USMNT roster remains unsettled for Gregg Berhalter


NEW YORK — Gregg Berhalter’s internal clock counting down the weeks until he must name his World Cup squad ticks louder with each passing day. Soon, chimes that began sweetly with his appointment as head coach of a downtrodden U.S. men’s national soccer team almost four years ago will sound like jackhammers.

This weekend, he will monitor players in person in Scotland, Spain and Portugal.

In less than two weeks, he’ll set a roster for the last two pretournament tests.

In 10 weeks, he’ll submit his 26-man list to FIFA.

Two teams have dominated the EPL for years. Where does that leave the rest?

Never before has a U.S. coach been blessed with such a rich cast of candidates performing on Europe’s grand stages. He’s also got a seasoned MLS troupe.

Berhalter said he has narrowed the pool to 38-40 players. What goes unsaid is, barring injury (and it is almost certain there will be injuries), most of the World Cup slots have been filled.

Final auditions will continue to play out every weekend across 10 time zones, completing an exercise that has featured 88 players in Berhalter’s 54 matches, including 56 national team debuts.

Berhalter’s work goes beyond monitoring performances. He’s got core players, such as Christian Pulisic, who aren’t playing regularly with their respective clubs. He’s got the most unsettled goalkeeping situation of any modern-day U.S. World Cup squad.

There are pleasant problems as well. His strikers, the program’s weak link as recently as early summer, are in top form at the same time.

“We’re not going to take five strikers, so there are going to be a couple disappointed guys,” Berhalter said. “And that’s a shame because all you want the players to do is everything they possibly can. And when they are doing everything they possibly can and they still don’t make the team, that’s not nice. It’s just not a nice thing, and I’m going to have to tell them that, and I feel bad.”

The strikers are a good place to start in analyzing Berhalter’s options because, without goals — or at least a strong presence at center forward — the Americans will struggle to advance to the knockout stage.

Less than a month into European campaigns, Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin) and Haji Wright (Antalyaspor, Turkey) are hot. Josh Sargent (Norwich City, England) has revitalized his career after a lost year with both club and country.

FC Dallas’s Jesús Ferreira, the front-runner to start the World Cup opener against Wales, is the second-highest-scoring American in MLS with 15 goals.

First is FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez, 23, who has 16 goals but no senior-level experience beyond MLS. Until this season, he was probably not worthy of a call-up. Now, he’s surging.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Berhalter said. The lack of an international past “does make it more difficult. It doesn’t make it impossible, though. That’s the important thing.”

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Berhalter said he has not decided whether to include Vazquez on the roster for friendlies against Japan on Sept. 23 in Düsseldorf, Germany, and Sept. 27 vs. Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain.

The other wild card is Ricardo Pepi, 19, whose blazing start with the national team last fall cratered during a miserable season with German club Augsburg. Needing a fresh start, Pepi this week went on loan to Groningen in the Netherlands.

Pepi was among several U.S. players seeking a new home before the transfer window closes this week.

Right back Sergiño Dest made the biggest move, going on loan from FC Barcelona, where he wasn’t going to play much under Manager Xavi Hernandez, to AC Milan. Without regular playing time leading into to a World Cup, even the most prized players are in danger of falling on the depth chart.

Well, maybe not Pulisic, an exceptional talent and vital piece to the U.S. puzzle. By sitting on the bench at Chelsea under Manager Thomas Tuchel, though, Pulisic’s national team form is bound to suffer. Speculation that he would leave for Manchester United or Newcastle fizzled.

Even with Pulisic staying at Chelsea, Berhalter’s belief in him has not wavered, and he is convinced the attacker will earn his way back into Tuchel’s good graces.

“I’m a guy that bets on Christian just because I’ve seen it before,” he said. “He is not counted on [at Chelsea] in a way that he’d like to, and [yet] he gets on the field and he proves everyone wrong and he ends up playing. I tend to believe that’s going to happen, and I think his mind is in a good spot and he’s going to fight for it because that’s the type of guy he is.”

Berhalter has no such concerns about his duo at Leeds United, winger Brenden Aaronson and midfielder Tyler Adams. Or with Fulham left back Antonee Robinson and Valencia attacker Yunus Musah.

On Sunday he’ll see Musah play in person after witnessing defender-midfielder James Sands and attacker Malik Tillman compete for Rangers in the Glasgow derby against Celtic, which employs U.S. center back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Berhalter’s last stop is in Portugal on Monday for Reggie Cannon, a U.S. roster contender at right back.

From afar, he will continue to monitor the four goalkeepers vying for three World Cup slots: Zack Steffen, who’s been sidelined with England’s Middlesbrough; Matt Turner, an Arsenal backup; Ethan Horvath, the starter at England’s Luton Town; and New York City FC starter Sean Johnson.

The case to start in the World Cup remains wide open.

“We have time to evaluate it,” Berhalter said. “If you asked me today, is it a concern? It’s something we think about, but there’s still time and we’ll have to see.”

About the difficult personnel decisions ahead of him, Berhalter brings up France winning the 2018 World Cup without forward Karim Benzema — who last week was voted the best player in Europe in 2021-22 — and Brazil, which leaves world-class players behind.

“Not to say we’re at that level,” Berhalter said, “but it’s to say that sometimes quality players will be left off the roster. … That we’re at that point right now is pretty crazy.”

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