Monday, November 28

World Cup 2022: USMNT players on bubble battle for final roster spots

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Members of the World Cup-bound U.S. Men’s National Team often talk about how tight they are off the field, how much they respect each other and how their relationships have blossomed over the past few years beyond being mere colleagues or acquaintances or even close friends.

“We are all brothers,” forward Jordan Morris said last week. “We are all here to support each other.”

Most of Morris’ teammates also refer to the USMNT as a “brotherhood.” So does U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. And while it’s easy to dismiss that designation as a tired cliché — the cutthroat reality of top-level professional sports is that there is hardly any room for sentiment or loyalty — this historically young American player pool does appear to have a camaraderie that is unusually strong.

But that bond is being put to the test this month. While the collective goal for the Americans for most of the past year was just to return to the World Cup after missing out in 2018, now the individual focus is to make the team.

And a few final World Cup roster spots remain up for grabs, even if the majority of the 26 players currently in El Salvador for Tuesday’s CONCACAF Nations League contest against the hosts (10 p.m. ET, FS1) will also be on the plane to Qatar in November.

The clock is ticking for the bubble guys. Three of the four June matches have already been played. After Tuesday’s encounter, the U.S. will have just two final tuneups — in September in Europe against opponents to be announced — to prepare for the greatest show in sports.

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For some players, the trip to San Salvador represents their last, best chance to cement their place and fulfill a lifelong ambition. They all want to go to the World Cup, of course. If that means seeing the dreams of someone they care deeply about crushed, so be it.

“A word that kind of describes it is ‘frenemies,’” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who played 90 minutes in Friday’s 5-0 Nations League win over Grenada after sitting out friendlies versus Uruguay and Morocco. “We’re friends off the field. But on the field, we’re competing.”

There are jobs to be won both at forward and in central defense. But perhaps no position on the U.S team is more hotly contested than right back. With projected World Cup starter Sergiño Dest out this summer because of the hamstring injury he suffered in May playing for Barcelona, veterans Reggie Cannon and DeAndre Yedlin and teenager Joe Scally have been vying for what might end up being one spot. 

If the culture in the locker room isn’t good or teammates can’t stand each other as people, things could get awkward.

“We’re competing for a World Cup roster spot, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship has to deteriorate,” Cannon said. “I still root for Sergiño when he’s on the field, and he roots for me.

“As deep as the right back position is, the relationships we all have are so good,” Cannon added. “They’re my closest friends on the team, but we’re super competitive when it comes to training.”

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Out on the wings, the margins are almost as fine. While the likes of Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna and Tim Weah are World Cup locks if they’re healthy, there is no guarantee for backups such as Morris, Paul Arriola or Cristian Roldan. For them, making the most of any remaining opportunity is essential. Maintaining a team-first attitude can also bolster their odds.

“The guys in my position, these are guys that I look up to,” said Arriola, who helped his case by scoring against Grenada. “It’s definitely a healthy competition for all of us.”

Still, a few gut-wrenching decisions are inevitable. The U.S. used 38 players during their 14-match World Cup qualifying marathon, and that doesn’t include keepers Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson or newbies such as Scally, Haji Wright and Malik Tillman, who each made his international debut this month. All are hoping for another audition on Tuesday in San Salvador.

But Berhalter will have to cut several deserving candidates no matter what. Even with expanded 26-man squads expected to be approved by FIFA — that’s three spots larger than at any previous World Cup — the fact is he can’t take everyone to Qatar. Those aren’t conversations he is looking forward to.

“The players that do make it will be just as upset for the guys that don’t,” Berhalter said earlier this month. “That’s how tight this group is. It’s going to be very difficult for us as coaches to pick the final squad, and all of us are gonna be sad when we have to tell a player that he’s not going to be part of this World Cup.”

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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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