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What Are The Biggest Surprises From The USMNT World Cup Roster Selection?

Manager Gregg Berhalter has selected the 26 players he'll take into battle in Qatar, but several of his choices have raised some eyebrows.

By Andrew Woodin
Split image of three soccer players

There's nothing like a World Cup roster announcement to stir the armchair pundit in all of us. 

The U.S. unveiled its long-awaited roster of 26 players for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, and USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter's selections raised more than a few eyebrows, both for who made the cut and who will be left home.

Let's get into it.

For starters, the USMNT possesses an average age of 25, making it the second youngest team ever for the United States. Berhalter’s boys are also the youngest team in the world by far to qualify for this year’s World Cup. Though Chelsea phenom Christian Pulisic who scored five goals in qualifiers is headlining the team with rising stars Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie in tow, Berhalter’s choice to skew younger with an eye to toward the 2026 World Cup (which the U.S. will co-host with Mexico and Canada) has created some waves. U.S. fans will have to hope that their relative inexperience won't be the team's kryptonite.

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But that’s not all.    

There were a number of notable omissions, the most obvious being goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Unable to see much time on the pitch for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team, the Pennsylvania native dropped down to the second-tier English club Middlesborough on loan where he was the starter until being sidelined with an injury. After winning back his spot between the pipes, Steffen has had a bit of a rough go at it, notching just four wins in his 11 games back. Despite his recent shortcomings, the 27-year-old Steffen has accumulated 29 international caps that includes six games in World Cup qualifiers. In his place, Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson will round out the keepers. With such a green team, it's certainly arguable that Steffen’s experience would’ve been invaluable, and the fact that Berhalter knew the goalkeeper’s skill set in and out from their shared time with the Columbus Crew makes it even more of a puzzling exclusion.   

“Zack’s been there for me a bunch of times, and to tell him he’s not going to be a part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me,” stated Berhalter during the roster announcement. “But those are the decisions that we made as a staff.”

Then there's Berhalter rejection of young striker Ricardo Pepi. At 6’1, the El Paso native is a tenacious force in tight spots and a natural finisher, displayed through his five goals in eight apps for the Dutch club Groningen. Considering he was the second leading scorer for the USMNT in qualifiers behind only Captain America, once again, Berhalter knew the stellar play potential with Pepi, and yet, he went in a different direction with Haji Wright. It’s true that Pepi struggled with Augsburg this year prior to his time with Groningen, and Wright is the second-leading scorer in the Turkish topflight, but many felt the 21-year-old Pepi was definitely deserving of a spot.

“In the case of Ricardo, that was a really difficult conversation that I had to have with him,” revealed Berhalter in a press conference moderated by former MLS MVP Taylor Twellman. “It’s always difficult when a guy helps you get to the World Cup, he scores three goals in World Cup qualifying and isn’t going to be a part of the program. Again, it’s more about who we did add that we felt good about.”

Another noteworthy omission on the USMNT is Jordan Pefok. The 26-year-old striker performed admirably for Union Berlin at the start of the season in the Bundesliga, netting three goals and two assists through the first six league games. Some who noticed the forward being subbed early in the second halves of matches point to him dropping in form while others note that, for a coach like Berhalter who relies significantly on the viability of his system, Pefok would’ve been a square peg in around hole. Still, Pefok’s capable of delivering in big moments, and at 6’3, it’s a risk to shun a productive scorer with such an imposing presence.   

Two other befuddling exclusions are John Brooks and Paul Arriola. Once seen as the future bastion of the USMNT’s defense, Brooks lost out to the 35-year-old veteran Tim Ream who’s been playing decently for Fulham but hasn’t played for the national team in more than a year. With injuries limiting the readiness of many center backs, it’s surprising that the German-born Brooks wouldn’t be included on the Qatar-bound team. With Arriola, he got off to a hot start as a winger on FC Dallas, appearing to be a lock in Berhalter's system, but once his goalscoring prowess simmered as the MLS season marched on, Berhalter doused cold water on that idea. Like the rest of us, Arriola was equally stunned.

“I am heartbroken to not be included on the final World Cup roster,” wrote Arriola on Twitter. This year my goal was to put myself in the best position possible to get to this point and I believe I did, unfortunately it wasn’t enough.”

Here's the full roster:

Goalkeepers: Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson

Defenders: Antonee Robinson, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, Sergino Dest, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Long, Shaq Moore, Joe Scally, Deandre Yedlin

Midfielders: Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Cristian Roldan

Forwards: Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Timothy Weah, Jordan Morris, Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Haji Wright

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