the group and are out of the playoffs. We’re gonna have to accommodate that. We need to get them fit, a huge part of success at the World Cup is fitness and we know we’re gonna need to be a fit team.”

Berhalter touched on that topic once more earlier this month. 

“The one hiccup, in my mind, is gonna be some of the MLS based players who will maybe have been off for a month, five weeks, that could be more problematic,” Berhalter said. “Not having a big enough selection of that group that maybe having a full training camp, so trying to get creative around that – how do you train eight players, or 7 players? That’s gonna be the interesting thing that we’re working on.”

To contextualize this with the USMNT’s player pool, FC Cincinnati (Brandon Vazquez), Inter Miami (DeAndre Yedlin), Nashville SC (Walker Zimmerman), and the Seattle Sounders (Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan) are all in the playoff hunt. So much can happen between now and Decision Day – bless your soul if you want to guess how one weekend of games in this league turns out, never mind two months of them – but I do feel reasonably confident that LAFC (Kellyn Acosta), FC Dallas (Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola), and the New York Red Bulls (Aaron Long) will reach the postseason. 

Regardless of what the playoff field looks like, those players will have more down time before the World Cup than various Americans abroad, which could impact their fitness levels.

A camp involving U.S. youth national team and MLS players until the European season hits pause would be an interesting exercise. Nonetheless, planning the camp is difficult given the uncertainty about when exactly players will be eliminated. 

Let’s take a quick look at a few positions for the USMNT that could be impacted by the difference in breaks between the domestic and European-based player pools.

STRIKER

Brandon Vazquez has been banging on the door for a while, and I expect him to be called up for the U.S.’s friendlies in September. Because the September window is a short one, I think Vazquez could actually benefit from extended exposure to Berhalter’s system after the end of Cincy’s season and prior to the World Cup. 

Having said that, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok, and maybe Haji Wright will have a bit more time to make their cases in the fall after Vazquez’s season is over. 

This would be a real positive for Pepi if his playing situation at Augsburg in the Bundesliga is still bleak. Any extra minutes he can get could help assure his spot in Qatar. Vazquez might not have Pepi’s ceiling as a striker, but Pepi needs to keep scraping up minutes no matter how far from ideal his development at Augsburg continues to be. 

If Pefok continues to score, and Pepi isn’t rotting on Augsburg’s bench, could the games running dry cost Vasquez his shot at Qatar?

One last thing before we leave the strikers behind for now: injuries appear to be extinguishing Daryl Dike’s World Cup hopes and Josh Sargent’s chances are dimmer than ever down in the English Championship. It may very well require a new manager or new club to revive his national team career.

CENTER BACK

With his quality in the back, many United States fans are anxiously waiting for Chris Richards to wrack up first team appearances with Crystal Palace. But his stellar distribution and reading of the game are only part of the reason behind the desire to see Richards play for Patrick Vieira. It’s also important for Richards to play because both Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman might not play a match for a long stretch entering the World Cup. 

Could being in some sort of pre-World Cup camp benefit the pair? Perhaps, but they’ve played plenty of minutes together in the past, so it’s not as if they’re going to learn any new information about each other.

In terms of national team reps, Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers have never been in a camp together and it’s imperative for that to change in the September window. If Zimmerman is not available, Carter-Vickers and Richards may be the next best pairing, especially if they’re both arriving in Qatar match fit. 

FULLBACK

At left back, it looks like the competition to be Antonee Robinson’s backup is being held exclusively among European-based players. Berhalter did name drop the New York Red Bulls’ John Tolkin in June, and you never know…maybe he’s summoned in September and really impresses. That seems unlikely, though.

I’m betting on Berhalter bringing five fullbacks to the World Cup in November, but even if he decides to bring four, could a combination of Joe Scally and a true left back, let’s say Sam Vines if he remains a regular for Antwerp, squeeze out DeAndre Yedlin? 

Considering his experience – at the World Cup and in the Premier League, with the marquee matchup against England on everyone’s mind – and locker room presence, I expect Yedlin to be on the plane.

But Berhalter has stressed the value of form in weighing who he’ll select. If Vines, Cannon, and Scally maintain good form until a week before the Wales match, this could be a tougher call. 

If Scally continues to start for Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga over veteran and Austrian international Stefan Lainer, it would be somewhat stunning to exclude him. Scally’s struggles as a fullback against Uruguay, arguably the best opponent in the Berhalter era, in his first ever USMNT start after mostly being deployed as a wingback for his club is forgivable. 

And there are reasons for optimism about his development as a fullback.

WINGER

It’s early, but Malik Tillman’s loan to Rangers is off to a very promising start and he’s in contention for Qatar. The competition on the wing was already fierce, but the timing of when they’re eliminated from the playoffs has the potential to impact Berhalter mainstays Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris. Could a run to MLS Cup help seal Arriola’s place? And back to striker for a second, could that run help seal Jesus Ferreira’s status as the first choice No. 9? What if it’s Jordan Morris propelling Seattle to MLS Cup? 

And what about Djordje Mihailovic? 

He was listed as a midfielder on the roster for June before an injury dashed his hopes of finally staking his claim with the United States. Regardless of whether Mihailovic would start from a central or wide position, I’ll mention him here. If he’s leading Montréal to a deep playoff run, he could sneak into Berhalter’s squad. Conversely, if – like Vazquez – Mihailovic is knocked out of the playoffs and ends up in camp for an extended period of time, could that actually benefit him? 

Mihailovic already has long camps with Berhalter under his belt, but things are different now that the U.S. builds with a double pivot. There’s a flexible midfield spot that’s tailored to his game.

* * *

Although most of the U.S.’s World Cup roster is set, finalizing the last few spots will be a bit more complicated courtesy of the calendar. Over the next few months, we’ll see how the end of the MLS season unfolds and how that unfolding impacts the USMNT. We’ll also learn how much Berhalter thinks can be gained from a prospective camp, and how much he weighs European club form. 

Another factor when constructing a tournament roster is the atmosphere inside the team – and in a squad that may be the youngest at the World Cup, Berhalter could lean towards at least a couple of more established players. On top of the possible injuries and suspensions, COVID could still suddenly be a major headache, so leaving out anyone on the bubble who’s in good form won’t be easy. 

In all likelihood, injuries between now and November will simplify some selections. But imbalanced calendars in MLS and in Europe will make the buildup to November extremely interesting.