The dust has settled on a dramatic World Cup roster release for the United States that saw a few surprises. Now that the 26-player squad has been decided, we have a clear picture of what the team will look like when they take the field against Wales in their opening game on Nov. 21.
The “Golden Generation” label — a phrase assigned to a group of talented players of a similar age expected to achieve great success together — has been thrown around when talking about this USMNT side. While there is undoubtedly a plethora of talent featuring players playing at extremely high levels, there are still some very worrisome issues with Gregg Berhalter’s roster. Here are some of the strengths and weaknesses this USA squad possesses:
Weakness: Defensive uncertainty
Without a doubt, the biggest concern heading into Qatar for the U.S. is their backline. Once considered a strength of the team, the defense has hit hard times beginning with the injury to the main piece it had built a strong foundation around. When Miles Robinson ruptured his Achilles tendon in the middle of his MLS season, Berhalter suddenly encountered quite the headache of how to replace him. With Chris Richards unable to get healthy in time, this is still a dilemma that has yet to be resolved as we enter the World Cup.
It seems likely that Walker Zimmerman has one starting center back spot locked up, but the question of who will partner him remains. Fellow MLS veteran Aaron Long had once appeared to be what Robinson was to the team — a reliable defensive rock — until he suffered the same long-term injury fate last year. Despite returning to full health, he’s never regained the form that had him in that standing within the squad. Now the door is wide open for any of the numerous centerback options on the roster to step up and claim that starting spot.
Centerback isn’t the only worrisome position on the back line, either. Sergiño Dest, a prized dual-national recruit who picked the USA over his birth country the Netherlands, has hit an untimely rough patch. The projected starter at right back for Berhalter was frozen out of the FC Barcelona squad. He joined AC Milan ahead of the summer transfer deadline but has yet to break into the team consistently and is nowhere near his top form. So, while there are some strong individual talents among the defensive unit, having serious questions about 50% of your backline is less than ideal.
Strength: Midfield depth
Never has the U.S. possessed such a girth of gifted and technical midfielders. The names just go on and on with the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Gio Reyna, just to name a few. These are all players plying their trade with huge clubs in Europe on a daily basis. You also have young players with tremendous skill levels such as Brenden Aaronson, Yunus Musah and Luca de la Torre who have shown they are more than capable of making major contributions when called upon. Unfortunately, there’s only three starting spots to fill and there will be some tough decisions as to who to keep on the bench. The only one you can be sure will have their name on the team sheet is Adams who is the undeniable and irreplaceable leader at the defensive midfield spot. Some would argue that McKennie is right there alongside him in the value argument, but with the plethora of talent for Berhalter to choose from, it’s not unthinkable that he could be left out of a lineup. Nevertheless, having so many options is a good problem for a coach to have.
Weakness: Many strikers, very few goal scorers
A lot of the talk surrounding the roster announcement was two strikers being left off. Josh Sargent, Jesus Ferreira, and Haji Wright won out over Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi. While the competition for spots was tight, the reality is it was so close because there were no standouts. During the last four years, especially in World Cup qualifying, goal scoring has been a huge issue. In fact, Pepi’s three goals during qualifying were the most among pure strikers on the team. Getting production from the No. 9 spot in his system has been one of Berhalter’s biggest issues since taking over the head coach job.
Ferreira’s ability to play a more hybrid style of striker who can drop into the midfield and link-up play seems to be what has won him favor in the coach’s eyes. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him get the massive chance as the team’s starter when they open the tournament. However, a more out-and-out type of striker like Sargent could be more favorable against both Wales and England who have very big and strong centerbacks. Then you have Wright who is the wildcard of the bunch and could add some physicality of his own. There are way more questions than answers when it comes to the striker position and it’s been that way for quite some time.
Everyone knows that if the USMNT are going to make a run in a World Cup they are going to need something special from the goalkeeper position. The history is strong with performances like Brad Friedel’s heroics in the legendary 2002 quarterfinals run or Tim Howard against Belgium in 2014. This tournament feels set up for Matt Turner to take the world by storm just like they did. The Arsenal backup has proven to the American fans just how good he can be. He’ll have the opportunity to do it on the biggest stage possible and there’s no reason to doubt him. After showcasing his skills in MLS, he’s gotten off to a fine start in England conceding just one goal in his first four starts so far. If his defense doesn’t completely fall apart in front of him, Turner will have a chance to enter the USMNT lore himself.
In case of emergencies, the depth behind Turner is also quite strong. Even without Zack Steffen, having Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson in reserve is pretty reassuring. Horvath, in particular, is no stranger to coming off the bench in a pinch and making a difference. If we see anything like his unbelievable heroism in relief against Mexico in the Nations League final where he stopped a potential game-tying penalty, it may just top anything we’ve ever seen from an American goalkeeper at a World Cup. Needless to say, the U.S. are in fine hands between the posts.