World Cup rosters expanded further than ever before in 2022, and yet, with an increasingly deep player pool at his disposal, U.S. men's national team head coach Gregg Berhalter had some thorny decisions to make.
He chose to take Haji Wright, Tim Ream, Shaq Moore and Cristian Roldan to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
In the process, on Wednesday, he left a host of qualified candidates off the USMNT's 26-man roster — and none more so than one of his two starting goalkeepers from qualifying.
That keeper was Zack Steffen, and while his exclusion won't be the most consequential of the bunch, it was the most surprising of Berhalter's seven biggest roster snubs.
Zack Steffen — G, Middlesbrough
Steffen had been Berhalter's No. 1 keeper for the majority of his tenure as USMNT head coach. He was the No. 1 at the 2019 Gold Cup. He was the No. 1 for the 2021 Nations League finals. He was, it seemed, the No. 1 when healthy during qualifying.
But then a family matter kept him away from USMNT camp in May and June. An injury, and perhaps some shaky club performances, kept him out of camp in September. By then, it had become clear that Matt Turner was the likely starter in Qatar.
But to leave Steffen off the roster entirely? Berhalter will have some explaining to do.
The decision, though, is explainable. Steffen has seemingly regressed as a shot-stopper, and struggled mightily dealing with crosses. Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath are both perfectly capable as backups — and in an ideal world, neither of them will have to play anyway. (Turner, though, has been dealing with an injury, so one might have to.)
Jordan Pefok — F, Union Berlin
The other big name missing is Pefok, and a couple months ago, when the D.C. native was leading Union Berlin to the top of the Bundesliga, his exclusion would have been blasphemous. USMNT fans would have burned Soccer House to the ground.
He hasn't scored since mid-September. Ricardo Pepi, meanwhile, after going 11 months without a goal and amplifying the calls for Pefok, is suddenly scoring prolifically, albeit in the Dutch league.
Pefok probably deserved a more extensive opportunity over the past year-plus to prove his worth to Berhalter. After all, he enabled the 2021 Nations League title with a winner off the bench in the semifinal. But in the end, thanks to that reversal of fortunes since September, Pepi-over-Pefok is a justifiable decision.
The other counterargument is that Berhalter should have taken four strikers, rather than three. But with injuries popping up weekly, he likely felt he needed Roldan for depth in midfield, and Scally as a second left back. (Though it's unclear why he felt he needed DeAndre Yedlin and Moore.)
Ricardo Pepi — F, Groningen
Pepi has had a whirlwind 18 months. He burst onto the scene with FC Dallas, chose the USMNT over Mexico, and scored a couple massive World Cup qualifying goals. Then he moved to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga for $20 million ... and didn't score again for almost an entire year.
But now he's back among the goals, as they say, and still only 19. Berhalter clearly likes him. He seemed a good bet for Qatar, especially with any sort of view toward the future.
But Wright has been just as hot, against similar-quality competition, for a more prolonged period of time. Pepi will surely get his time to shine in 2026 (and before, and beyond).
Malik Tillman — M, Rangers
Tillman, a 20-year-old on loan at Rangers from Bayern Munich, had impressed Berhalter in June after committing to the USMNT over Germany. His club performances have been inconsistent since, but he seemed to be the ideal end-of-roster roll of the dice, an attacking spark off the bench when others are faltering.
Instead, he, like Pepi, will have to wait for 2026.
Reggie Cannon — D, Boavista
Cannon has been a consistent member of USMNT squads ever since the 2019 Gold Cup. His move to Portugal has been the opposite of smooth, but his experience playing on the right side of a back three for Boavista gave him a unique place on this U.S. roster — or so it seemed.
His exclusion won't be all that consequential, but is definitely surprising.
Mark McKenzie — D, Genk
There's a separate argument that, given the USMNT's weakness in the center of defense, Berhalter should have taken a fifth center back — and that fifth almost certainly would have been McKenzie.
A Bronx-born product of the Philadelphia Union academy, McKenzie moved to Genk in Belgium in 2021, and around that time, he seemed to establish himself as a national team regular. He started all four games in May and June of 2021, and one World Cup qualifier each in September and October.
He is error-prone, but he is quick, probably quicker than any other healthy center back in the U.S. pool. With Miles Robinson and Chris Richards both ruled out by injury, McKenzie seemed to be a logical replacement.
But Berhalter (probably correctly) favored Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose profile is similar to McKenzie's; and Tim Ream, whose profile is very much different, but who brings on-ball ability and veteran presence that could be valuable.
James Sands — D/M, Rangers
It remains befuddling that Sands did not get a more thorough look. He can play center back, right back or holding mid, and has played all three for Rangers and/or the USMNT. That versatility seemed to make him a valuable World Cup asset.
But in a way, the expansion from 23-man rosters to 26 might have hurt Sands. Individual versatility became less necessary. Berhalter could take at least one backup at every position, plus a few luxury players, without having to worry about depth in a potential injury crisis.
Still, though, Sands' passing from the back merited at least a September call-up and a chance.