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Huge questions surround USMNT roster for World Cup qualifiers

Joe Prince-Wright, Andy Edwards and Nicholas Mendola explain why American players have struggled to impress abroad recently.

The USMNT have three huge World Cup qualifiers coming up in October, but there are so many big questions swirling around their roster.

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From injury issues with Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to possible travel restrictions and plenty of selection dilemmas, there is a lot going on right now.

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter knows his side need to kick on in these games against Jamaica (being played in Austin, Texas), Panama (Panama City, Panama) and Costa Rica (Columbus, Ohio) after picking up five points from their first three World Cup qualifiers.

Anything less than seven points in these three qualifiers will be seen as a bad return by the USMNT fanbase, but Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica will likely be battling right until the end with the U.S. for a spot in the top three of the standings which secures qualification to the 2022 World Cup.

[ MORE: How to watch World Cup qualifying ]

Here is a look at just some of the huge questions facing the USMNT as they prepare to name their squad for the October World Cup qualifiers later this week.

Will superstars be fit to play?

There are huge question marks over Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, who haven’t played a single minute for their club teams since the World Cup qualifiers earlier this month. Reyna was injured in the draw with El Salvador, while Pulisic was hurt in the win at Honduras. Reyna and Pulisic are the USMNT’s most gifted players and have the ability to unlock any defense in CONCACAF. Not having one of them, or both, for these three games would be a huge blow.

Add in the fact that Tyler Adams wasn’t fit to feature for RB Leipzig at the weekend and three of the USMNT’s top five players at huge clubs in Europe may not feature. Now, about another one of those top five players...

What is the Weston McKennie situation?

In a recent podcast interview with U.S. Soccer, head coach Gregg Berhalter acknowledged that Weston McKennie could return for the October World Cup qualifiers. McKennie, 23, was sent home after a ‘violation of team policy’ in Nashville, as he didn’t play against Canada or Honduras. McKennie has had minutes for Juventus in recent weeks but Max Allegri criticized his inability to finish.

What with Andrea Pirlo leaving as Juve boss and rumors about McKennie being sold, plus this situation with the USMNT, it has been a rough few months for the midfielder. However, with plenty of injury issues to key players and McKennie a leader for this young squad, you’d think Berhalter will call him up for these games after disciplining him. Perhaps he would have liked to have left McKennie out for these qualifiers as he wanted to hammer home the disciplinary point, but it doesn’t seem like Berhalter has that luxury right now.

Gregg Berhalter

DENVER, CO - JUNE 06: United States head coach Gregg Berhalter chats with midfielder Weston McKennie (8) in action during the CONCACAF Nations League finals between Mexico and the United States on June 06, 2021, at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, CO. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Which central strikers will be called up?

This has been the biggest question around the USMNT in recent years: who is going to score the goals? Josh Sargent is having a tough time with Norwich in the Premier League as the Canaries sit bottom of the table, and it seems like he’s better suited to being a secondary striker.

Will teenager Ricardo Pepi be thrust into the starting role after his heroics against Honduras? Or will Jordan Pefok start up top? What about Gyasi Zardes after his return to fitness, and form, in recent weeks? Could Matthew Hoppe have an impact? So many questions for Berhalter up top, and there is no clear answer. Pepi is probably the best fit for the way the USMNT play, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a teenager.

Who will start in goal?

With Zack Steffen missing the recent World Cup qualifiers after testing positive for COVID-19, Matt Turner came in and impressed. The New England Revolution goalkeeper has let up a couple of cheap goals in MLS play in recent games, but he probably has the starting jersey now.

Steffen has had a lack of game time due to his recovery from COVID-19 and even though he is very talented, there were a few questions marks about him starting to creep in. Turner will probably start against Jamaica in Austin on Oct. 7, but it is pretty much the flip of a coin.

How will quarantine rules impact the roster?

This is something to keep an eye on with the USMNT players based in the UK. Currently, Panama is on the UK’s red travel list. That means that anybody who travels there must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days on their arrival back to the UK. That would, in theory, take Pulisic, Steffen, Sargent, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson and Ethan Horvath out of club action until late October. Their clubs would not be happy with that and FIFA is still discussing with the UK authorities and other relevant bodies about these quarantine restrictions and possible exemptions for international soccer players.

Remember: plenty of issues arose when some Premier League players defied their clubs and went to South America for World Cup qualifiers and Brazil vs Argentina was postponed mid-game. While plenty of star players did not travel at all. It’s a real mess and the only hope the USMNT has to make life simpler for their UK-based players is that Panama is removed from the UK’s red travel list between now and Oct. 10. If it isn’t, there could be a lot of players not making the trip to Panama City for the second of these three important qualifiers and that could also force Berhalter to call up other players from other leagues, as the likes of Gianluca Busio and Bryan Reynolds (both based in Italy at Serie A clubs) may get the nod to come into this squad.

FA Cup

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 03: USA team-mates Christian Pulisic of Chelsea and Zack Steffen of Manchester City chat after the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on January 03, 2021 in London, England. The match will be played without fans, behind closed doors as a Covid-19 precaution. (Photo by Visionhaus)


What is going on at center back?

John Brooks was the nailed-on starter at center back for the USMNT until a few weeks ago. But after shaky displays in the recent qualifiers and the same for Wolfsburg, he no longer seems to be an automatic starter. Brooks’ future at Wolfsburg is uncertain as he continues to negotiate a new contract and perhaps that is impacting his play on the pitch. With Michail Antonio set to start for Jamaica against the USMNT, they need a plan to stop the prolific West Ham striker who has just committed his international allegiance to the Reggae Boyz.

That means that Miles Robinson has all of a sudden been catapulted to the top of the USMNT center back pool following his strong Gold Cup displays. Alongside him, the experience of Tim Ream would be a sensible choice (if Brooks doesn’t start) and perhaps Walker Zimmerman is also a good option as a solid, reliable defender? Chris Richards is likely the long-term answer to the USMNT’s center back issues and he is at least playing regularly for Hoffenheim this season, as he once again joined on loan from Bayern Munich. Richards and Robinson may well be the two starters at the 2022 World Cup. If the USMNT get there.

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