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Pulisic and McKennie back in, Dike and Musah out: Projecting the USMNT squad for World Cup qualifiers

12:00 PM EDT 8/6/21
Gold Cup trophy lift USMNT Mexico 2021
A trophy-filled summer showed the player pool is deeper than ever as the U.S. prepares for its true test

The U.S. men's national team has waited nearly four years for these games.

Just about 47 months after crashing out of 2018 World Cup qualifying with that loss to Trinidad & Tobago, the U.S. begins the road towards Qatar in 2022 with the first round of qualifiers this September. They'll face El Salvador, Canada and Honduras in a six-day span to kickstart qualifying, which will be more sprint than marathon thanks to the complications of the coronavirus. As a result, the squad is set to include more players than usual to compensate for those short turnarounds.

And, fresh off triumphs in the Gold Cup and Nations League, the U.S. heads into qualifying with a spring in their step. This summer didn't just prove that the U.S. has the talent needed to return to the World Cup; it also proved that there's legitimate depth in this USMNT program, giving Gregg Berhalter plenty of options to mix and match over the next year or so.

So what might the U.S. squad look like for that first round of World Cup qualifiers? Goal takes a look.

Goalkeepers

MAKES THE CUT: Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Sean Johnson (NYCFC), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)

This group is fairly straightforward when it comes to who will actually be in camp. The big question is who will enter camp as the No. 1.

Steffen has held onto that spot for quite some time, but it now truly is up for grabs after Turner's incredible Gold Cup run. We're a long way from Qatar, and it appears that these two will be in that battle for some time to lock down that starting role.

Horvath, unfortunately for him, is a step behind those two, even after his heroics in the Nations League. Nottingham Forest does give him a fresh start, though, which is much needed after falling down the pecking order at Club Brugge.

Ochoa is really the only other potential call-up after being part of the Nations League squad, but reports say he may be declaring for Mexico in the very near future.

DEFENDERS

MAKES THE CUT: John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergino Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

OTHER POSSIBILITIES: George Bello (Sporting KC), Shaq Moore (Tenerife), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Tim Ream (Fulham), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), James Sands (NYCFC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)

At centerback, Brooks remains a go-to starter while Miles Robinson may just be there with him after shining at the Gold Cup. The question is who joins them. Berhalter has young options like McKenzie, Sands and Richards or veterans like Zimmerman and Ream that could provide a bit more stability as the U.S. kickstarts World Cup qualifying.

The fullback depth chart may be even deeper, which is something practically unheard of when it comes to the USMNT. We know that Dest, Antonee Robinson and Cannon will be involved, barring injury, giving Berhalter both a starter and backup on either side thanks to Dest's flexibility.

But, should Berhalter pencil Dest in as just a right back, he could call in someone like Sam Vines or George Bello, both of whom had good tournaments this summer. Shaq Moore, unfortunately, could be an odd man out after really taking his game to a new level simply because the right back spot is so crowded.

MIDFIELDERS

MAKES THE CUT: Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg), Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)

OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Julian Green (Greuther Furth), Yunus Musah (Valencia)

When healthy, both McKennie and Adams are penciled-in starters, although, with Adams in particular, that health isn't always guaranteed. Fortunately for the U.S., Acosta has all but seized that No. 6 role for those moments when Adams isn't around or when the RB Leipzig star is in need of a night off.

The question then becomes who joins them in that three-man midfield. Berhalter has often turned to Lletget, who has more than justified his coach's faith with plenty of standout performances. Aaronson may be used more out wide than centrally, although he certainly can play there, while Williamson offers a bit of drive against teams bunkered in.

As for Musah, another usual starter, it appears he'll be in a race to be fully fit and ready to go in time for this camp. With that in mind, there's little reason to risk anything by giving him a cross-Atlantic flight, so expect him to get time to recover before joining the group.

Keep a close eye on Busio and Venezia teammate Tanner Tessman over the next few months, though, as strong starts at Venezia can catapult them right into the regular group.

FORWARDS

MAKES THE CUT: Matthew Hoppe (Schalke), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)

OTHER POSSIBILITIES: Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Konrad de la Fuente (Marseille), Daryl Dike (Orlando City), Nicholas Gioacchini (Caen), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)

Just to start, Dike's exclusion isn't some kind of demotion after a difficult Gold Cup. Instead, it's a chance to give the young striker some damn rest as playing nearly 60 games over the last year looked like it was starting to catch up with him this summer.

Fortunately, the U.S. has options at striker in Zardes, Sargent, Siebatcheu and Hoppe, the latter of whom didn't get a chance to play up top during the Gold Cup. With the full group back involved, it's nice to know that Hoppe is, in fact, serviceable on the wing as that group remains a bit top-heavy.

But that top-heavy group is, in fact, really good. Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Tim Weah are all locks at this point with some combination of those three and perhaps Aaronson likely to start every game out wide.