Big questions for USMNT: Can Pepi nail down spot? Is Turner too rusty?
In less than two months, the 3,065-day wait between matches for the men's national team will come to an end. Only tuneups against in Germany () and (on Tuesday in Spain) remain before the Nov. 21 group-stage opener against in Qatar.
These two friendlies are, for all intents and purposes, the last chance for players to make direct impressions on U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter before he makes his World Cup selections. Berhalter insists other players could still end up on the team beyond those invited to camp this week, and he will prove how true that is when he makes his final 26-man selection in early November.
But there are indeed roster spots still to be decided, and we'll see who takes the greatest advantage of this week's opportunities. Here are five questions to ask as we, too, get our final pre-Qatar look at the national team.
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Nine (or so) USMNT World Cup roster spots are left. Who takes them?
Figuring out a national team manager's preferences can be pretty tricky due to the disjointed nature of the international calendar. Who's healthy and/or in form when the matches show up on the calendar? Who isn't? It can make a huge difference on selection.
Still, we can make some pretty educated guesses. We know who Berhalter has played the most over the year or so since World Cup qualification began: , , , and in attack; , , and in midfield; and in central defense; , and (when healthy) at fullback; and in goal.
Ricardo Pepi needs to impress in these friendlies if he wants to be on the USMNT's squad at the World Cup. John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Weah, Musah, Steffen and Antonee Robinson have battled minor injuries of late and , but one assumes their spots on the plane to Qatar are secure if healthy. Miles Robinson will certainly miss the World Cup due to a long-term Achilles injury suffered in May, and even though he was selected for these two matches, Pepi could also miss out despite being healthy as he has battled major form issues this calendar year.
So that's 15 players we can loosely assume are involved.
We know that would have been in heavy rotation had he not been injured for most of 2021-22, and we know that midfielder enjoyed some fantastic and super-active moments as he was given more minutes late in qualification and over the summer. That's probably 17.
Gio Reyna speaks after Borussia Dortmund's 1-0 win over Schalke in the Bundesliga.
That still leaves nine spots or so that are undecided -- maybe 10 or 11 if Berhalter gives up on Pepi for the time being, or if Steffen's combination of health and form issues continue. One extra spot will go to a third goalkeeper, and one to two spots will go to backup midfielders. But at least a couple more forwards will come to Qatar, and there are quite a few spots to be decided in defense.
Outside of the names already mentioned above, here are the players in each position group who were invited to camp in this international window:
Those are the players to pay closest attention to against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Is Zimmerman-Long as effective as Zimmerman-Robinson?
With out, the biggest question for Berhalter to answer regarding the team's starting XI is who lines up next to Zimmerman in central defense in Qatar. Evidently will get the first crack, as he will start .
Gregg Berhalter says that Matt Turner will start in goal against Japan with Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman the two starting CBs.— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
McKenzie and Palmer-Brown were last-second additions after both () and () had to withdraw with minor injuries. (Sounders midfielder likely would have been involved here if not for injury, as well.) All of this has further clouded what was already the cloudiest position on the roster.
None of the primary options have logged the same amount of time next to Zimmerman as Robinson had. Richards and Zimmerman have played in the same U.S. match four times, Long twice -- he's coming off of his own Achilles recovery -- and McKenzie and Palmer-Brown once each. If Carter-Vickers were to end up starting next to Zimmerman against , it would be their first match together. That's a bad time to get to know each other.
Richards started four qualification matches and seemed reasonably likely to be the new first-choice option here, but minor injuries (and the poor timing of said injuries) have limited his time in various camps. So Long gets the first shot.
Herculez Gomez gives his opinion on the new USMNT kits for the World Cup in Qatar.
Berhalter leaned heavily on the combination of Zimmerman and Robinson in World Cup qualification -- they were two of the four players who topped 800 minutes -- and the ' defense was rock solid most of the way. In the seven matches in which this duo played, the U.S. allowed just four goals (from shots worth 4.3 xG) and amassed 16 points. In the seven they didn't: six goals allowed (from 5.6 xG) and nine points. In terms of output, that's not an enormous difference, but it's a difference.
Neither Japan nor Saudi Arabia is heavy in terms of attack or length-of-the-pitch pressure. We certainly won't learn everything we need to know in two matches, but if one of either Long, McKenzie or Palmer-Brown were to stand out from the others, it would likely make a strong impression.
Will Pepi, Sargent capitalize amid Pefok snub?
and his side have been a revelation since the start of the current Bundesliga season. The counter-attacking partnership of Pefok (three goals and two assists from 10 chances created) and club teammate (six goals and three assists from 12 chances) has been a huge reason why Die Eisernen sit top of the German league table.