World Cup: Zack Steffen, Jordan Pefok Among Top USMNT Contestants
The rosters of World Cup competitors expanded more than ever in 2022, however, with a much deeper pool of players at his disposal, head coach of the US men’s national team Greg Berhalter had to make some thorny decisions.
He chose to take Hadji Wright, Tim Ream, Chuck Moore and Christian Roldan to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
In the process, on Wednesday, he left a group of eligible nominees from the USMNT’s 26-player roster — and no more than one of two key goalkeepers from qualifying.
That goalkeeper was Zack Steffen, and while his exclusion wouldn’t be the most important of the group, he was the most surprising of the top seven players on Berhalter’s roster.
Zack Stephen – J, Middlesbrough
Steffen was Berhalter’s #1 guard for most of his tenure as a USMNT coach. He was No. 1 in the 2019 Gold Cup. He was No. 1 in the 2021 Nations League Final. He was, apparently, No. 1 when he was healthy during qualifying.
But then, a family matter kept him away from the USMNT camp in May and June. Injury and possibly some shaky club performances kept him out of camp in September. By then, it became clear that Matt Turner was the likely initiator in Qatar.
But to leave Stephen off the list entirely? Berhalter will have some explanation to do.
The decision, though, he is explicable. Steffen seemed to slip like a shot stopper, and struggled hard dealing with cross passes. Both Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath are perfectly capable as a backup — and in a perfect world, neither would have to play anyway. (Though, Turner was dealing with an injury, so one might have to.)
Jordan Bivok – F, Union Berlin
Another big name missing is Pefok, and two months ago, when the British capital’s native was leading Union Berlin to the top of the Bundesliga, his exclusion was blasphemy. USMNT fans had burned Soccer House to the ground.
Not registered since mid-September. Meanwhile, after going 11 months without a goal and amplifying the appeals of Pivok, Ricardo Pepe is scoring in a big way, albeit in the Eredivisie.
Perhaps Pefok has deserved a more comprehensive opportunity over the past year as well as proving his worth to Berhalter. After all, he managed to achieve the 2021 Nations League title with a win from the bench in the semi-finals. But in the end, thanks to this reversal in fortunes since September, Pepi-over-Pefok is a justified decision.
Another counterargument is that Berhalter should have taken four attackers instead of three. But with injuries coming up every week, he probably felt he needed Roldan deep in midfield, and Scully as a second left-back. (Although it’s not clear why he feels the need for DeAndre Yedlin And the Moore.)
Ricardo Pepe – F, Groningen
Pepi has been a hiccup for 18 months. Take to the arena with FC Dallas, pick the USMNT over Mexico, and score two massive goals in the World Cup playoffs. Then he moved to Augsburg in the Bundesliga for $20 million… and didn’t score again for almost a full year.
But now he’s back between the goals, they say, and he’s still 19. Berhalter clearly loves him. It seemed like a good bet for Qatar, especially with any kind of outlook.
But Wright has been just as hot, in the face of competition of the same quality, for a longer period of time. Bibi will definitely have his time to shine in 2026 (and before and after).
Malik Tillman – M, Rangers
Tillmann, the 20-year-old on loan at Rangers from Bayern Munich, impressed Berhalter in June after he joined the USMNT side over Germany. His team’s performance has been inconsistent since then, but it looked like a perfect lap at the end of the roster, sparking an offensive off the bench when others falter.
Instead, he, like Pepi, will have to wait until 2026.
Reggie Cannon – D, Boavista
Cannon has been a consistent member of the USMNT teams since the 2019 Gold Cup. His move to Portugal was the opposite of smooth sailing, but his experience playing on the right side of three defenses for Boavista gave him a unique place on this US roster – or so it seemed.
His exclusion wouldn’t have all of these consequences, but it’s certainly surprising.
Mark McKenzie – D, Jenk
There is a separate argument that, given the weakness of the USMNT in the center of defense, Berhalter should have taken a fifth center back – and McKenzie is almost certainly the fifth.
McKenzie, a Bronx-born producer for the Philadelphia Union Academy, moved to Genk in Belgium in 2021, and around that time, he seemed to be establishing himself as a regular national team. He started all four matches in May and June of 2021, and one World Cup match each in September and October.
He’s error-prone, but he’s quick, perhaps faster than any other healthy center back in the American group. With Miles Robinson and Chris Richards ruled out due to injury, MacKenzie appeared to be a logical alternative.
But Berhalter (perhaps right) preferred Cameron Carter Vickers, whose profile is similar to Mackenzie. and Tim Ream, whose profile varies a lot, but brings ball ability and a veteran presence that could be valuable.
James Sands – D/M, Rangers
It’s still baffling that the sands haven’t gotten a more thorough look. He can play right-back, right-back or holding center, all three have played for Rangers and/or USMNT. This diversity appears to have made him a valuable asset at the World Cup.
But somehow, expanding from 23 men to 26 could hurt Sands. Individual diversity is becoming less important. Berhalter can take at least one reserve at each position, as well as a few posh players, without having to worry about getting too deep into a potential injury crisis.
However, Sands’ pass from the back deserves at least a call-up in September and a chance.
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