June 29, 2022

If the World Cup was held anywhere else in the world outside of Qatar, we would all be tied for our first tournament days.

With that in mind (and with our UK colleagues doing the same for England), we thought it would be an interesting exercise to discuss what the US men’s national team would look like if there was a FIFA World Cup. was traditional this time. Considering the injuries that occurred at the end of last European season, maybe it’s a good thing the tournament doesn’t come until November.

Our staff pored over their 23 players for the World Cup, imagining a June 14 kick-off instead of a November 21 departure.


Sam Stejskal’s American team

My US team of 23 players:

Guardians (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner

Defenders (8): John Brooks, Reggie Cannon, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Long, Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman

Midfielders (6): Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Malik Tillman

Forwards (6): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jesus Ferreira, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Haji Wright

My ideal starting XI (4-3-3): Matt Turner; Antonee Robinson, Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Reggie Cannon; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie; Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson

For the purposes of this exercise, I assume that all current wounds remain in effect. That means no Sergiño Dest, Daryl Dike, Djordje Mihailovic, Jordan Pefok, Gio Reyna or Chris Richards, all of whom we assume will be healthy and available for the World Cup in November.

These absences eliminated a lot of big decisions, but I still had a few to make, especially in defence. Most notable is the return of John Brooks. He’s been exiled from the USMNT since October, but I’ll bring him back to add a sizable dose of talent and an unparalleled level of experience among American central defenders. Joe Scally is included as a backup left-back. He struggled against Uruguay and is a natural player on the right side, but I still trust him a bit more than the other options in this position.

In midfield, Malik Tillman sneaks past Cristian Roldan. Even with his inexperience, Tillman is probably a more dangerous option as an offensive sub in the late game.

Paul Arriola gets the nod over Jordan Morris for the final winger spot, while Haji Wright steps ahead of the still plummeting Ricardo Pepi at striker.


(Katie Stratman/USA TODAY Sports)

What could change between now and the winter tournament itself?

Obviously this group would get a significant boost from the return of the currently injured Dest, Reyna, Richards and perhaps bolstered by a new striker option, where Pepi, Dike, Pefok or one of the two players on my 23 proposed could emerge with a little more coherence. Other places that could easily change: Left back save, where Scally could fall and Kevin Paredes could emerge; the final pick at No. 8, where Mihailovic could go up; and basically every centre-back besides Zimmerman, with Erik Palmer-Brown certainly in contention.

Paul Tenorio’s American team

My US team of 23 players:

Guardians (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner

Defenders (8): Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman

Midfielders (6): Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Malik Tillman

Forwards (6): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jesus Ferreira, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Haji Wright

My ideal starting XI (4-3-3): Matt Turner; Antonee Robinson, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman, DeAndre Yedlin; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie; Christian Pulisic, Jesus Ferreira, Tim Weah

With the 23-player limit and even despite the injury, there was one incredibly difficult omission from the squad: Ricardo Pepi. Realistically, I think there’s more confidence in Pepi to get the job done than in Wright right now. After all, Pepi scored some big goals in qualifying. But if you’re at a World Cup this week, it’s hard to look past Wright’s club form (15 goals in 35 appearances for Antalyaspor) versus Pepi’s club form (no goals in 11 appearances with Augsburg), and it would be incredibly difficult to justify Pepi’s arrival. In a traditional summer World Cup we would have had a few weeks of camp and a few friendlies and maybe that would have changed things, but based on club form alone, it has to be Wright.

I also think there will be a legitimate battle for Aaronson to enter the roster as a starter, either against Weah or McKennie. But someone is going to have to play the role of super-sub, and maybe it’s Aaronson.


(Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

What could change between now and the winter tournament itself?

Many things could change. Like Sam, I also assumed that all current wounds remain in effect. That means no Sergiño Dest, Daryl Dike, Djordje Mihailovic, Jordan Pefok or Gio Reyna. Dest and Reyna are locked if they are healthy. Dike will have a chance to return to the table in September if he starts the Championship season well. Chris Richards had an injury that sidelined him for inclusion in that June camp and I think he probably would have pushed into a World Cup spot, when there was no reason to do so for friendlies and the Nations League. Obviously, these players would definitely change the roster a bit if they were healthy.

As mentioned above, I think striker form is the biggest area to watch at the start of the European season. Pepi, Josh Sargent, Pefok, Dike and Wright will all battle for a spot, as will MLS-based Ferreira.

Another place to watch: the backup left-back. I’ll be keeping a close eye on two players, Kevin Paredes and John Tolkin, who might come into the picture.

Jeff Rueter’s American team

My roster of 23 players:

Guardians (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner

Defenders (8): George Bello, John Brooks, Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, Jedi Robinson, Joe Scally, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman

Midfielders (6): Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan

Forwards (6): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jesus Ferreira, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Haji Wright

My ideal starting XI (4-3-3): Matt Turner; Jedi Robinson, John Brooks, Walker Zimmerman, DeAndre Yedlin; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie; Christian Pulisic, Haji Wright, Tim Weah

This exercise gave me three headaches of increasing intensity. In general, four players have missed my training due to injury: Dest, Mihailovic, Reyna and Richards. The second selection problem, as always, is up to the striker. Third, and perhaps even more pivotally, is the center of the back. Miles Robinson’s injury opened the door for some defenders who played little or no role in qualifying. Although there are several world-class players available, few have been tested internationally. Richards’ injury only makes it harder – and if I make the call, it would mean extending an olive branch to a 2014 World Cup veteran.

Who could factor? As Ian Darke said it best, it’s John Brooks! Mihailovic has been the best domestic midfielder in MLS so far, but his ankle strike brings Cristian Roldan into the fold just ahead of Malik Tillman. Dest is a big miss, but it allows Bello to work as a dedicated left save option. Arriola’s blistering form lands him in attack, but it’s Brooks’ recall that would raise the most eyebrows. He’s played an important role in tournaments before (think fondly of the Copa América Centenario), and may be more needed now than he was last September. There are plenty of players in the bubble hoping to earn their place, but Brooks’ profile towers over the rest as if heading for a header against Ghana.


(Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

What could change between now and the winter tournament itself?

No position is more volatile than the attacker. Will Ricardo Pepi emerge from a full dismissal in the offseason for Augsburg? Can qualifying options like Jordan Pefok or Josh Sargent transform? Will Daryl Dike make up for lost time with West Brom after a pair of hamstring injuries to move up the depth chart? Perhaps Berhalter will be forced to alter his assessment of Malik Tillman as a midfielder or inverted winger to fill a void up top. Everything is in play at this point; while the coming months should see some key players recover from injury, the striker’s situation alone should make the United States grateful that there is still time before the Cup line-up of the world is finalized.

(Top photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

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