No more speculation, no more wondering, no more hoping. The United States has three more matches to secure qualification to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
It’s up to Christian Pulisic, Gregg Berhalter and the rest of the USMNT to put the demons of 2018 to bed and bring the USA back to the World Cup.
With matches against Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica — the three teams directly below it in the table — the U.S. will have to prove it belongs at the tournament.
MORE: How is Christian Pulisic affected by Chelsea sanctions?
Head coach Berhalter has called up a strong roster to help secure a place in the autumn event, with the injured Weston McKennie the only notable absence. All other big names are on the roster, headlined by Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic and RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams.
Borussia Dortmund winger Gio Reyna, who has missed much of the season with a hamstring injury despite a number of comeback attempts, is included on the roster after slowly making a comeback in Bundesliga play.
Gregg Berhalter has called in 26 players who will be tasked with securing World Cup qualification for the United States.
MORE: Tuchel tells Pulisic what he needs to do to get better
The USMNT head man made seven changes from the roster compiled in the January international window, most notably due to the absence of injured players Weston McKennie, Matt Turner and Chris Richards. Sergino Dest was initially included, but his hamstring injury hours prior to the roster release forced a change, with George Bello called in as a replacement. Brenden Aaronson suffered an injury in his final club match before the international break, and he too was forced off the roster and not replaced.
While most of the roster makeup was generally predictable, there are some surprises. Defender Aaron Long, back from an ACL tear, supplants Mark McKenzie at center back, while John Brooks remains exiled from the squad, a source of some controversy among USMNT fans who believe the German-based defender has done enough to earn a spot.
Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen.
Defenders: George Bello, Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, Antonee Robinson, Miles Robinson, James Sands, DeAndre Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman.
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Gianluca Busio, Luca de la Torre, Yunus Musah, Christian Roldan.
Forwards: Paul Arriola, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Morris, Jordan Pefok, Ricardo Pepi, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah.
Weston McKennie’s absence will be felt in this squad, there’s no question about it. Just ask Juventus, who sorely missed the American’s presence in the 3-0 Champions League capitulation to Villarreal earlier in the week. McKennie is out for the season thanks to a broken foot suffered in the first leg against Villarreala.
MORE: McKennie suffers broken foot, out for remainder of club season
Next man up is Kellyn Acosta, who replaced an injured Tyler Adams in the 3-0 win over Honduras last international break and was fantastic. Acosta, one of the more senior members of the roster with 48 international caps, has been a consistent fixture in the USMNT squad throughout the past two years and will provide a steady presence.
Acosta, who is a more natural No. 6, can move into McKennie’s No. 8 role with Adams sitting deeper. Who partners Acosta alongside the LAFC man is a much more curious question. Luca de la Torre, who was also excellent against Honduras, could get another run, as could Yunus Musah, who is a regular in the Valencia midfield.
Sergino Dest was included on the roster initially, but after he limped off the field in the waning minutes of Barcelona’s Europa League win over Galatasaray just hours before the roster reveal, a change was required. Gregg Berhalter said on “SportsCenter” after the initial reveal that “it doesn’t look good,” and eventually George Bello was selected as a replacement.
Sergino Dest comes off with an apparent injury against Galatasaray. #UEL pic.twitter.com/2tmRRD2FGV
ROSTER UPDATE:@_georgebello has been added to the #USMNT roster for our upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers » https://t.co/7yFvGhosVK pic.twitter.com/skNsz79khJ
The injury was confirmed by Barcelona to be a hamstring problem. It was apparently bad enough that Barcelona teammate Gavi was filmed carrying Dest piggyback style to the team hotel after the game.
Gavi llevó a Sergiño Dest a caballito en la llegada del Barça al hotel (vía @JosepSoldado) #fcblive pic.twitter.com/mm5d6plaRB
Thankfully for the USMNT, Reggie Cannon has shown he is ready to step in and contribute. Still, Dest was a steady player through qualifying, he has gradually improved over the last 12 months, and his absence will no doubt further deplete the squad.
It was unclear whether Matt Turner would be healthy enough to be included on the roster; that question was answered by his omission. Instead, Ethan Horvath was called up to join Sean Johnson and Zack Steffen.
Turner twisted his ankle during a closed-door friendly in early February and was set to miss “a couple more weeks” according to the last update by Revs manager Bruce Arena in early March. That threw his status for the March qualifiers into doubt.
Steffen, who saw a nagging back injury crop up just before the January international break, only just returned to the Man City bench for the 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace on March 14. He has been the main backup to Ederson at the Etihad this season, collecting just 630 total minutes across seven appearances in all competitions and not seeing the field since an FA Cup win over Fulham on Feb. 5.
It seems likely that if healthy enough to return for club and country, Steffen is the first-choice option. But if Berhalter believes he’s either not 100 percent or his lack of playing time is a detriment, he could look to either of the other two netminders.
Horvath has made just six Championship starts for Nottingham Forest this season, but five of those have come in recent succession as he has snatched the starting role from incumbent Brice Samba. Johnson led NYCFC to the MLS Cup last season and remains the starter this season.
The 19-year-old Reyna is included on the U.S. roster and could potentially see his first international minutes since suffering a nagging hamstring injury in early September.
Reyna was brought off late in the 0-0 draw against El Salvador on Sept. 3 and has struggled to find the field since. He attempted a number of comebacks from his injury but each ended in disappointment and led to more time in the trainer’s room.
His status for the March qualifiers was in serious doubt after being forced off just 29 minutes into a comeback attempt on Feb. 20. He was in tears as he walked to the sideline. He has since returned, however, with substitute appearances in each of Dortmund’s last two league matches. He played 27 minutes in the 1-0 win over Armenia Bielefeld on March 13, followed by 21 minutes against Mainz in which he assisted on the game’s only goal in the club’s 1-0 victory.
Reyna delivering a big one in a game @BlackYellow needed to compete with @FCBayernEN. #USMNT pic.twitter.com/VZn82qxIle
It remains to be seen how much Reyna can contribute for the United States as he continues to take it slowly in recovery. He has one more club game, a visit to Koln on Sunday, March 20, to navigate before joining up with the USMNT squad.
Berhalter indicated that Reyna’s minutes will be closely managed.
“I had a good call with Dortmund today, with the coach at Dortmund and planning out his usage, how much we can use (Reyna),” Berhalter said. “The important thing is us qualifying to the World Cup, but secondly, it’s Gio returning healthy to his club. And we’re mindful of his load, the work that he’s done the last couple of weeks, and we’re going to adjust accordingly.”
“I wouldn’t rule out Gio being able to play [in central midfield],” Berhalter continued. “The issue is just his rhythm, his fitness and his game time in these last five months. Eventually. I think it’s a position he can play and we’ll have to see if it happens in this window.”
While Reyna will be a key contributor no matter his role, fellow wingers Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson will remain necessary components of the attack alongside Christian Pulisic.
Last time around, Christian Pulisic was struggling for form at Chelsea, with injuries and squad uncertainty leading to a lack of playing time at his main position. Pulisic had found himself either in an unfamiliar position — such as wing back or central striker — or on the bench.
He brought those issues with him to the international team. He struggled throughout the three January and February matches as younger upstarts like Brenden Aaronson took the spotlight. Questions surrounded his status at Chelsea and if he could look to move on in the summer. More immediately, many wondered whether his struggles in London could see him lose his place in the U.S. starting lineup. Pulisic was subsequently benched against Honduras but made an impact off the bench.
My what a difference two months can make.
Pulisic is rounding back into form with the Blues, scoring a goal and assisting another against Burnley in early March, sandwiched by Champions League goals against Lille in both legs.
CHRISTIAN PULISIC. CLINICAL. 🇺🇸
The pass from Jorginho though. 🥶 pic.twitter.com/Pz4mP9QBXm
A goal and a man of the match performance, @cpulisic_10 speaks after Chelsea qualify for the #UCL round of 16. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/D98F7r2Kc9
Pulisic is finally seeing more time at natural positions, playing both on the left wing as well as in a second striker role behind in-form Kai Havertz. With Mason Mount struggling and seeing less time, Pulisic has capitalized.
The change in club fortunes couldn’t come at a better time with such critical international matches approaching. The United States has done well while leaning on Aaronson, Weah and the like, but with Weston McKennie absent and Gio Reyna still working back to full strength, Pulisic is again in the spotlight and will need nothing less than his best.