Mark it down now. John Brooks, one of the two Americans in any severity of contention to claim one of the 26 United States men’s national team spots on the plane to Qatar, will be watching the games on a TV screen. Brandon Vazquez, the 23-year-old FC Cincinnati striker with 16 goals this season, won’t make his national team debut until at least 2023. Tim Ream, captaining a Fulham squad punching above its weight in the Premier League, might never wear the stars and stripes again despite earning another opportunity.
The Yanks’ final two games before the FIFA World Cup take place later this month, with USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter naming his 26-man roster for the friendlies against also Qatar-bound Japan and Saudi Arabia. The usual suspects will be present like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie for the pair of games on European soil. The murky picture of who will represent America on soccer’s largest stage became a little clearer with Wednesday morning’s selections. More so, who it eliminates from taking one of those spots. To envision who’ll be in Qatar, the September choices are a more important giveaway of who won’t be there than who will be.
Brooks, Vazquez, and Ream are three of the most important names to get crossed off this week. Stability at center back will be crucial in the World Cup, as it was during the CONCACAF octagonal. The lack of experience on the international stage for the assumed starting pair of Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long is extremely concerning. Both should have a ticket to Qatar but penciling them in with Ream and Brooks’ omissions is silly nearly three months out. If you doubt that, can you envision Cameron Carter-Vickers, Sam Vines, Chris Richards, or Joe Scally unseating them? Richards or Carter-Vickers are long shots. Every other scenario is a mind-numbing, resounding no.
At the other bookend, not giving a flier to Vazquez or a call-in for Jordan Pefok are two more mistakes. Vazquez is in a similar position to where Ricardo Pepi was a year ago. A fresh, young face looking to make a name for himself beyond club soccer. Pepi got called in then, lit it up for a little while but has been a dud since his permanent transfer to Germany and loan move to the Netherlands. Vazquez will wait his turn while Pepi gets another shot this month. I’m all for second (or fourth) chances within reason, but this one’s a tough sell. The correct lack of hesitation in calling in a hot striker was course-corrected? Alright, Greggy-poo.
I really like the return of Josh Sargent, another No. 9 who’s been lackluster with the national team, because of his exploits with Norwich City. There are only so many spots to go around, but how you include an in-form striker from England’s second division and not Pefok, who has three goals and three assists in six games this season for top-of-the-Bundesliga Union Berlin, is inconceivable. Yeah, he missed an open net at Azteca and hasn’t been called in since that March window. If redemption tickets are being given out, disseminating them out of order is an interesting strategy. What’s next? Jozy Altidore being given a new life with the USMNT? (For the record, Jürgen Klinsmann’s striker of choice for the 2014 World Cup should be nowhere near this team for the foreseeable future and possibly eternity).
Not everything Berhalter did was bad that wasn’t a no-brainer. Matthew Hoppe, Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget, and James Sands should’ve been left out of the Qatar conversation anyway and aren’t part of the September squad after long streaks of not being called into USMNT. It’s a little murkier for players like Shaq Moore, Gianluca Busio, and Cristian Roldan, fringe players not heading to Europe with the Yanks but have had recent enough call-ups that their status for Qatar is still up in the air.
Who’s not on the September roster that’s a lock for Qatar if healthy? Only the trio of Tim Weah, Antonee Robinson, and Zack Steffen, all of whom are currently injured. Weah and Robinson could start against Wales on Nov. 21 and Steffen might not be a top three goalkeeper within the USMNT ranks, but Berhalter has quite the affinity for him. The true goalie battle for a World Cup spot is between Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson. Matt Turner can rest easy despite being a backup at Arsenal.
Wednesday wasn’t a good day for the USMNT’s chances in Qatar. Giving the heavy indication that two experienced centerbacks and two in-form strikers won’t be taking part in the World Cup, while awarding coveted spots to players such as Paul Arriola, who got red-carded in the USMNT’s most recent game against El Salvador and has been convincingly average at the international level, is puzzling. Strangely loyal personnel decisions from Berhalter have dominated his time at the helm of the US and it’ll either be what propels them forward at the World Cup or hands him a pink slip with America being one of the hosts for the 2026 international showcase. I’m betting the former as Berhalter can’t take off the blinders.
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