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USMNT Big Board: Will Pepi, Hoppe join Pulisic in Qatar?

Plenty has changed since the United States men’s national team’s Big Board was last visited in April. Injuries, loss of form and the emergence of new talent has seen considerable movement in the projected 23-player World Cup roster. That can cut both ways as well, with players such as Matt Miazga and Gianluca Busio capable of rising up the depth chart later on if they continue to get playing time at club level, with Alaves and Venezia, respectively. Of course, this all assumes that the USMNT qualifies, which is by no means guaranteed even after the comeback in Honduras in the September round of World Cup qualifiers.

Here’s a breakdown of who is looking good to head to Qatar, and their age as of the start of the World Cup.

On the Plane

1. Christian Pulisic | MF | Chelsea | 24

Pulisic continues to encounter potholes at club level — whether health or sheer competition — but he remains critical to the U.S. team’s attack even as he’s targeted with tactical fouling by opponents. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter seems content to play Pulisic on the wing, but regardless, he’s on the plane to Qatar if the U.S. qualifies.

2. Tyler Adams | MF | RB Leipzig | 23

Berhalter should just get it over with and name Adams the permanent captain, such is his leadership and importance. Adams has been guilty of overcommitting defensively at times, but his range makes him borderline irreplaceable for the U.S. moving forward. While injuries dictated his stint at right-back, the Americans are better off when he plays as a No. 6.

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3. Giovanni Reyna | MF | Borussia Dortmund | 20

The U.S. missed Reyna’s creativity when he was injured for the last two qualifiers of the September window, which allowed teams to focus even more attention on Pulisic. The good news is he remains a key cog in Dortmund’s offense, and should continue to get plenty of playing time. The question for Berhalter: Could Reyna be used in a more central role?

4. Weston McKennie | MF | Juventus | 24

McKennie’s two-game suspension for violating COVID-19 protocols has him being looked at in a different light, one whose focus on the U.S. cause isn’t ironclad. There’s no doubting his talent and drive on the field, and his box-to-box running remains a huge asset, so he should be on the plane, provided he’s dialed in.

5. Matt Turner | GK | New England Revolution | 28

In April’s Big Board, Turner was a distant third in the pecking order between the posts. But in less than six months, Turner has vaulted to the top of the heap following impressive displays in the Gold Cup and the first three games of World Cup qualifying. Given that he’s the only one of the top three keepers getting steady playing time right now, he might prove tough to dislodge.

6. Miles Robinson | DF | Atlanta United FC | 25

Robinson wasn’t even on the prospective alternates list six months ago; these days, he’s arguably the top center-back in the pool after stellar showings in the Gold Cup and, in particular, the start of World Cup qualifying. His mobility has certainly made up for the injury absence of Aaron Long.

7. John Brooks | DF | VfL Wolfsburg| 29

After an impressive display in the CONCACAF Nations League, Brooks appeared to have put questions about his consistency in a U.S. shirt behind him. But those issues have come to the fore again after some shaky outings in World Cup qualifying. He has hit a rough patch for Wolfsburg. too. At present Brooks is pretty close to a lock for Qatar, but his future performances will be under extra scrutiny.

8. Brenden Aaronson | MF | FC Salzburg | 22

Aaronson was another player who made the most of the September window, contributing two critical goals against Canada and Honduras, and overall looking lively in attack. With his spot at Salzburg secure, he should continue to grow his game and be a steady contributor to the U.S. either as a starter or an instant impact player off the bench.

9. Yunus Musah | MF | Valencia | 20

An injury hampered Musah’s start to the season and kept him out of the first three World Cup qualifiers. He has made a few substitute appearances for Valencia in recent weeks, a positive sign given that his ability to carry the ball out of midfield gives the U.S. attack a different look. It’s one that they’ll need in World Cup qualifying and — hopefully — beyond.

10. Zack Steffen | GK | Manchester City | 27

It has been a tough few months for Steffen, with an injury knocking him out of the Nations League final and a positive COVID-19 test rendering him unavailable for the first three World Cup qualifiers. He’s still firmly in the U.S. reckoning for Qatar, but the big question is whether he’ll get enough playing time at Manchester City.

11. Sergino Dest | DF | Barcelona | 22

Questions abound about Dest as well after a shaky and injury-hit start to World Cup qualifying. He looked far from comfortable at left-back, too, hinting strongly that his international future lies at his usual right-back slot. One would expect a player of his talent to bounce back, but concerns about his defending are mounting. That said, his ability to get forward remains impressive.

12. Ricardo Pepi | FW | FC Dallas | 19

Yes, it was only one game, but Pepi’s stellar World Cup qualifying debut, when he netted the game-winner against Honduras, has raised hopes that he’s the answer Berhalter has been looking for up front. While Pepi is still a bit raw in terms of his link play, his nose for goal has catapulted him to the top of the depth chart.

13. Antonee Robinson | DF | Fulham | 25

Robinson had failed to impress during previous stints with the U.S., and his inclusion back in April was down largely due to his form in England. But that all changed during World Cup qualifying, where he contributed at both ends of the field, including an assist against Canada and a vital equalizer against Honduras. The starting left-back spot is there for him to take.

14. Kellyn Acosta | MF | Colorado Rapids | 27

The U.S. had been in dire need of cover at the No. 6 spot behind Adams, but Acosta’s performances over the summer have seen him ease those concerns. Not only does he cover an impressive amount of ground, but he has proven adept at the kind of mind games that are a staple of CONCACAF opponents. He has also showed he can be an able understudy to McKennie.

15. Timothy Weah | FW | Lille | 22

A thigh injury has hampered Weah of late — he returned as a sub against Lens last weekend — and kept him out of the September qualifiers. But he possesses a quality — speed — that the U.S. doesn’t have much of, making him an important part of Berhalter’s plans. A steady run of games at club level should cement his place.

16. Joshua Sargent | FW |Norwich City | 22

Sargent’s inability to make the most of his playing opportunities were what opened the door for Pepi, but he still remains in Berhalter’s thoughts. He’ll need to make the most of his playing time at Norwich, which won’t be easy given their likely relegation battle. Sargent’s ability to do the dirty work should stand him in good stead, but he needs to score with more regularity for both club and country.

17. Ethan Horvath | GK | Nottingham Forest | 27

It doesn’t seem possible that Horvath has slid down the depth chart after his penalty-saving heroics against Mexico in the Nations League final, but Turner’s ascension and limited minutes with new club Nottingham Forest have done just that. Horvath’s ability isn’t in question, however, and he’s still firmly in the 23-player roster for Qatar.

18. Chris Richards | DF | TSG Hoffenheim | 22

With Richards loaned out once again to Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich, the center-back’s playing opportunities — and growth — should increase. He’ll need to make the most of it given the competition that exists at the position, with Matt Miazga and Tim Ream still in contention.

19. Joe Scally | DF | Borussia Monchengladbach | 19

Scally has enjoyed a bright start to the Bundesliga season, even as he has been asked to play left-back at times instead of his preferred spot on the right side. That kind of versatility can get a player on a World Cup roster.

20. Sebastian Lletget | MF | LA Galaxy | 30

Lletget remains Berhalter’s utility player, the kind of player who can be plugged into a variety of attacking roles and still provide solid play. Given the COVID-19 protocols and injuries the U.S. has sustained, he’ll be vital during qualifying. Can he keep his place if the U.S. makes it to Qatar?

21. Mark McKenzie | DF | Genk | 23

After some shaky moments in the CONCACAF Nations League, McKenzie turned in an efficient performance in the World Cup qualifier against Honduras. He’s making his case for playing time with Genk, and is now in the projected 23 for Qatar.

play

2:35

Martin Ainstein speaks to Yunus Musah ahead of Valencia’s clash with Real Madrid on “The Bicycle Diaries.”

22. Konrad De La Fuente | MF | Marseille | 20

The winger showed some flashes during the September qualifiers, particularly when he gets into the open field and takes on opponents one-on-one. But De La Fuente will need to replicate his early form for Marseille if he’s to get more playing time for the U.S.

23. Sam Vines | DF | Antwerp | 23

A broken collar bone has hindered Vines’ progress, but he still looks to have gotten his nose in front in terms of backing up Antonee Robinson, and his first season playing in Europe should see him grow. This assumes, of course, that Dest stays at right-back.

Alternates

24. Jordan Pefok | FW | Young Boys | 26

Pefok gives the U.S. a physical presence up top, and his goal in the Nations League semifinal against Honduras propelled the U.S. into the final. He’s off to an impressive start at the club level as well, scoring seven goals in 12 games in all competitions including a late game-winner against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League.

25. Matthew Hoppe | FW | Mallorca | 21

Hoppe showed some versatility during the Gold Cup by playing on the wing, and his tenacity and skill were on display as well when he scored the game’s only goal in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Jamaica. Now that he’s getting playing time with new club Mallorca, Hoppe could very well climb his way back into Berhalter’s reckoning.

play

0:49

Matthew Hoppe joins Futbol Americas to discuss missing out on the USMNT’s first three World Cup qualifying matches.

26. Bryan Reynolds | DF | AS Roma | 21

Reynolds finds himself in a tough spot, playing for a manager in Jose Mourinho who isn’t overly fond of young players and having logged just two minutes so far this season. A loan would likely do wonders for his chances at international level. We’ll see if he gets it.

27. Gyasi Zardes | FW | Columbus Crew | 31

A long-time Berhalter favorite from their days in Columbus, Zardes knows how to play in the U.S. manager’s system and has delivered goals as well as defending from the front. An injury prior to the September window saw him slide back down the depth chart, but he could be in the mix in October.

28. Jordan Morris | MF/FW | Seattle Sounders FC | 28

Morris was among the U.S.’s best players prior to tearing his ACL while on loan at Swansea City last February. He’s almost back to full training, and if he can maintain his pre-injury speed, he could get back in the mix.

29. Walker Zimmerman | DF | Nashville SC | 29

A hamstring injury during the Gold Cup last summer robbed Zimmerman of some precious minutes with the U.S., and left the door open for Miles Robinson. The defender is still excelling for Nashville, so there will still likely be chances down the road.

30. Tim Ream | DF | Fulham | 35

Ream’s days in a U.S. shirt seemed over until a steady display against El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier showed he still has some fuel left in the tank. He has been consistent with Fulham as well, so it won’t be a surprise if he’s on the plane, too.

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