NEW YORK — When U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter began contacting the 26 players who will make up the U.S.’s first World Cup squad in eight years over the weekend to explain- The good news left some of them unwittingly scared.
“He texted me and said we can talk,” American midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who was officially named to the team at a gala in Brooklyn on Wednesday. At the time, however, Acosta feared the worst. “I was a little nervous. Is he going to say I’m not going?”
Instead, the LAFC player — surrounded by members of my family as he walked to the parade to celebrate the club’s MLS Cup win two days earlier — found out he was going to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar . “It was a beautiful moment,” Acosta said.
For those players who were reported to not make the 26-man cut, the opposite was true. World Cups only come around every four years. Races are short. Premature injuries occur. There’s no guarantee that someone who narrowly missed out on going to this World Cup will come so close to another.
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Acosta was expected to be on Berhalter’s final list. But so were goalkeeper Zack Steffen and striker Ricardo Pepi, neither of whom got it in the end. Arsenal’s Matt Turner is now the clear favorite to start in net in Qatar, provided he recovers from a minor injury in time. (Berhalter said Wednesday that Turner should be fine.) If not, Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath will be in charge.
Steffen’s omission is frankly shocking. The 27-year-old, who plays for Middlesbrough in England on loan from Premier League champions Manchester City, spent three seasons as Berhalter’s No.1 with the Columbus Crew, and has been an American starter for most of four years at the helm of the coach. of the national team. In a press conference after the roster was unveiled, Berhalter said telling Steffen he wasn’t on the team was “heartbreaking.” He would not go into detail about why he refused to pick a player with whom he has so much history, however, even when pressed on the matter.
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In the absence of a concrete answer, there are a few possibilities. One is that the coach was unhappy that Steffen was pulled from the U.S. roster for four games in June, the team’s longest outing before this World Cup, for family reasons.
It’s also possible that he decided that Turner, who started the last two World Cup preparations in September with Steffen, also left this squad (although the official reason was injury, Steffen returned to the lineup of Middlesbrough before this camp started), it was his World Cup. Cup no. 1 and didn’t want to risk having a disgruntled supporter in his dressing room.
Tim Ream was not called up for more than a year after pulling out of a trio of October 2021 World Cup qualifiers, until his form for Fulham and injuries to Miles Robinson and Chris Richards basically forced Berhalter to bring him back for the trip to Qatar. “He’s in the Premier League and he’s a top player for his team,” Berhalter said of Ream. “It’s very hard to ignore things like that … all the pieces were aligned to get him back into the team.”
Pepi looked a lock after rediscovering his goalscoring touch with Dutch side Groningen, for whom he has five goals in his last seven games. But the Eredivisie is a very open league in which strikers have many chances. Internationally, it’s the opposite.
Berhalter suggested Pepi was competing with Josh Sargent, who is among the top scorers in England’s second-tier Championship. That experience could help in the group stage games against Wales and England in Qatar, the coach said.
“We felt it was valuable for Josh to play in that competition where two of our three opponents are from,” Berhalter said. “The Dutch league is a big league, but it doesn’t bring the same physicality that the Premier League and the Championship bring. That was something that went into our decision.”
Haji Wright, who is lighting up the Turkish Super League for the second consecutive season, got the better of Jordan Pefok, who freshened up after a start to life with Union Berlin in the Bundesliga. “In this particular case, we felt that Haji is in great goalscoring form.” The other forward went to Jesús Ferreira, as expected.
“He has the ability to really bring other players into the game, intelligent with his movement in and around the penalty area and a very good ability to [defensively] press the opponent,” Berhalter said of Ferreira.
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Some of the decisions came down to the moment. Winger Paul Arriola was a mainstay during qualifying, filling in at times for the injured Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Jordan Morris and Gio Reyna. With those four players now healthy, “Paul was the odd man out.”
Still, there wasn’t much separating many of those who made the list from those who didn’t. Current form, chemistry with teammates, strengths and weaknesses of World Cup opponents, how players fit in with the rest of the squad on and off the field, all of that is taken into account. With more players than places available, picking a World Cup team is never easy.
“Ricardo Pepi could have a great argument as to why he should be here,” admitted Berhalter. “I can understand that argument.”
Whether Berhalter and his staff made the right calls today is impossible for anyone to know. When all is said and done, only the Americans’ performance at the World Cup will determine that.
“They may not be the right choices,” Berhalter said. “But these are the guys who were chosen.”
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By Doug McIntyre.
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