Next round of World Cup qualifying presents many challenges for USMNT

·3 min read

The U.S. men are almost back to full strength.

After missing the November qualifiers with a back injury, Barcelona defender Sergino Dest was among the 28 players named to the roster Friday for the next round of games that begin next week. But the Americans will again be without Gio Reyna, who hasn’t played since injuring his hamstring Sept. 2 against El Salvador.

“He’s close,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said of Reyna. “Together with Gio, we thought the best thing for him to do was stay at Dortmund and train these weeks and try to get into their squad. That’s vital for him.

“He’s done a great job rehabbing,” Berhalter said. “He’s gained a ton of muscle, and we think he’s going to come out on the back end of this ahead of the game.”

The Americans are currently second to Canada in qualifying. Concacaf’s top three teams automatically advance to the World Cup later this year in Qatar, with the fourth-place team going to a playoff with a team from Oceania.

Weston McKennie is "probably in the form of his life,” Gregg Berhalter said.
Weston McKennie is "probably in the form of his life,” Gregg Berhalter said.

While the Americans’ goal for this window is to put themselves on the verge of qualifying, deciding the roster wasn’t simply a matter of picking the best players.

Major League Soccer is in its offseason. While the U.S. men held a camp in December and just finished another, it’s been at least a month since the domestic-based players have played competitive games. There’s also COVID to consider. Because omicron is highly transmissible, Berhalter said they have to plan for losing players during this window – especially since 15 of the 28 on the roster will be traveling here from Europe.

The tight turnaround between games also factored into Berhalter’s roster choices. The Americans host El Salvador on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, before traveling to Hamilton, Ontario, to take on Canada on Jan. 30. This round of qualifying wraps up Feb. 2 against Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Conditions are likely to be frigid and possibly snowy at all three sites, which can take a toll. And the Canada game will be played on turf, which puts players at greater risk for injury.

“That’s exactly why we increased the roster size a little bit,” Berhalter said. “We feel that we’ll have enough cover no matter what happens in this window.”

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One of the most significant differences between this team and the one that failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia four years ago is its depth. Even with all the complicating factors, Berhalter still had plenty of players to choose from this window.

Quality players, too. The European-based Americans are playing at some of the biggest clubs and in the biggest leagues, and midfielder Weston McKennie is playing as well as almost anyone right now. He’s scored two goals in Juventus’ last two games.

“He’s probably in the form of his life,” Berhalter said. “He’s playing at a really, really high level and that’s good to see. As we move into World Cup qualifying, it’s always great to see guys who are in form. Look at Tyler Adams, he’s a guy that’s in form. Yunus Musah is in form, as well.”

That doesn’t mean the Americans are assuming anything, however. They learned that four years ago.

“We know after this window, there’s still nine points up for grabs,” Berhalter said, referring to the last three qualifiers in late March. “There’s 18 points total left in qualifying up for grabs and the leader has 16 right now. So we’re expecting this to be a topsy-turvy type of qualifying.

“For us, it’s about focusing on each game and putting group on field each game that can win. That’s all our concern,” Berhalter added. “We’re not counting any points, we’re not looking toward a magic number. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT names roster for next round of World Cup qualifying