Expected, disappointed. Two words that best describe my reaction to seeing the United States Men’s National Team’s roster for the final trio of octagonal World Cup Qualifying matches, beginning next week. Outside of the core, can’t-miss players and super-subs, which any soccer fan with a brain could’ve called into the squad, the player selections to help the Yanks book their place in Qatar, or crash out for the second -straight cycle, are puzzling.
By far the biggest omission is center back John Brooks.
Brooks is an old-school bully, pushing attackers off the ball and physically imposing himself on every match. His form for German club Wolfsburg was below average months ago, leading to his absence from octagonal matchups in November against Mexico and Jamaica. The 29-year-old hasn’t been called back into the fold since, despite his play returning to his familiar style. He’s a true brick wall in defense, the stopper needed for the most adverse of road environments. Brooks tormenting opponents during the United States’ upcoming trip to Estadio Azteca to face rival Mexico on Thursday and a potential must-win match in Costa Rica would have been lovely.
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter had a chance Friday morning to ratify his mistake and still completely fucked it up.
Sergino Dest, who suffered a leg injury on Thursday for Barcelona, was called into the 27-player team but won’t play in the critical set of three matches. Replacing him is George Bello, who’s a fine player. He’s nowhere near Brooks’ skill, even if it’s not a straight like-for-like switch. Even the younger Joe Scally is farther along development-wise over Bello. If age is a factor, go for Shaq Moore. It’s a typical gaffe that’s defined the last several months of Berhalter’s tenure and gives me serious pause about whether he should lead the USMNT after the 2022 FIFA World Cup, even if the Americans qualify and have success on the biggest of stages. He’s no-doubt fired without an automatic berth after this window of matches.
Another head-scratcher is the inclusion of Paul Arriola instead of Josh Sargent, who has been revitalized by his winter transfer to Norwich City. While experience matters for high-pressure games and Arriola’s 43 caps are valuable, what has he truly done to stand out for the Yanks in the last year? Sad part is, he’ll likely get major playing time over the next window instead of a younger, better player. Whatever convinces Berhalter to keep giving the FC Dallas forward a large role is beyond comprehension.
Oddly, the USA is talented enough to cover for Berhalter’s shortcomings. Studs like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Antonee Robinson and more makes this a deep pool of players to pick from. There’s the blessing in disguise of having too much of a good thing, a rarity for the USMNT that Berhalter loves to exploit. The diehard American Outlaws probably know this next piece of information by heart: the US men are in solid shape to advance to Qatar. Their standing could and should be better, but also could be so much worse.
The magic number of points the USA needs to book its ticket to Qatar in November is six, meaning it also needs five to secure a top-half finishing spot and guarantee the journey won’t end this month. The team currently in fourth is Panama, the only home opponent left for the US in this 14-game round-robin gauntlet. In simple terms, a win on March 27 in Orlando, Fla., against Los Canaleros drops the magic number to zero in the head-to-head with Panama. Should fifth-place Costa Rica drop a single point against first-place Canada or from a road game against El Salvador, the trip to San Jose to close this stage of WCQ on March 30 would be irrelevant to the Americans’ chances of being one of the 32 teams at the World Cup. They’d be in.
What makes qualification far from a certainty is the quality of play the USA has displayed in its previous 11 final-round WCQ matches, especially against the best competition. Nothing from the 180 minutes against Canada should give any American fan hope. Take away last-place Honduras, who the Americans should pummel in this round, they have two road points, a tie each against Jamaica and El Salvador. The amazing second half in Cincinnati against Mexico and outing against Jamaica in Austin are the outliers, not the norm. That’s a huge problem.
Injures to Destiny, midfield maestro Weston McKennie and goalkeeper Matt Turner will keep three American starters out of camp. How they compensate for those losses (, with my picks would be being Reggie Cannon, Kellyn Acosta and Zack Steffen), will go a long way in determining how much turbulence the United States faces over the next two weeks. Berhalter had the chance to calm down skeptics by changing course with some roster selections. Baby steps are there if you want to salute the return of Jordan Pefok after six months away from the team.
Small steps shouldn’t be on the table this close to a World Cup. These kinks should’ve been worked out last year and the US is behind because of it. All this crap about “it’s hard to win on the road in CONCACAF” and “there’s no way the US can miss the World Cup twice in a row” are just excuses for poor play. The playing conditions aren’t ideal in most road CONCACAF stadiums but what do you call the walk-in freezer the Americans provided to Honduras in February, where players had to be subbed off at halftime for hypothermia? Having the US tumble out of qualifying is very much on the table. The Yanks better play like it.