Ricardo Pepi has played more than 1,300 minutes of soccer since the first week of last October. He has played in seven different countries and five different competitions for four different teams. He still has not, in over 11 months, scored a single goal — and yet he is one of three strikers on a U.S. men’s national team roster for two final World Cup tune-ups.
The USMNT announced that roster, its last before the 2022 World Cup, on Wednesday. It does not include Jordan Pefok, the scorer of 27 goals last season, and of a few for the German Bundesliga leaders already this season. It also does not include Brandon Vazquez, a breakout MLS star.
The roster does, however, include FC Dallas sensation Jesus Ferreira, rejuvenated Norwich City forward Josh Sargent, and Pepi, a 19-year-old striker who burst onto the scene last year, but who last scored on Oct. 7, 2021.
Elsewhere, it includes 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman and Royal Antwerp left back Sam Vines — who has not played for the USMNT since last summer’s Gold Cup.
It includes Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who appears to have won a World Cup spot at center back; but not Rangers defender James Sands, who, despite his versatility, appears to be on the outside looking in; nor Fulham captain Tim Ream, who has been out of the picture since last fall.
The World Cup roster will be unveiled on Nov. 9. Injuries to Antonee Robinson, Zack Steffen and Tim Weah prevented this roster from truly foreshadowing November's. It does not provide clear answers to questions at positions like fullback, backup winger and third-string goalkeeper.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter will assure fans and media that it also does not rule out players like Pefok or Sands. But it certainly offers hints.
Full USMNT roster for September camp
Berhalter called in 26 players in total. They’ll be his 26 for friendlies against Japan (Sept. 23, 8:26 a.m. ET, ESPN2/UniMás/TUDN) and Saudi Arabia (Sept 27, 2 p.m. ET, FS1/UniMás/TUDN), the USMNT’s last two games before it gathers in Qatar ahead of its World Cup opener on Nov. 21.
Goalkeepers: Matt Turner, Sean Johnson, Ethan HorvathFullbacks: Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally, Sam VinesCenter backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-VickersCentral midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, Malik TillmanWingers/attacking midfielders: Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Paul Arriola, Jordan MorrisStrikers: Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi
Who’d be on the roster if not for injuries?
Steffen, the USMNT’s No. 1 goalkeeper throughout qualifying, has not played for Middlesbrough, his club in the English second tier, since Aug. 20 due to injury. Berhalter is expected to address his status on a call with reporters this afternoon, but the assumption is that Steffen is a roster lock when healthy.
With Steffen out, Berhalter called in both Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath. When Steffen returns, Berhalter will have to choose between one of those two reserve keepers.
Robinson hurt his ankle playing for Fulham in a Sept. 3 Premier League match at Tottenham. He is the undisputed starting left back, and his World Cup status is not in question. For the September camp, in his stead, Berhalter tabbed both Joe Scally and Sam Vines; but there is likely only room for one on the World Cup roster.
Weah is the third and final roster lock who’ll miss the September friendlies due to injury. He has not played for Lille, his French club, yet this season, but is close to returning. When he does, he’ll likely bump either Paul Arriola or Jordan Morris off the roster.
Who are the biggest snubs?
Aside from Pefok, the biggest snubs are Sands and Ream. Sands has been playing regularly for Rangers in Scotland and in the Champions League. His performances have been up-and-down, but his ability to play center back, right back and defensive midfield seemed to make him a logical inclusion.
Ream, meanwhile, started every single game of Fulham’s English Championship-winning campaign last year, and has been excellent in the Premier League so far this season. His solidity and smarts prompted renewed calls for Berhalter to reintegrate a player who, until last fall, had been a USMNT regular, and oftentimes a starter. (Ream had also been a leader with the USMNT players’ association until last summer.)
The case against Ream, though, is that he has never been the fleetest of foot, and is even less so now, at age 34. The USMNT’s pressing system necessitates a center back with pace. Miles Robinson had extraordinary pace, and that’s why he’d established himself as a starter next to Walker Zimmerman. Ever since Robinson tore his Achilles in May, Berhalter has been searching for a replacement, and Ream is decidedly not a like-for-like substitute.
Berhalter speaks often about “player profiles,” and the importance of his “game model.” Ream, at this stage of his career, is seemingly not a fit.
Pepi over Pefok
The most controversial decision will be Pepi over Pefok. The latter, a 26-year-old target man, earned a summer move to Union Berlin and has scored or created five goals in his first five Bundesliga games.
Pepi, on the other hand, has endured a whirlwind year. He broke into the USMNT as an 18-year-old last fall, and without him, the U.S. might not be here. He spearheaded a comeback in Honduras and a win over Jamaica to steady a wobbling World Cup qualifying campaign. By October, he'd established himself as the national team's starting striker.
But his exploits at FC Dallas and with the USMNT earned him a move to FC Augsburg in the German Bundesliga. Over the second half of the 2021-22 season, he played sparingly, out of position, and not at all well. He recently moved to Groningen in the Netherlands on loan, seemingly in an attempt to revive his World Cup hopes.
But Pefok seemed like the logical pick. Berhalter will likely take three strikers to Qatar. One will be Ferreira, the probable starter, a “pressing machine” with creative qualities who’s on an MLS goalscoring tear. Another will likely be Sargent, a hard-worker and all-around threat who’s re-found his form. Both players can fit the USMNT’s “game model.”
The third will be an option off the bench, and in theory could be a departure from the player profiles that Berhalter prefers. But he has seemingly opted for Pepi over Pefok as a better system fit.
Updated USMNT World Cup roster prediction
With the September roster in mind, here’s our updated prediction for the USMNT’s World Cup roster, assuming full health:
Goalkeepers: Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean JohnsonFullbacks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Joe ScallyCenter backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-VickersCentral midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, Malik TillmanAttacking midfielders/wingers: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Paul ArriolaStrikers: Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi