Five tickets to Qatar, five USMNT toss-ups

There wasn't anything positive to take away from the USA's two friendly games against Japan and Saudi Arabia in Europe, but at least they did serve one purpose.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said the window gave "some clarity" to him and his coaching group.

"Things became pretty clear,” he said.

What things?

“Things,” he said with a smile.

Before the September window opened, Berhalter said he was 80 percent done picking his team for the World Cup. That leaves five or so spots he must decide on. After that, he must hope everyone is healthy when his team heads to Qatar. (He said he was missing "five starters" in the September camp to underscore his point about the uncertainty of who will be available.)

Here are the likely five toss-ups he must make decisions about to complete his 26-player squad he will announce on Nov. 9:

1. Odd-man out in goal? Right now, Matt Turner is the No. 1 ahead of Zack Steffen, though Steffen is likely Berhalter's choice to start in goal if he's healthy and in form. Problem is, that hasn't been the case since ... when? If Steffen doesn't go, Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath are both headed to Doha as Turner's backups. If Steffen is on the plane, either Johnson or Horvath won't have a seat. Neither got on the field in the September window. (Berhalter said Turner, whose playing time at Arsenal is uncertain, needed the work.)

2. Vines or Scally as the fifth outside back? Sam Vines started the first game at left back and Joe Scally came off the bench in the second half of the second game at right back. Both are youngsters playing well in their second seasons with their European clubs, Vines for unbeaten and untied Royal Antwerp in Belgium, Scally at Borussia Moenchengladbach, sixth in the Bundesliga. Berhalter's need? A backup for Antonee Robinson at left back. A left-footed player, like Vines? (He looked tentative.) Or Sergino Dest, who played on the left side against Saudi Arabia? Unlike Vines, Scally was immediately assertive. (His selection would give the USA four players at right back: Dest, Reggie Cannon, DeAndre Yedlin and Scally.)

3. Tillman or Roldan in midfield? German-American Malik Tillman filed his switch of association in the late spring to join the USMNT in June. A couple of big games for Rangers, which he joined on loan from Bayern Munich, helped the Scottish giants qualify for the Champions League, but since then, it has been rough going for the 20-year-old midfielder, who can play on the outside or in a central role. Before the camp opened, Berhalter said Tillman "needs to pick it up a little." Unfortunately, he didn't do that in his two appearances off the bench. The alternative is Cristian Roldan, who was one of just six players who was called up for all five windows during qualifying as well as the June 2022 window though he rarely played: just 105 minutes, all off the bench, in 18 matches. He recovered from groin surgery to return to action with the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night. On a 23-player roster, Roldan would have zero chance. But he still has a shot at going to Qatar as the 26th man, prized for his contributions in the locker room.

4. Arriola or Morris as the fifth winger? If Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna are all healthy -- all four were never healthy for any of the five World Cup windows -- there will likely be room for Paul Arriola or Jordan Morris but not both. Both are MLS players, and both returned to the national team after long injury layoffs. Arriola has had the better MLS season and had two good games in qualifying -- the home wins over Jamaica and Panama -- so he probably has the edge.

5. Pefok, too good to pass over? A big winner of the September window was Jordan Pefok by his absence. Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent played against Japan. Ricardo Pepi and Ferreira took turns up front against Saudi Arabia. No one produced. Berhalter's selection of Pepi, whose 11-month scoring drought ended days after his call-up, over Pefok, one of the main threats for Bundesliga leader Union Berlin, was a big surprise. Before the Saudi game, Berhalter said Pepi didn't need to score five goals. "We need him to play like a forward in our system and hopefully he gets opportunities and hopefully he takes the opportunities well." Those opportunities never came. On Pefok, Berhalter said before the camp, "We know Jordan's profile, we know what he can do. We didn't feel like we needed to see him to determine whether he could be on the roster." Now? Or never?

21 comments about "Five tickets to Qatar, five USMNT toss-ups".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 29, 2022 at 5:43 a.m.

    The keeper comments illustrate GB's coaching choices. He says he will select players based on their form at their club. He, however, selects and starts players who are not playing for their club.

    In short, GB has no consistent plan.

    My observation is that elite players are outliers. Over the past 20 years USSF has exercised greater control over player development at all levels of the game. During that time we have had fewer outliers. The less variance you allow in a process, the less scatter (fewer outliers) results.

    This is the opposite of the quality control approach in manufacturing when you want to assure minimum acceptability. Here the goal for developing elite players should be to generate and nurture outliers. For that you want more flexibility in processes and individual attention given to high outliers in the performance curve.

    This is why corporate management thinking doesn't work for government, military and sports programs. If former business managers do well, it is because they adapt their approach to the new situation.  

  2. Andrew Brown replied, September 29, 2022 at 12:46 p.m.

    Funny how every USA Coach since Bruce Arena has suffered this same criticism. 

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, September 29, 2022 at 2:03 p.m.

    Are you trying to be witty? GB is the only MNT coach we have had since Arena.

  4. Philip Carragher replied, September 29, 2022 at 3:20 p.m.

    thanks for the insights Bob.

  5. Philip Carragher, September 29, 2022 at 10:14 a.m.

    Bob, I ran into this development-stifling control issue yesterday at a boy's sophomore high school game. The quality of play was decent, better than I expected. I sat next to a soccer mom whose son was one of the better players. She provided a running commentary on the game and mentioned a conflict her boy faces playing high school soccer: is the high school coach right or is the travel coach right? The high school coaches want the players to dribble, the travel coach wants them to play one touch. I asked a question and her answer made it sound as if the travel coach discourages dribbling. Most parents and kids believe that the travel coach must be right, especially since they pay big money to play travel soccer. Moments later one of our players beat a couple of defenders off the dribble, made it to the touch line near the corner flag, and, rather than perform the mechanical drill of just crossing the ball, the player, to my surprise, attacked that goal by dribbling at it along the touch line, a decision I haven’t seen enough of at any level.  I exclaimed , “Wow” because I was so pleasantly surprised by the move. He passed it back to someone cutting in but it got intercepted but I loved it. Later, he beat another defender off the dribble, attacked the goal straight on this time and laid it off to a player who finished. I loved seeing the creativity and I wonder if the travel coach would see it that way.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, September 29, 2022 at 12:55 p.m.

    Playing in both situations is good for development. Players won't develop dribbling skills if they don't dribble. Dribbling is not always the best solution to a tactical problem. Generally dribbling is a tool to improve the tactical situation.

    Development priorities change too. At the beginning coaches should encourage dribbling. Everything starts with and builds on individual skills and tactics as you progress through development. By by high school, dribbling and other skills should be mastered so the travel coach should be more interested in teaching players how to solve problems with group play and with improving the tactical speed of the players (how long it takes for the player to do something effective with the ball). Unnecessary touches slow the team's play down.

    There are 2 different types of dribbling--to maintain possession and to penetrate. Dribbling on the flank and dribbling in the center also take different techniques. That is one example of why players shouldn't specialize too early.

    As for the travel coach, I prefer at least 2 touches for development rather than 1 touch. Works on both first touch and striking skills. 1 touch is best when players have to anticipate to be effective. Just blindly hitting a 1 touch pass with the side of the foot in whatever direction you are facing is not teaching anything.

  7. Derek Mccracken, September 29, 2022 at 10:49 a.m.

    The fact that Pepi was called into the squad for the last 2-matches before the World Cup, and Pefok wasn't, reaks of cronyism.

    Pepi had a horrendous 1st season in Germany's Bundesliga (FC Augsburg) this spring (15 games, 0 goals) which is why he was loaned (demoted) this fall season to a lower-level team (FC Groningen) in the Dutch league. Conversely, Pefok had a incredibly productive season last fall / this spring in the lower level Swiss league (Young Boys) with 22 goals in 32 league matches, so he was rewarded with a promotion to the higher-level German Bundesliga (Union Berlin), the same league in which Pepi struck-out earlier this year, and Pefok is doing very well at that level, too with 4 goals in 8 total appearances. 

    The reason I stated this smells like cronyism, favoring someone one knows better, though their qualifications are lesser, is because Berhalter seems to be blind to what has happened in the past year with Pefok's poor appearances for club & country, and overlooks Pefok's lights-out play during '21/22 in the Swiss league, and this year in the Bundesliga. In fact, Union Berlin, with Pefok's help, is in 1st place of the Bundesliga, one of the toughest leagues in the world. 

    Yet, Berhalter continues to cling to what Pepi did for the USMNT in 2 tourneys over a year ago, despite that he's been poor for club & country since then. Look, what Pepi with for the USMNT 2-summers ago, was great. He deserves props for that. AND, I still feel that this 20-year old will be a go-to player in the coming couple of WC cycles (2026 and 2030). HOWEVER, under no scenario should he make the current squad and Pefok gets left behind.

    Unless Berhalter is practicing a frightening form of cronyism and not caring as much about fielding the best WC squad for THIS World Cup. 

  8. Andrew Brown replied, September 29, 2022 at 12:54 p.m.

    GGG uses that excuse that "Pefok doesn't play the way USA want to play". He uses excuse of Pepi's buy-in to their high pressing system. 

    Unfortunately USA is not able to play the way they want to play quite often. Even against opponents as lowly as Saudi Arabia. In International soccer everyone but 3-4 teams need to *always* adjust their game in order to get a win/draw. Greg has shown a rigidity in his tactics whether by ignorance or by choice that that hurts the team's ability to get results. 

  9. Santiago 1314 replied, October 2, 2022 at 4:30 a.m.

    Least everyone Forget... Pefok MISSED A SITTER, For The USA in Mexico.!!!... And the Week before Sept Selection; He MEEKLY MISSED A PK for Union Berlin... He Chokes at the Big Moment... Visions of him Pulling a Wondoloski if he is in a World Cup Game.!!!

  10. humble 1 replied, October 3, 2022 at 3:52 p.m.

    Harsh.  Robben chocker too based on your logic.  Perfok's club Union Berlin are sitting at top of Budesliga table b.c. of, among other things, his goals. He stepped up a level, and guess what, he stepped up his game.

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, October 3, 2022 at 8:35 p.m.

    Wondolowski went from a "Chocker" in Houston to "Great GoalScorer" in San Jose... Didn't make him "Capable" of Scoring a SITTER IN World Cup..!!!!

  12. Kent James, September 29, 2022 at 11:22 a.m.

    Arriola over Morris, neither Tillman nor Roldan should go.  I'm hoping Pefok didn't play in the friendlies because he's already on the team (though to be honest, I've not seen him enough to be sure about that, but his performance in the Bundesliga seems to justify it), and Pepi will not be, but being called up gets Pepi the confidence he needs to play well at the club level and get his career back on track.  

  13. Andrew Brown replied, September 29, 2022 at 1 p.m.

    ESPN+ has the Bundesliga Highlight shows. Go back and watch the first few weeks of the season and the way Pefok is able to score and contribute to scoring chances for a Union Berlin team that has shown itself to be very competitive. 

    Late in a game he is a person that could shrug off a defender to score in a 1v3 situation. He's a person that could hold up the ball versus multiple defenders *WHEN* we need to counter attack against superior talent (notice I said WHEN not if). He will finish in a variety of ways in traffic, in the box. These are the things he's done for UB against Bundesliga defenders. 

  14. Kevin Leahy, September 29, 2022 at 7:04 p.m.

    No one could have distinguished themselves in the 9 role in the last 2 matches! I question whether anyone can in that role the way this team plays. GB should have never made the statement about people being in good form with their club because, time and time again he has shown that isn't valid. If Sargent or Pefok go, I don't expect to see them get anything other than mop up duty. The fact that some names are in the conversation is mind boggling 

  15. Santiago 1314 replied, October 2, 2022 at 4:33 a.m.

    I concur Kevin.... We gonna play with a False9 ... Jesus or Reyna

  16. Santiago 1314, October 3, 2022 at 2:01 p.m.

    Finally had time to Make my Roster:
    1. THIS WC22 is a FARCE
    So much of WHO will Win, Will depend on Health and Availability of Countries Roster.
    If we have EVERYONE I List; Healty and Fit to go, and other Countries Lose some Stars,
    3. USA will Play a False9 4-3-3, Flat Defensive High Line, with GegenPress up Front.
    I Listed them Numerically, so if anyone wants to "Sub" Out one of my List, we can go it side by Side.

  17. humble 1 replied, October 3, 2022 at 4 p.m.

    Playing for your national team in the WC is an honor.  Not a farce. This one is maybe tainted, but it's a WC.  Not a farce to the 32 teams that fought through qualifications.  Not a farce to the players and coaches that worked their entire career to be in a WC, and the many teams and tried but failed to qualifiy, and the players that failed to make the cut to fight for their countries. Especially not a farce to our USA boys who missed the last dance.  Heads up!  Enjoy the game! 

  18. Santiago 1314 replied, October 3, 2022 at 6:46 p.m.

    Humble....It's gonna have a * by it's Name... Just watch and see.

    But I agree that it's NOT a Farce to those Involved...
    It will be Tremendous Experience for our Players... Hold Up on an Island.!?!?!?
    Bus to the Practice Field, Bus Back to the Island,,, Bus to the Practice Field, Bus Back to the Island... Rinse, Lather, Repeat... Lord of the Flies kinda Experience... Jajajaja

    Actually VERY Low Pressure Situation, where they can Just GO FOR IT.

    I think some of the other Teams/Players are going to Fade rather Quickly,
    If things don't go Well Early... Croatia, Mexico, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, ...
    they got Club Games to go back to ...

    Would you Change Out any of the Players I Listed, and for Who.???

  19. Santiago 1314, October 3, 2022 at 2:04 p.m.

    Starting XI
    LW Pulisic
    F9  Reyna
    RW Aaronson
    #8 McKennie
    #7 Musah
    #6 Adams
    LD Jedi
    LCB Richards
    RD  Dest
    GK  Turner

  20. Santiago 1314, October 3, 2022 at 2:07 p.m.

    2nd XI
    LW Tillman
    F9 Jesus
    RW Weah
    #8 LDLT
    #7 Busio
    #6 Cardosa
    LD Vines
    RCB McKenZIE
    RD Scally
    GK Horvath

  21. Santiago 1314, October 3, 2022 at 2:09 p.m.

    EXTRA 4


    7 of the Players are also Eligible for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

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