By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
Editor’s Note: “Plane to Qatar” is FOX Sports’ weekly feature tracking the progress of players hoping to crack the United States Men’s National Team’s 26-player roster for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
We know a lot more about the USMNT’s pool of World Cup hopefuls than we did a week ago.
After U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter last week released a 26-man squad for the Americans’ final two pre-Qatar dress rehearsals — on Friday against Japan in Dusseldorf, Germany, and on Sept. 27 versus Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain — and added three players after others withdrew because of injury, we know that teenage striker Ricardo Pepi isn’t necessarily behind in-form Jordan Pefok or Haji Wright in Berhalter’s estimation, despite Pepi’s struggles in Germany.
And we know that despite Berhalter’s insistence, the bubble players who weren’t called into camp this month are all but done as far as the World Cup is concerned. Sure, there’s a chance that something extraordinary happens and someone plays themselves in or out of a roster spot over the next two months. By and large, though, if anything is going to change it will be because of injuries and not a late change of heart by the staff.
That is something to keep an eye on: No less than seven regulars (Cameron Carter-Vickers, Yunus Musah, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, Cristian Roldan Zack Steffen and Tim Weah) are out this month because of different injury concerns.
All are expected to recover before Qatar. But know this, too: a few more twists before the main event, which is now exactly two months away, are all but guaranteed.
“It’s crazy to think how close the World Cup is,” U.S. attacker Brenden Aaronson told reporters Monday on a Zoom call from Germany. “It comes at you fast.”
“It’s been kind of tough not being able to get back in the swing of things,” said the 21-year-old, who is likely to occupy Musah’s central midfield role this month. “But we’ve had some inter-squads, and we’ve been training hard, so I feel ready to go.”
M Tyler Adams (Leeds): The defensive midfielder’s lineup spot might be the most secure of any USMNT member. Adams has played every minute of Leeds’ season so far.
*M Yunus Musah (Valencia): A groin injury forced Musah — who started the La Liga season en fuego — to withdraw from the September roster. It’s mostly precautionary according to Spanish outlet AS, with Valencia hoping the two-way central midfielder is ready to face Espanyol on Oct. 2.
F Christian Pulisic (Chelsea): Graham Potter’s appointment as Chelsea’s new manager didn’t immediately result in more minutes for the USMNT’s top attacker, who played just the final six of last week’s Champions League tie with Salzburg. It’s possible that Pulisic could feature more in these upcoming U.S. games than he has all season in the Prem.
F/M Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund): Reyna is rounding into form at just the right time. Berhalter will nonetheless exercise extreme caution with the injury-plagued 19-year-old, who hasn’t gone a full 90 minutes since March.
*D Antonee Robinson (Fulham): A right ankle injury keeps Jedi off the September roster. “At this stage,” Berhalter said, “it’s probably better not to rush it and give him the proper recovery time.”
*F Tim Weah (Lille): Berhalter wasn’t sure when Robinson would start practicing, but he did give a timeline for Weah. “Timmy’s moving along,” Berhalter said. “He may be in team training by the end of [this] week.”
D Walker Zimmerman (Nashville): Zimmerman’s stature on and off the field will only grow with Carter-Vickers and Richards injured and Ream overlooked. He’s been dominant in MLS; Nashville has conceded just two goals in the 29-year-old’s last five matches.
M Kellyn Acosta (LAFC): Adams’ only true backup has played almost 2,400 minutes in 30 appearances for the joint MLS leaders.
M Paul Arriola (Dallas): The veteran winger helped put FCD in the MLS playoffs last weekend. The extra games should help keep Arriola sharp leading into the World Cup — especially if Dallas makes a deep run.
*^D Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic): While a minor ailment forced the 24-year-old to withdraw on Sunday, we now know that Berhalter considers Carter-Vickers one of his top four central defenders when healthy.
D Reggie Cannon (Boavista): Berhalter raved about the versatile Cannon’s tenacity and fight after last week’s roster announcement. That bodes well for him.
M Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo): The playmaker has logged just 18 minutes all season. Yet De la Torre should keep his spot if he keeps making cameos, however brief, since he’d also be used as a late-game sub by the U.S. in Qatar.
G Sean Johnson (New York City): One thing that could work against the 33-year-old is an early playoff exit by the Pigeons.
“Certainly we’ve had plenty of games — whether it’s been this year or in the past — together,” Zimmerman said when asked Tuesday by FOX Sports about the partnership. “It’s another opportunity to get reps in, and that’s in training and in the games. So it’s already nice working on that today.”
M Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders): With Seattle poised to miss the MLS playoffs for the first time in club history, a lack of match fitness could put Morris’ place in jeopardy.
“If a guy’s not playing it all from now until the World Cup,” Berhalter said, “It’s gonna be a challenge for us.”
^F Ricardo Pepi (Groningen): Berhalter made it sound like the 19-year-old, a regular throughout World Cup qualifying, will get every chance to make the final roster.
And that was before Pepi scored his first goal for his new Dutch club:
*D Chris Richards (Crystal Palace): The center back hasn’t played for the U.S. since January, and now he’s out for this camp, too. Richards, 22, should still make the trip to Qatar if healthy. But it’s hard to see him starting there now.
^D Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp): Vines should get the first audition as Jedi’s understudy. “This is a great opportunity to look at him,” Berhalter said of the natural lefty, who he added is “in the form of his life” for Belgium’s top team.
G Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough): While Steffen returned to the field for ‘Boro Saturday after missing four games with a sore knee, his chances of starting in Qatar are slipping. The 27-year-old has the fourth-worst save percentage in England’s second tier, hasn’t played for the U.S. since March, and isn’t on the current squad.
D DeAndre Yedlin (Miami): Yedlin helped Miami climb back above the playoff line last week. On a young U.S. team, his leadership and previous World Cup experience matter, too.
“We’re not gonna be the most talented team at the World Cup, and we’re gonna have to compensate for that by being a cohesive unit, by working for each other, fighting for each other and having a great team spirit,” Berhalter said. “Part of that is leaning on guys that have been there before.”
M Johnny Cardoso (Internacional): The Brazil-based 21-year-old, whose last call-up came nine months ago, was a surprise replacement for the injured Musah.
G Ethan Horvath (Luton Town): If Turner doesn’t play all of both friendlies, we’ll find out exactly where Horvath, who has had to make just 15 saves in 10 games for Luton, stands on the USMNT’s keeper depth chart.
D Mark McKenzie (Genk): Added over the weekend, the CB played his way into the opportunity with a strong run of games in Belgium.
⌄F Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin): Whatever Berhalter says, being left off the final roster before the World Cup doesn’t bode well for Pefok’s chances. That said, he’ll still have a shot if Sargent and/or Pepi don’t perform well this month or get injured — provided Pefok keeps scoring goals like this one on Sunday:
D Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes): Initially overlooked, the 25-year-old center back was added to the current squad along with McKenzie.
D Shaquell Moore (Nashville): Berhalter said it “was a really difficult decision” to leave the right back off the September roster. He’s next in line if someone goes down.
*M Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders): Roldan’s body of work and popularity with his teammates could see him claim one of the final World Cup tickets if he recovers from groin surgery in time. But like Morris, Seattle missing the playoffs wouldn’t help.
D/M James Sands (Rangers): Sands is the seventh-choice center back, at best; Berhalter called in six CBs ahead of him this month.
⌄M Malik Tillman (Rangers): Tillman’s stock was soaring two weeks ago, but Berhalter put the 20-year-old attacker on notice after he struggled in Glasgow’s Old Firm derby and in Rangers’ Champions League opener.
“He needs to increase his level,” the coach said. “I’m disappointed with his last couple performances against Ajax and Celtic.”
F Haji Wright (Antalyaspor): The big striker, who wasn’t called in, has cooled since kicking off the Turkish season with five goals in four games. Wright is now scoreless in his last three.
Added: Johnny Cardoso
One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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