The U.S. men’s national team defeated Mexico three times in significant competitions during the summer months: in the CONCACAF Nations League final in June, the Gold Cup final in August and in the pursuit of gifted young FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi as September beckoned.
That’s a heck of a run.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter, though, once derided by many of the team’s supporters as inferior to Mexico head coach Tata Martino, knows exactly what all this means in the larger picture.
“It’s nice to win a trophy in Nations League. It’s nice to win a Gold Cup trophy. It’s nice to be ranked 10th in the world in FIFA rankings,” Berhalter told reporters Thursday. “But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t qualify for the World Cup. Our mission is not even close to being complete. It would be a failure if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. All the work would be undone if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. So this is our next challenge.”
U.S. Soccer released a 26-player roster for the first three games of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, a process that will include eight teams attempting to fill one of three automatic spots in the field or, by finishing fourth, a chance at a playoff against a representative from another region. The U.S. opens on the road Sept. 2 at El Salvador, plays its first home qualifier Sept. 5 in Nashville against rising challenger Canada and then concludes this first set of games with a Sept. 8 trip to Honduras.
There were few surprises save for a few injury-related exclusions: right back Reggie Cannon, midfielder Yunus Musah and forwards Darryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes.
Berhalter, though, offered some clarity on the decisions made:
Pulisic’s bout with COVID-19: Star forward Christian Pulisic is on the roster although currently quarantining after testing positive for a breakthrough COVID-19 case. Berhalter said he does not know what Pulisic’s status will be for the Sept. 2 qualifying opener at El Salvador, but Pulisic currently is scheduled to arrive in the U.S. on Aug. 29 if he can pass the various tests required for him to be able to travel.
Berhalter undecided at ‘keeper: It’s not clear who will be the first choice goalkeeper after Ethan Horvath and Matt Turner (below), who began the summer as backups to Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, took turns making enormous plays that helped the U.S. win those two trophies. Horvath replaced Steffen after he was injured in the Nations League final and stopped a Mexico penalty kick attempt to clinch that victory. Turner was a revelation throughout the Gold Cup and topped that off by stopping two penalty attempts in Wednesday’s MLS All-Star game.
“I would say we’re comfortable with our goalkeeper pool,” Berhalter said. “I’m really happy with the way Ethan performed in Nations League and obviously very happy with how Matt performed in the Gold Cup … Overall, I think the goalkeeper position is in a good spot, and we’ll have to make a decision on Thursday who’s going to play.”
Three games, five midfielders: The 26-player roster includes only five listed as midfielders: Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Sebastian Lletget, Weston McKennie and Cristian Roldan. However, Berhalter pointed out youngster Brenden Aaronson of RB Salzburg — who scored twice in the series victory that put his team into the main draw of the Champions League — and Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund can play as attacking midfielders. James Sands of NYCFC, listed as a defender on this roster, plays defensive midfield for NYCFC.
Pepi’s inclusion on the qualifying roster —during the MLS All-Star Game — meant he had chosen to represent the U.S. rather than Mexico, the home of both his parents.
He was born and raised in El Paso and told hosts Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collinsthat he fell in love with the game watching Liga MX telecasts with his family. He wrote in a social media post that frequently visiting family members across the border in Ciudad Juarez also gave him a deep appreciation of his heritage. However, he added, “I was born and raised in the USA. This country has given me and my family a home, and endless possibilities to achieve my dreams.”
Pepi made his MLS debut at age 16 for FC Dallas. This season, as an 18-year-old, he has scored nine goals in 20 appearances. He was selected to the MLS All-Star Game andin a 3-2 shootout victory for MLS over the Liga MX All-Stars.
“I think an important note to mention is Ricardo has been part of our U-17 program (photo below), part of our youth national team program and they did a good job on working with him through the years,” Berhalter said. “In terms of the senior team, I just think it’s important to talk to the players about what we’re doing and how they can potentially fit into our program and where we see the program going. Ricardo was a guy, we told him about the project.
“The players need to feel a connection to the United States, to our team, to our staff. For us, it’s about creating the connections … It’s about creating an environment that players want to be in. And then really it’s about the player choosing for themselves.
“We’ve been talking to Ricardo long before Mexico’s been involved. But that’s their prerogative. They have the right to do that. For us, it’s about letting our environment speak for itself … It’s not really about what Mexico is doing. It’s about what we’re doing.”