Picking a USMNT World Cup roster: December 2020

The US Men’s National Team closed out their 2020 season with a 6-0 win last night, rolling past El Salvador in a blowout victory. With 2020 in the books and a packed 2021 on the horizon, it’s time for a completely hypothetical exercise that will only make people mad; choosing a 23 man roster if the World Cup started tomorrow.

I’ve picked a squad of 23 players I would choose for a World Cup roster if the tournament started tomorrow. While these players may not be the 23 individual best players in the pool, they’re the players I would want in a knockout tournament setting. Here it goes.

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1. Zack Steffen

Goalkeeper – Manchester City (England)

There’s been plenty of debate in the Twittersphere about who the best goalkeeper in the pool is. I don’t think it’s a question. Zack Steffen was the best ‘keeper in the national team picture when he played for Columbus Crew, and although he’s primarily the backup at Manchester City, he’s still one of the best shot stoppers the country has. In a must-win match, he’s in goal.

Possible alternatives: No one

2. Matt Turner

Goalkeeper – New England Revolution (USA)

Turner is the best goalkeeper in Major League Soccer. He’s not just a great shot stopper, but he’s really good with the ball at his feet. An added bonus is that he’s playing regularly, albeit at a lower level than Steffen. He’s a solid number two, and with a move to Europe he could push for the starting spot by the time the World Cup actually rolls around.

Possible alternatives: No one

3. Tim Melia

Goalkeeper – Sporting Kansas City (USA)

Tim Melia is an outside pick. He’s never received a national team call-up, and at 34 he’s the oldest ‘keeper on this hypothetical roster by a long stretch. However, he’s arguably MLS’s best all-time at saving penalty kicks. In a knockout format, that could prove useful.

Possible alternatives: Ethan Horvath, Stefen Frei, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson

4. Sergiño Dest

Full-back – FC Barcelona (Spain)

I mean… the guy’s a starter for one of the greatest clubs in the world. He’s a starter for the national team. There’s your analysis.

Possible alternatives: No one

5. Reggie Cannnon

Right-back – Boavista (Portugual)

By the time the actual World Cup is here, Cannon may be playing for a much bigger club. He’s impressed in his first few months in Portugal, and his versatility and work-rate put him at the top of the US’s full-back depth chart.

Possible alternatives: Bryan Reynolds

6. John Brooks

Center-back – VfL Wolfsberg (Germany)

Brooks has developed into the best passing center-back in the pool. He’s always been solid defensively, but his ability on the ball has turned into a key part of how the US breaks teams down. If he’s healthy (which unfortunately hasn’t been a guarantee for him), he’s a starter.

Possible alternatives: No one

7. Mark McKenzie

Center-back – Philadelphia Union (USA)

McKenzie is just 21, and he’s already one of the elite center-backs in the pool. He was a Best XI defender in MLS this season, and with legitimate offers from some top sides in Europe, he’ll probably be playing in Europe by 2022. Even now, though, I’d probably have him in the starting lineup.

Possible alternatives: Matt Miazga

8. Walker Zimmerman

Center-back – Nashville SC (USA)

This one’s a bit of a coin flip between Zimmerman and New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long. Both are elite MLS defenders with practically the same amount of international experience. Long seems to be the preferred option by Gregg Berhalter at the moment, but Zimmerman is in better form. There’s definitely some bias on my end from covering Zimmerman every week, but if I had to name a roster tomorrow, he’d make the cut.

Possible alternatives: Aaron Long

9. Chris Richards

Center-back – Bayern Munich (Germany)

This may sound a bit Eurosnob-ish, but he’s in the first-team squad for one of the world’s best sides. He’s not an every week starter, but he’s come off the bench pretty regularly, with an occasional start. He’s trusted in big moments, and he’s shown a surprising amount of versatility, playing in either full-back spot as well as centrally. He’s a really good player, and versatility is huge in a tournament like this.

Possible alternatives: Justin Glad, Eric Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers

10. Antonee Robinson

Left-back – Fulham (England)

Robinson is a very attack minded full-back who is getting regular minutes in the Premier League. Left back has been a problem spot for the US pretty much forever, and Robinson should be in contention for the starting spot.

Possible alternatives: Sam Vines, Nick Lima, Chase Gasper, Julian Araujo, DeAndre Yedlin

11. Tyler Adams

Defensive midfielder – RB Leipzig (USA)

Adams is the a locked in starter when healthy. He’s shown an ability to control midfield from a deeper role, and has answered questions about his passing range this season. Not a whole lot that needs to be said about this one. He’s a legt player for a Champions League team.

Possible alternatives: No one

12. Jackson Yueill

Defensive midfielder – San Jose Earthquakes (USA)

Yueill has quietly worked his way into the depth chart as a top holding midfielder option. He could be a bit more ambitions with his passing, but he reads the game really well and understands spacing and positioning. A good backup to Adams.

Possible alternatives: James Sands, Alfredo Morales, Chris Durkin

13. Weston McKennie

Center midfielder – Juventus (Italy)

McKennie is a starter for Juventus, a contender for the Champions League and Serie A every season. He’s a locked in starter for the national team, and probably on the shortlist to wear the armband.

Possible alternatives: No one

14. Sebastian Lletget

Center midfielder – LA Galaxy (USA)

Lletget is a special player. He’s good on the ball, has good vision and makes really intelligent runs into the box. He’s an excellent finisher and capable of playing in multiple roles. He’s a really important player for this team, and if he doesn’t start he’s one of the first names off the bench.

Possible alternatives: Djordje Mihailovic, Eryk Williamson

15. Yunus Musah

Center midfielder – Valencia (Spain)

Assuming Musah commits to the US long term (he’s eligible for England, Italy and Ghana as well), he’ll be a major piece of this team for over a decade. At just 18, he’s a starter in La Liga and fit in really well with Adams and McKennie in the friendlies against Panama and Wales. His ability to shield the ball and bully defenders is a rare skill. He’s a special player.

Possible alternatives: Paxton Pomykal

16. Brendan Aaronson

Attacking midfielder – RB Salzburg (Austria)

Aaronson is a special player. Just 20 years old, he can already pull strings and control games. His vision and passing into the box is really special, and he does a great job pulling defenders out of position with his runs. He has a rare skill-set in this pool.

Possible alternatives: Frankie Amaya, Keaton Parks

17. Christian Roldan

Midfielder – Seattle Sounders (USA)

I debated including Roldan, but I think he’s a pretty unique player in this pool. He’s versatile, able of playing as a winger, a center midfielder, or even a right back. In Seattle, he’s developed an ability to control games, and his late runs into the box cause nightmares for defenders. To me, he’s the type of player you want on a roster. He might not play a lot, but would be really useful in a pinch.

Possible alternatives: Paul Arriola

18. Christian Pulisic

Winger – Chelsea (England)

Again, not a whole lot of explanation needed here. He’s one of the best players on one of the best teams in one of the best leagues in the world. Arguably the best player this country has yet produced. A lock.

Possible alternatives: No one

19. Giovanni Reyna

Winger / attacking midfielder – Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Reyna has gone from “exciting prospect” to “key player” for Dortmund in barely a year. His ability to receive the ball in traffic and open up space with his first touch is exceptional, maybe only matched by Darlington Nagbe in the pool. Able to play centrally or out wide, he may have the highest ceiling of anyone in the player pool.

Possible alternatives: No one

20. Jordan Morris

Winger – Seattle Sounders (USA)

Morris has turned into a truly elite player at the MLS level. He’s always had game changing pace, but he’s become much more composed around the box, as well as adding a strong left foot to his arsenal. Already in contention to start, he seems more than capable of playing at a high level in Europe.

Possible alternatives: Chris Mueller, Jonathan Lewis, Ulyses Llanez

21. Jozy Altidore

Striker – Toronto FC (Canada)

Yeah, I know. This will split opinions. You cannot convince me that a fully fit Jozy Altidore is not still one of the best strikers in this pool. He’s struggled to stay fit for the better part of five years, so it’s no guarantee. But if he’s healthy, he has to be on the roster.

Possible alternatives: Daryl Dike

22. Josh Sargent

Striker – Werder Bremen (Germany)

Sargent is a unique talent who hasn’t yet lived up to expectations. He hasn’t found his scoring form yet in Germany, but he’s also playing for a really poor Bremen side. On talent alone he makes this roster and probably the starting lineup, but I’m not completely sold on him just yet. In the scenario where the World Cup happens tomorrow, he’s in. In reality, he needs to improve his form over the next 18 months to be included.

Possible alternatives: Tim Weah

23. Gyasi Zardes

Striker – Columbus Crew SC (USA)

Some of you are going to hate this pick. I welcome that. But Zardes has as good a case as anyone to be involved.

For one thing, form matters. In the past five MLS seasons, the only American to score more goals than Zardes has been Chris Wondolowski. While he’s been criticized for his holdup play, he’s significantly improved in that area over the past few years. He’s an excellent finisher. He understands Berhalter’s system and the requirements of the position. And again, form matters.

If you give me a choice between a more talented player who’s not consistently scoring and a less talented player with a track record of scoring, I’m picking the latter.

Possible alternatives: Ayo Akinola, Jeremy Ebobisse

Full roster (caps/goals)

GOALKEEPERS (3): Zack Steffen (19/0), Matt Turner (0/0), Tim Melia (0/0)
DEFENDERS (7): Sergiño Dest (5/0), Reggie Cannon (13/0), John Brooks (39/3), Mark McKenzie (2/0), Walker Zimmerman (13/2), Chris Richards (1/0), Antonee Robinson (8/0)
MIDFIELDERS(7): Tyler Adams (12/1), Jackson Yueill (8/0), Weston McKennie (21/6), Sebastian Lletget (17/4), Yunus Musah (2/0), Christian Roldan (19/0), Brendan Aaronson (2/1)
FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (115/42), Josh Sargent (12/5), Gyasi Zardes (56/12), Christian Pulisic (34/14), Giovanni Reyna (2/1), Jordan Morris (39/10)

Starting XI

This wouldn’t be complete if I threw out a hypothetical lineup that may or may not ever see the field. Here goes…

Probably not many surprises here. Dest is a more natural right-back, but he’s played on the left plenty for Barça and Ajax, and this allows Cannon to start on the right.

Other than that, I think McKenzie is already the best option to partner Brooks. The striker spot felt like a toss up between either of the three on the roster, but I think Sargent is a good fit in this lineup.

This was a fun exercise. It will probably end up being completely wrong because the player pool is constantly developing, but it’s fun to look at the pool and who fits together.

There are more Americans playing at the highest levels across the globe than at any time before in the history of the program. The next 18 months leading up to the 2022 World Cup are going to be absolutely fascinating.

Who would you include in a World Cup roster? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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