With the United States confirming a place at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the nightmare of the failed qualification in 2018 is officially put to bed, and USMNT fans can look forward to the big dance.
Now, the speculation begins.
While it was originally expected that 23 players would be afforded to the roster, but the official rulemaking body IFAB confirmed that rosters would be expanded to 26 players, allowing teams to bring three extra players than in the past. So who will be among the 26 players brought to soccer's most coveted event, and who will be left out of the fold?
Manager Gregg Berhalter and his USMNT coaching staff will spend the next months readying the final list of talent, so we take a stab at predicting who will make the final roster in mid-November.
Of course, injuries will have a major say as to how this plays out, and there is already one starter who will likely miss out barring an incredible recovering from an Achilles injury.
USMNT World Cup roster for Qatar 2022
World Cup rosters previously consisted of 23 players, including three goalkeepers, but FIFA this year expanded rosters to 26, meaning Gregg Berhalter has a little more space to bring players who can contribute in various areas.
Whittling down the U.S. player pool to the 26 best — or, most useful — players is going to be extremely difficult for Berhalter, taking team chemistry into mind.
The starting lineup and main contributors seem relatively set, but every roster spot is valuable, and the goal will be to maximize every position with players who can contribute in multiple ways on and off the field.
So, with that in mind, here are the 26 players The Sporting News predicts to be on the World Cup roster.
Predicted USMNT roster
Goalkeepers (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson.
Defenders (9): Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson, Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, Chris Richards, Sam Vines.
Midfielders (7): Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Sebastian Lletget, Gio Reyna.
Forwards (7): Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola, Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent.
At goalkeeper, Matt Turner and Zack Steffen will both need to find ways to get significant club minutes this coming season, but right now, they are considered options 1A and 1B. The third goalkeeping spot is more unclear, but with Ethan Horvath's club situation uncertain and Brad Guzan recovering from a torn ACL, the spot is Sean Johnson's to lose.
Fullback used to be a position of severe weakness for the USMNT. It still is...but only on one side. Antonee Robinson has established himself as the clear first-choice left-back, but there are few options behind him. George Bello has struggled for time this year with Armenia Bielefeld after the club dropped to the 2.Bundesliga, and Antwerp full-back Sam Vines is extremely inexperienced.
Meanwhile, there are loads of options at right back behind established starter Sergino Dest. While Reggie Cannon could have been left off with the roster at 23 players, he's given a spot with the expansion due to his versatility at center-back or right-back. DeAndre Yedlin's veteran presence will be required for such a young side, even with a host of right-sided players on the squad.
At center back, Miles Robinson tore his Achilles early in the MLS season, leaving him likely to miss the World Cup. John Brooks has done his best to prove he's ready for a return to the national team fold, but Berhalter has consistently rebuffed calls for the out-of-contract defender to be included. Brooks was left off the roster for the March international qualifiers, and again in the summer, as it seems he cannot manage to find a place in the squad. Instead, Aaron Long, fresh off recovery from an ACL tear, was brought back in over Brooks. That feels like a nail in the coffin of Brooks's chances.
While it felt like Long would ultimately end up as the starting center back alongside Zimmerman through the summer, the Red Bulls center-back has played poorly in MLS this season and further opened the door for other options, while the third and maybe fourth central defender spots are wide open. Cameron Carter-Vickers, back from USMNT obscurity thanks to a fantastic season with Celtic, Chris Richards fresh off the heels of his move to Crystal Palace, Erik Palmer-Brown of French side Troyes, or Genk central defender Mark McKenzie.
Carter-Vickers' current club form is the best, but Palmer-Brown finished the season strong and boasts positional flexibility, as does McKenzie. Richards needs to get healthy and sort his club situation out. It appeared that Fulham defender Tim Ream had played himself back into the conversation with a fantastic start to the Premier League season, but Gregg Berhalter's comments after leaving him off the September roster are a strong indication that he will not be brought in. James Sands is a fringe possibility after establishing a starting role with Rangers and boasting the ability to play defensive midfield, but his form through September against Champions League competition likely played him out.
In midfield, the trio of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah, affectionately dubbed "MMA," are locks to start in midfield for the United States. Adams and Musah are in especially good club form, while Juventus are struggling as a whole but McKennie is at least seeing consistent minutes.
Only veteran Kellyn Acosta is an option to back up Adams at the holding midfield position, a significant concern, which gives Sands an added boost to be picked as a defender. Gio Reyna is back playing for Borussia Dortmund but has yet to earn a starting role, and has flexibility to play in midfield or on the wing. Luca de la Torre seems to have locked down a spot with stellar performances in qualifying.
Domestic-based teammates Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan seem to be battling for one last backup spot, but the latter had groin surgery in late August which hurts his chances significantly, while the former has started life at FC Dallas well. Brenden Aaronson's newly discovered acumen in midfield could cause Berhalter to feel he has room to make additional cuts here. Djordje Mihailovic was in stellar MLS form before an injury in summer USMNT camp, and hasn't been the same since his return.
Another difficult call comes up front, as the striker spot is wide open. Just last winter, it felt like Ricardo Pepi had a firm grip on the position, but it appears he's in fact lost it with a miserable start to his Augsburg career, now moving on loan to Dutch side Groningen. He was called in to September camp, which may be a last ditch effort by Gregg Berhalter to give him a chance.
Now, the frontrunner appears to be Jesus Ferreira who led the MLS goalscoring charts as the calendar turned to June. While he still struggled at times in front of net on the international level, his pressing makes him a Berhalter favorite, and a four-goal performance against Grenada didn't hurt.
Jordan Pefok has carried over last season's good club form to this year as Union Berlin challenges for a Champions League spot in the Bundesliga, topping the table in mid-September. Josh Sargent has also made a case with his great start to the season at Norwich, and he'll get a chance to earn a spot in September camp. Pefok's absence from the September camp roster raised many eyebrows, but Gregg Berhalter made it clear that he's not out of the running for a spot in Qatar. In fact, his comments seemed to suggest that Pefok could earn a spot simply by retaining his good club form, while Sargent and Pepi battle for the third forward spot in September camp.
Haji Wright is in stellar club form and got his first international goal against Morocco in a tuneup match, and at this point, he has to be considered just ahead of Pepi for a spot, although Berhalter's harsh words for Wright after the El Salvador mudbath leaves this battle wide open. FC Cincinnati's Brandon Vazquez has also entered the competition with good domestic club form, but he was not called in to September camp, likely seeing him miss out.
On the wing, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah had made it clear they were locked-in starters when healthy, but the former is barely playing at Chelsea and the latter remains injured as September began, so reinforcements are necessary. New Leeds man Brenden Aaronson has started life in the Premier League brilliantly, and could see himself elevated to a starting spot on the right if Weah takes longer to return from his injury and fails to discover form before the World Cup begins. All four of those star players are locks to make the roster.
The backup spots are still unclear, but Paul Arriola has had a better summer camp than Jordan Morris. Both could make the expanded roster, but that will depend on Berhalter's positional distribution. Malik Tillman could sniff the roster if he picks up his form at Rangers, but he had a tough week against Celtic and Ajax with an early September chance to impress.
USMNT starting lineup at the FIFA World Cup
So now that we have the final 23, how will they line up? The starting lineup is pretty self-explanatory, although there are still a few decisions to be made.
The biggest question comes between the pipes. With recent starting goalkeeper Matt Turner moving to Arsenal where he will compete for time and likely back up Aaron Ramsdale, that makes two USMNT goalkeepers with upper echelon Premier League teams...both as backups. Form is critical for goalkeepers, meaning it remains to be seen whether Steffen or Turner get enough minutes to consider themselves game ready for World Cup matches.
Another main question is at the third midfield position. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, when healthy, are locks for the starting lineup. The final spot seemed more up in the air until Brenden Aaronson performed brilliantly at the head of the midfield trio throughout the summer international break, including an excellent performance against Morocco. Could this be the way to get all the best U.S. attacking players on the field at the same time?
Predicted USMNT starting XI
Projected USMNT World Cup roster cuts
With just 26 spots available to Gregg Berhalter, some players will be left on the outside looking in.
Up front, it's Ricardo Pepi who's meteoric dip in club form means he's on the outside looking in. Gyasi Zardes and Josh Sargent also fail to make the squad. Paul Arriola is a steady veteran option, and with a squeezed roster, he beats Jordan Morris to the backup spot. Josh Sargent has found new life at Norwich City in the Championship this season, but it's likely too late to jockey himself into a roster spot.
The center-back battle is totally wide open, with Carter-Vickers, Palmer-Brown, McKenzie, and Richards all in contention. An end-of-season injury to Richards left him off the summer roster, and he hasn't gained minutes since moving to Crystal Palace, while McKenzie hasn't looked comfortable in any of his USMNT appearances to date. Carter-Vickers has played extremely well at Celtic and makes it, while Palmer-Brown loses out to a resurgence from Tim Ream.
In midfield, Cristian Roldan appeared to have the lead for the final backup spot, but his groin injury dooms his World Cup chances, and Sebastian Lletget has done enough at his new club to snatch the role. Similarly, Djordje Mihailovic's ankle injury over the summer seems to have sapped his MLS form, and he falls short.
At goalkeeper, Sean Johnson is an experienced option and a more viable on-field option in the event his talents are required. Veteran Brad Guzan tore his ACL with Atlanta United and will not be an option, and this World Cup comes just a bit too soon for young Gaga Slonina. Stefan Frei had a wonderful performance in the CONCACAF Champions League for Seattle, but still didn't get a look in the summer even with an injury to Zack Steffen that saw Ethan Horvath as the next man called up.
Projected USMNT World Cup roster cuts
Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath, Stefan Frei, Gabriel Slonina, Josh Cohen.
Defenders: James Sands, Erik Palmer-Brown, Mark McKenzie, George Bello, Joe Scally, Shaq Moore.
Midfielders: Cristian Roldan, Djordje Mihailovic, Malik Tillman.
Forwards: Ricardo Pepi, Konrad de la Fuente, Gyasi Zardes, Matthew Hoppe, Brandon Vazquez, Ricardo Pepi.