What we learn about Berhalter’s World Cup plans from the USMNT’s September roster

Quick Hits
  • As of Wednesday morning, we now have Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the U.S. men’s national team’s final two games before this winter’s World Cup

  • So, what can we learn about the USMNT’s World Cup plans for this September roster? Let’s talk about that
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Two dress rehearsals. 

That’s all the U.S. men’s national team have left before their first game of the 2022 World Cup. Before the United States face Wales on their opening night in November, they’ll take on Japan on September 23 and Saudi Arabia on September 27.

As of Wednesday morning, we now have Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the USMNT’s final two games before this winter’s tournament. The margin for error is getting increasingly smaller, while the importance of nailing tactical and personnel choices is only getting bigger. But that’s the name of the dress rehearsal game. 

So, what can we learn about Berhalter’s plans, his depth chart, and his approach to roster building from the latest U.S. squad?

Let’s talk about that.

Things are real now

Months ago, Berhalter made it clear that the September international window – the last one before the World Cup – wasn’t going to be the time for experimentation. And he’s stayed true to that idea with this roster. All of the U.S.’s core players are in the team, excluding Antonee Robinson and Tim Weah, who are both dealing with injuries. On the flip side, players like Brandon Vazquez, Eryk Williamson, James Sands, and Djordje Mihailovic aren’t in the team.

With just 180 minutes until the World Cup, Berhalter is going to use this window to get his top guys on the field and working together. 

It’s fun to quibble about the last few roster spots (and it’s important to nail those roster spots), but it’s even more important to find moments for Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, and Co. to learn more about each other’s tendencies. Would it have been fun to see a few wrinkles in the USMNT’s September squad? Sure. And maybe we should have. And maybe we will in November. Berhalter stressed in a press conference on Wednesday that this roster “is not” the final World Cup roster for the United States.

But setting aside any potential changes, Berhalter’s focus for this window is both clear and correct: prepare the U.S.’s starters for the World Cup.

Prioritizing mobile strikers

There’s one common thread that ties the United States’ striker group together for this window: mobility. 

Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, and Josh Sargent are all mobile in different ways: Ferreira links, Pepi runs in behind, and Sargent does some of both. But they’re all mobile. Contrast those three players with Jordan Pefok and Vazquez, who were both left off of this squad, and you have a pretty clear idea of what Berhalter looks for in a No. 9. 

One key reason why Berhalter started prioritizing mobility up top is his shift towards the press. 

When Berhalter first took charge of the U.S., they sat back and defended in a 4-4-2 block. But in 2020, the U.S. started using an aggressive 4-3-3 high press. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen Ferreira, with his speed and mobility, become a key part of the USMNT over the last two-plus years.

As you watch the U.S., both in September and at the World Cup, keep an eye out for how their strikers press, force turnovers, and create opportunities to attack in transition. Berhalter is banking on their being enough of those opportunities to justify his decision to leave more old-school strikers are home. 

I’m not sure it’s the right call, but again, Berhalter’s motivation is clear.

Left back questions

Out of all the positions in this squad, left back is the one that could shuffle the most before the World Cup. With Robinson injured, Sam Vines and Joe Scally (and maybe Dest) are in line to get minutes at left back against Japan and Saudi Arabia. 

If the ankle injury that Robinson picked up with Fulham continues to bother him, Vines will almost certainly be on the plane to Qatar as the team’s only left-footed left back. If Robinson recovers and returns to match fitness between now and November, Berhalter might choose to leave Vines at home and use Scally or Dest as the backup options in that position.

It’s a complicated web of ifs and maybes depending on Robinson’s fitness, but who gets minutes on the left side of defense in this window could tell us something about what we’ll see in November.