- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
In less than two months, the 3,065-day wait between World Cup matches for the United States men’s national team will come to an end. Only tuneups against Japan in Germany (Friday, 8:25 am ET on ESPN2/ESPN+) and Saudi Arabia (on Tuesday in Spain) remain before the Nov. 21 group-stage opener against Wales in Qatar.
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These two friendlies are, for all intents and purposes, the last chance for players to make direct impressions on U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter before he makes his World Cup selections. Berhalter insists other players could still end up on the team beyond those invited to camp this week, and he will prove how true that is when he makes his final 26-man selection in early November.
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But there are indeed roster spots still to be decided, and we’ll see who takes the greatest advantage of this week’s opportunities. Here are five questions to ask as we, too, get our final pre-Qatar look at the national team.
Jump to: Spots up for grabs? | Best center-back duo? | Pepi, Sargent to rise? | Shots on target? | Turner too rusty? |De La Torre time?
Nine (or so) USMNT World Cup roster spots are left. Who takes them?
Figuring out a national team manager’s preferences can be pretty tricky due to the disjointed nature of the international calendar. Who’s healthy and/or in form when the matches show up on the calendar? Who isn’t? It can make a huge difference on selection.
Still, we can make some pretty educated guesses. We know who Berhalter has played the most over the year or so since World Cup qualification began: Timothy Weah, Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Jesus Ferreira and Ricardo Pepi in attack; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta in midfield; Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson in central defense; Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin and Sergino Dest (when healthy) at fullback; Matt Turner and Zack Steffen in goal.
Weah, Musah, Steffen and Antonee Robinson have battled minor injuries of late and are not involved in this window of matches, but one assumes their spots on the plane to Qatar are secure if healthy. Miles Robinson will certainly miss the World Cup due to a long-term Achilles injury suffered in May, and even though he was selected for these two matches, Pepi could also miss out despite being healthy as he has battled major form issues this calendar year.
So that’s 15 players we can loosely assume are involved.
We know that Giovanni Reyna would have been in heavy rotation had he not been injured for most of 2021-22, and we know that midfielder Luca de la Torre enjoyed some fantastic and super-active moments as he was given more minutes late in qualification and over the summer. That’s probably 17.
That still leaves nine spots or so that are undecided — maybe 10 or 11 if Berhalter gives up on Pepi for the time being, or if Steffen’s combination of health and form issues continue. One extra spot will go to a third goalkeeper, and one to two spots will go to backup midfielders. But at least a couple more forwards will come to Qatar, and there are quite a few spots to be decided in defense.
Outside of the names already mentioned above, here are the players in each position group who were invited to camp in this international window:
Goalkeeper: Ethan Horvath (Luton Town), Sean Johnson (NYCFC)
Center back: Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes)
Fullback: Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach), Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp)
Midfield: Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Malik Tillman (Rangers)
Forwards: Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Joshua Sargent (Norwich City)
Those are the players to pay closest attention to against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Is Zimmerman-Long as effective as Zimmerman-Robinson?
With Miles Robinson out, the biggest question for Berhalter to answer regarding the team’s starting XI is who lines up next to Zimmerman in central defense in Qatar. Evidently Aaron Long will get the first crack, as he will start alongside Zimmerman against Japan.
McKenzie and Palmer-Brown were last-second additions after both Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards (Crystal Palace) had to withdraw with minor injuries. (Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan likely would have been involved here if not for injury, as well.) All of this has further clouded what was already the cloudiest position on the roster.
None of the primary options have logged the same amount of time next to Zimmerman as Robinson had. Richards and Zimmerman have played in the same U.S. match four times, Long twice — he’s coming off of his own Achilles recovery — and McKenzie and Palmer-Brown once each. If Carter-Vickers were to end up starting next to Zimmerman against Wales, it would be their first match together. That’s a bad time to get to know each other.
Richards started four qualification matches and seemed reasonably likely to be the new first-choice option here, but minor injuries (and the poor timing of said injuries) have limited his time in various camps. So Long gets the first shot.
Berhalter leaned heavily on the combination of Zimmerman and Robinson in World Cup qualification — they were two of the four players who topped 800 minutes — and the United States’ defense was rock solid most of the way. In the seven matches in which this duo played, the U.S. allowed just four goals (from shots worth 4.3 xG) and amassed 16 points. In the seven they didn’t: six goals allowed (from 5.6 xG) and nine points. In terms of output, that’s not an enormous difference, but it’s a difference.
Neither Japan nor Saudi Arabia is heavy in terms of attack or length-of-the-pitch pressure. We certainly won’t learn everything we need to know in two matches, but if one of either Long, McKenzie or Palmer-Brown were to stand out from the others, it would likely make a strong impression.
Will Pepi, Sargent capitalize amid Pefok snub?
Jordan Pefok and his Union Berlin side have been a revelation since the start of the current Bundesliga season. The counter-attacking partnership of Pefok (three goals and two assists from 10 chances created) and club teammate Sheraldo Becker (six goals and three assists from 12 chances) has been a huge reason why Die Eisernen sit top of the German league table.
As for his performance for the USMNT, Pefok hasn’t really done much. The 26-year old has made nine appearances with the national team and has scored once on eight shots worth 1.2 xG in 307 minutes. Granted, no one has really stood out consistently in center-forward, but of those who have played at least 200 minutes for the national team over the last two years, Nicholas Gioacchini (1.23), Ferreira (1.13), Daryl Dike (0.55), Pepi (0.44) and Gyasi Zardes (0.41) have all averaged more xG created per 90 minutes than Pefok’s 0.35, and Sargent (0.34) and Matthew Hoppe (0.30) aren’t exactly far behind.
The U.S. seems to be at its best when it is giving the other team the ball and opening space for counters. That has been true historically, and it still seems true now. In the four World Cup qualification matches in which the U.S. had under 50% possession, they averaged 2.5 points and 2.8 goals scored per match; in 10 matches over 50%, they averaged 1.5 points and 1.0 goals. It’s true that game state had a role to play here — when the U.S. is leading, it is much less likely to be dominating the ball or trying to play with a high defensive line — but one could make a pretty easy case that Pefok (one of the strongest counter-attackers in Europe at the moment) should have a spot on the roster, even if just as a substitute.
Maybe that will come to pass. Maybe Berhalter was serious when he said last week, “We’re pretty confident we know Jordan’s profile, we know what he can do… we didn’t feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he could be on the [World Cup] roster or not.”
But there are only a couple of roster spots left for attackers and now Pepi, Sargent and Arriola get chances to make last-minute impressions, hopefully swaying Berhalter’s thinking. Will they take advantage?
Sargent has certainly taken advantage of a drop in competition levels. Still only 22, he spent the last two seasons with moribund teams. Werder Bremen was relegated in 2020-21 after a terrible season in the Bundesliga, and he moved to Norwich City, which finished last in the Premier League in 2021-22.
Over those two seasons, he managed to score just seven goals in 58 matches and while he was in no way the primary reason for those teams’ dreadful performances, he obviously didn’t help that much either. Predictably, his form with the national team suffered, too. After scoring five goals in his first 12 appearances, he failed to score in his last seven matches; in the first three matches of World Cup qualification, he attempted four shots in 116 minutes, put none of them on target, and wasn’t included in further matches.
This season in the English Championship, Sargent already has six goals and an assist in 10 matches for Norwich. Because of an injury to veteran Teemu Pukki, he’s put in nearly half of his minutes at center-forward, too, which hasn’t hurt his cause. He’s put 42% of his shots on target, and his body language has improved immensely. He’s doing this in the second division, yes, but he desperately needed confidence and form, and he’s found both.
Pepi… is still searching, as the last year or so has turned him into a prime example of “too much, too soon.”
Still only 19, Pepi rode a hot streak to a 13-goal, two-assist season for FC Dallas in 2021 — he scored three times for the U.S., too — and he parlayed that success into a transfer to the Bundesliga to play for FC Augsburg.
Over the course of about seven months, he made just 16 appearances for 587 minutes (equivalent to just 6.5 full 90s) and scored zero goals with zero assists. He was solid from a ball-pressure perspective, but as a forward, you’re hired to score at least a few goals. He is spending 2022-23 on loan with the Eredivisie’s FC Groningen, and in two matches and 110 minutes he’s already produced a goal and an assist.
Maybe a lower level of competition will coax the same improvement we’ve seen from Sargent, but he’s only just started there.
Will the shots be on target?
For obvious reasons, the players themselves — their individual performances and where they fit in the team — are what we will be primarily focused on in these two matches. In fact, we’ll return to that line of thinking shortly. But there’s still something to be gleaned from the team’s play, especially as it pertains to the attack.
Berhalter has made clear through the years that he prefers slow buildup and quality possession numbers; this made it kind of awkward when, as mentioned above, the U.S. turned out to be far more potent with less of the ball.
Against a set of CONCACAF opponents that were typically happy to play with a low defensive line and give more talented teams all the aimless possession they wanted, the U.S. obliged. They were inconsistent in breaking these defenses down to any major degree, and it created some blemishes.
In seven qualification wins, the U.S. averaged 15.3 shots per match, attempted at least 12 in every match and put 40% of shots on goal. In six meaningful qualification draws and losses (not including the final loss to Costa Rica, when they had already clinched qualification), they averaged 10.0 shots per match, managed fewer than 12 in four of six and put just 25% of shots on goal.
With Iran in their World Cup group, the U.S. will play at least one match against a low-line, low-possession team — one that is very good at that system, no less. And as preparation, you could do a lot worse than playing Japan and Saudi Arabia. In friendlies and World Cup qualification matches over the last two years, Saudi Arabia has allowed just 8.2 shot attempts per match (37% on target), Japan 6.8 (31%). Was there a lot of weak opposition in that sample? Absolutely. But there was quite a bit of raw quality, too, especially from Japan.
When Japan played a loaded Brazil team in a June friendly — one that started Neymar, Vinicius Junior and Raphinha in attack and brought Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison off the bench — they did allow 21 shot attempts. But only two of the shots were worth more than 0.2 xG, only 24% of them were on target and Brazil’s lone goal came from a 77th-minute penalty.
Japan manager Hajime Moriyasu has a sound defense to lean on, one that includes veterans like captain Maya Yoshida (Schalke 04) and Hiroki Sakai (formerly of Marseille) and exciting younger players like Hiroki Ito (VfB Stuttgart) and Takehiro Tomiyasu (Arsenal). Further up the pitch, Japan has both proven players like Takumi Minamino (AS Monaco), Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Kyogo Furuhashi (Celtic) and up-and-comers like Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad) and Ritsu Doan (SC Freiburg).
This squad will test the U.S. from front to back, but how the Americans fare in attack might be the most telling. And against Saudi Arabia in particular, they should get plenty of reps against a packed-in defense.
How sharp is Turner (and will he play both games)?
According to data recorded by StatsPerform, Matt Turner — who will get the start on Friday against Japan — played 43 matches and a total of 3,869 minutes for club and country in 2021.
In 2022, he’s played 14 matches and 1,193 minutes. In 2021, he registered an excellent 14.1 goals prevented (a StatsPerform measure comparing the post-shot xG value of shots on goal to actual goals scored or allowed). In 2022, that figure is minus-0.3. It could be a correlation — or merely a coincidence.
The 28-year old Turner missed a large portion of the spring to injury, then moved from the New England Revolution to Arsenal over the summer. Professionally, it was an obviously exciting move for him to make. He’s been regarded as the best pure shot-stopper in the U.S. player pool for a while, and now he gets to ply his trade for one of England’s biggest clubs.
He did see a little bit of push-back to the move from those thinking more about the national team than about Turner himself. Would his form be affected by the fact that he wouldn’t be playing as much — he’s now Aaron Ramsdale’s backup — especially after coming off of an injury?
Indeed, he’s played in only one match for the club, along with three recorded friendlies. He was shaky against Germany’s Nurnberg in a July friendly, but the only goal he allowed in his Europa League debut came from a penalty. He has said all the right and predictable things about the move, pointing out that things are so fast in practice that he feels more prepared than ever for a World Cup-level challenge.
We’ll get a fleeting glimpse of Turner’s sharpness over the next week, but it will be interesting to see if Berhalter also starts him against Saudi Arabia, knowing that it will be his last chance to get a look at potential backups like Horvath and Johnson as well.
Will De la Torre be rested or rusty?
We’re going to get quite a look at how club form affects country form this week and, perhaps, at the World Cup. Turner is one case study, and De la Torre is another.
De la Torre, 24, emerged as a bolt of lightning and phenomenal at ball recoveries for the U.S. this spring and summer. Over seven 2022 matches with the U.S., and in just a 275-minute sample, he recorded 38 ball recoveries, completed 90% of his passes and created six chances with two assists. He was a wrecking ball with Heracles Almelo in the Dutch Eredivisie, too: He was one of only three players to combine at least 230 ball recoveries with at least 40 chances created.
He moved from Heracles to LaLiga’s Celta Vigo in the offseason, however, and has proceeded to play 17 total minutes in 2022-23. The odds are good that he will land on the 26-man World Cup roster regardless, but now’s a good chance for him to prove his sharpness — to prove he’s rested, not rusty — after sitting the bench for most of the last six to eight weeks.
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