Three thoughts on the USMNT September camp roster

In case you missed it, US Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter announced his roster for the September international window, where the USMNT will play a pair of friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia.

This certainly isn’t just any other camp, though. It’s the last chance to evaluate the player pool in a single camp before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar. The USMNT will announce their roster on November 9, with the official submission due to FIFA on the 14th. This group of 26 players says a lot about where the squad stands for Berhalter and his staff. Let’s dive in.

The game model matters most

Berhalter wants his team to play in a clear way. He’s spent the last cycle establishing that. It hasn’t been without hiccups, and The System™ has certainly evolved in that stretch. But in this September roster (and the roster for Qatar), players will be selected first and foremost by their ability to fit in and contribute to that model.

This means that good players will miss out. It’s why John Brooks has been out of the picture since September. It’s why Tim Ream, who’s currently captaining Fulham in the Premier League and playing the best soccer of his career at age 35, isn’t in the squad. Berhalter wants his defense to play with a high line. Neither of those defenders have the pace to do it, and neither are in the squad.

As Matt said in the above tweet, it’s a nice change to have a defined style and vision. Prior head coaches (but especially one in particular) cobbled together rosters without much cohesion and would sub players into games with the precise instructions to run hard and cause problems.

I don’t always agree with how Berhalter approaches games or his selection. There’s a rationale and a lot of thought that goes into every game plan and every roster. Even if you disagree or don’t like it, we’re certainly past the days of selecting players based on talent alone with no thought to how they fit into a larger whole.

This means good, in-form players will miss out.

Berhalter bets on his ability to bring out potential

The omissions of in-form strikers Jordan Pefok and Brandon Vázquez made all the headlines. Playing for Union Berlin (who currently sit atop the Bundesliga table, no big deal) and a resurgent FC Cincinnati, the two have combined for three goals and three assists in their last five matches.

Vázquez especially has been a force since his club season started in March, scoring 16 goals. The only American in MLS to score more is FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira, who’s on the roster and expected to start in Qatar.

The decision to leave both off the roster is starkly contrasted by Ricardo Pepi’s inclusion.

Pepi last scored in a November 16 World Cup qualifier against Jamaican. He’s played 28 times for club and country since then, both in Germany with Augsburg and most recently with FC Gronigen in the Netherlands. He hasn’t scored a goal in that stretch. His one assist was a layoff inside the center circle to a teammate who carried the ball 40 yards, beat two defenders, and scored from outside the box.

Purely based on form, the decision is perplexing.

By selecting Ricardo Pepi for this camp ahead of Pefok, Vázquez and Haji Wright, Berhalter is gambling on several things: 1) Pepi’s ability to thrive in Berhalter’s game model, 2) Pepi’s potential to play at a higher level than Pefok and Vázquez when in form, and 3) Pepi’s ability to rapidly gain form before November.

Berhalter referenced Pepi’s three goals in World Cup qualifying multiple times during his call with the media, and he clearly values what Pepi has done with this team already and thinks it shows that he can contribute at a high level. His system also requires mobile strikers who can both stretch the field with runs in behind, as well as dropping deeper at times to link up and act as an occasional playmaker. Pepi can do this.

The third point is the key one. Pepi just moved to Gronigen on September first. Playing in a much more attack-heavy Eridivisie will give him plenty of chances to find the back of the net and improve his club form. If he’s able to turn around his form, similar to a striker like Josh Sargent, he can certainly be an asset in Qatar.

In calling him up, Berhalter is betting on all of those hitting. And he’s valuing the upside of Pepi over giving in-form players like Vázquez and Pefok a chance to translate their already hot club form onto the international stage.

Berhalter told the media that “we know Jordan’s profile and what he can do,” and that they had enough data to make the final decision on him for Qatar without seeing him in camp. Vázquez seems like a different story; he hasn’t played for the US past the U-20 level.

With those two specifically, it seems like Berhalter values what a hopefully in-form Pepi could bring to the table more than what an actually in-form Vázquez or Pefok brings right now, and that he can help Pepi find that form before November.

If Pepi struggles in camp and doesn’t improve his club form before November, the decision to call him up in September instead of someone else will be re-legislated. If Pepi rediscovers the form that he had last fall, the decision will seem prophetic.

There’s still flexibility

Berhalter reiterated countless times that this isn’t the final roster. The World Cup is still months away, and things can – things will – change before then. Players’ form will change, and unfortunately players will get hurt. Guys like Timothy Weah and Antonee Robinson are near locks to make the final roster, but currently are injured.

“This isn’t something where we need to lock the roster now,” he said. “If we think we’re 80% done with the roster, things can still change.”

Certainly some of the thought behind repeatedly dangling this carrot in the media is to keep players on the fringes engaged and performing well for their club, but I really believe it goes beyond that. A World Cup in November is completely unprecedented. As he mentioned in the press conference, players won’t have two months to get fit before the World Cup. There’s no time to take an out-of-form player into camp and get him up and running before the tournament begins.

This is where things will get interesting.

What if Ricardo Pepi struggles in the friendlies and doesn’t improve his club form? Does he still make the cut, or does someone like Vázquez or Pefok get in ahead of him?

What happens if Tim Ream is still outperforming defenders like Cameron Carter-Vickers or Chris Richards? Would his form outweigh negatives like lack of pace?

Berhalter rattled off a list of 12 or so players who weren’t called up and were very close to making the final cut. The door is still open for them to take their shot at the final roster, even after this September camp. Players can still get hurt in the five days between when the USMNT announce their roster and have to officially submit it. This staff is counting on having multiple in-form players and keeping as many options on the table as possible. Who wouldn’t?

Bonus thoughts

1. The goalkeeper battle is fascinating, and not in a great way. Matt Turner seems to be the favorite, but he’s firmly the number two option at Arsenal. Behind him, Ethan Horvath is starting for English Championship side Lutton Town. Zach Steffen, also in the Championship, is injured, and when healthy he’s been bad.

Does a healthy Zach Steffen even make the roster? I’d argue that he’s played himself below the other options vying for that third spot with a year full of mistakes for club and country. NYCFC’s Sean Johnson or Chicago Fire’s Gaga Slonina could sneak in ahead of him.

2. What happens if Antonee Robinson can’t go? The Fulham left back was one of the most important players for the USMNT in qualifying, and while the injury he picked up in early September doesn’t appear too serious, he won’t be back until October at the earliest. If he’s not on the roster, or if he’s on the roster and not fully fit at first, who plays ahead of him?

Sam Vines is the only natural left-footed fullback on the September roster. Both Sergiño Dest and Joe Scally regularly play on the left side for their clubs, and have been used there by Berhalter as well.

In a lot of ways, not having Robinson in this camp may help the USMNT. They’ve desperately needed to find a reliable backup left back, and now they have to. They badly need Robinson to get healthy before November, though.

3. Similarly, if Timothy Weah isn’t fit by November, Berhalter will be without his paciest and most direct attacker. When healthy, Weah was arguably undroppable in qualifying. Jordan Morris is in the September squad as a fairly like-for-like replacement, and after a slow start to his MLS season has begun to find his form again. Again, the best case (and most likely) scenario is that Weah is fit and ready for Qatar. Having a plan B is crucial, though.

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.

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