It took until the final matchday, but the USA has finally booked its ticket to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Fans can breathe a sigh of relief and allow themselves to look ahead at the tournament this winter in Qatar. With that in mind, we look months ahead and preview how the United States could line up against its drawn opponents at soccer’s greatest event.
Stars like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams are near locks when healthy, but there are plenty of other places where question marks remain, most notably at goalkeeper and striker. A serious injury to first-choice center-back Miles Robinson has also created a hole at the back.
With the tournament fast approaching, here’s how the U.S. could potentially line up if the entire roster is healthy come November.
MORE: Which teams have qualified for the 2022 World Cup?
USA World Cup roster projection
World Cup participants get 23 players on a FIFA World Cup squad, which doesn’t leave much room for navigation. With 11 starters a match, that leaves just 12 reserves, including two goalkeepers — hardly enough to cover every position with a backup.
With that in mind, there’s hardly any room for error or fluff.
MORE: Berhalter bests his critics with lineup choices during qualifying
It’s likely that the roster from the final stage of World Cup qualifying, accounting for injured players, is a good reflection of how the squad will look eight months from now. Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, and Brenden Aaronson will return, and most likely so will goalkeeper Matt Turner, even if he’s not playing much after an impending summer move to Arsenal.
At this point, we will assume that Miles Robinson is out for the World Cup with his torn Achilles, and if he somehow makes it back in time, that would be a huge bonus for the United States. Aaron Long, just back off his own Achilles tear, is the man to take his place.
The last player to make the cut is Jordan Morris, who is necessary to the attacking front in case of injuries or struggles on the pitch. His versatility and experience will be valuable on a young team that needs a lift every now and then. On that note, DeAndre Yedlin is preferred as the only man on the entire roster who has been to a World Cup before, the only holdover from the 2014 squad.
Players just missing out would include Paul Arriola, Shaq Moore, and others who have participated in World Cup qualifying but are on the outside looking in due to the shrunken roster size.
Goalkeepers (3): Ethan Horvath, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner.
Defenders (7): Reggie Cannon, Sergino Dest, Aaron Long, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman.
Midfielders (6): Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan.
Forwards (7): Brenden Aaronson, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Morris, Ricardo Pepi, Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah.
Possible USMNT reserves
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson.
Defenders: George Bello, John Brooks, Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie, Shaq Moore, Erik Palmer-Brown, Tim Ream, James Sands, Joe Scally.
Midfielders: Gianluca Busio, Sebastian Lletget, Djordje Mihailovic.
Forwards: Paul Arriola, Darryl Dike, Konrad de la Fuente, Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes.
USA starting lineup at the 2022 World Cup?
With the roster projection down, we can go about figuring out the best USMNT lineup.
Obviously, this exercise is subject to injuries, which are impossible to predict eight months out. And as Gregg Berhalter has pointed out many times, a team almost never has its most healthy lineup, and must find a way to survive without it.
We saw that to be true in World Cup qualifying time and again with the most recent example being Shaq Moore — the fourth-choice U.S. right back — who started against Panama for a team already missing McKennie, Dest, and Aaronson.
Every nation has its injuries, and the United States has suffered plenty across the last six months. Until May, none had truly threatened a player’s participation at the World Cup.
Then Miles Robinson tore his Achilles while playing for Atlanta United, and the entire U.S. back line was shaken up. With Robinson, a presumed starter, no longer available, Aaron Long becomes an immediate starting option. Gregg Berhalter has plenty of other options around the world to consider, but Long’s experience and level of play puts him at the top of the list.
MORE: A full breakdown of Miles Robinson’s injury timeline and who could replace him with the USMNT
Chris Richards seems to be the backup option with the highest ceiling, but others deserving looks from Berhalter include Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, and James Sands, or even veterans John Brooks and Tim Ream.
If healthy, Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, and Walker Zimmerman are all locks at the other three positions to this point.
To fit the most attacking talent in the lineup, Gio Reyna is moved back to midfield where he can run at defenses from deep and create opportunities. This could change depending on squad depth and individual game tactics, with Reyna also being deployed on the wing if needed.
It must be noted that in his 12 international caps, Gio Reyna has not once played in midfield. Gregg Berhalter has refused to play him there despite significant minutes in midfield at the club level. Still, this is the best way to alleviate a logjam at right wing, where Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah are both pushing for minutes, and it’s the best way to get Reyna running at defenders where he is most dangerous.
Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are locks in the deeper midfield spots if healthy, pairing with Reyna as a No. 6 (Adams), No. 8 (McKennie) and No. 10 (Reyna) all able to position themselves together as needed in different situations — a type of sideways triangle. Yunus Musah or Luca de la Torre can step in should Reyna move up to winger. Antonee Robinson has also established himself as one of the first players on the team sheet at left back.
The U.S. has struggled to find a consistent presence at striker since the departure of the criminally underrated Jozy Altidore — as they say in the NFL, a quarterback is never more appreciated than when he leaves, and that’s proving the case up front for the U.S.
Ricardo Pepi is thought of as having the highest ceiling, but since announcing himself with three goals in his first two national team appearances, his form for both club and country has dipped. Forward Jordan Pefok has had a positive stretch for his club, but his big miss in qualifying against Mexico will require redemption, and Jesus Ferreira is still quite untested despite a good performance against Panama.
At the back, the U.S. has goalkeepers 1a and 1b in Matt Turner and Zack Steffen. The great news is both those players will be playing for Premier League giants next season. Unfortunately, as it stands, neither of them is likely to be a starter next season.
It’s possible, therefore, that both first-choice goalkeepers could enter the World Cup with just a tiny sample of recent on-field minutes. That’s a problem Berhalter will have to sort through, especially after Steffen struggled at times in the qualification finale against Costa Rica.