In the three weeks since midfielder Weston McKennie was sent back to his team in Italy for violating U.S. Soccer policy during World Cup qualifying, his status with the men’s national team has been discussed in the media as though shrouded in mystery.
And this was not about what he’d done to earn a suspension. Reporters figured that out pretty quickly: Multiple sources said McKennie had violated COVID protocols by inviting an outsider into the team’s “bubble.” The discussion among many in the soccer media instead involved when he might return, even whether he might be allowed to return. USMNT legend Landon Donovan, on the podcast he periodically shares with soccer journalist Grant Wahl, said, “It’s almost beyond repair.”
As the next round of 2022 World Cup qualifying approaches, though, with the team’s fourth game out of 14 arriving in the first week of October against last-place Jamaica in Austin, McKennie was smack in the middle of the roster released Wednesday by U.S. Soccer for the October window.
- Goalkeepers (3): Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Matt Turner
- Defenders (10): George Bello, John Brooks, Sergino Dest, Mark McKenzie, Shaq Moore, Tim Ream, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, Miles Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin
- Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Gianluca Busio, Luca de la Torre, Sebastian Lletget, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Cristian Roldan
- Forwards (6): Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Matthew Hoppe, Ricardo Pepi, Tim Weah, Gyasi Zardes
That’s as coach Gregg Berhalter told us all along.
“The one thing I didn’t love, how this whole thing got spun, is just the lack of tolerance, the lack of understanding for a player’s situation, the fact we have a young group and this group needs to learn,” Berhalter told Sporting News. “We’re way too quick to condemn people and not really understand a player’s perspective.
“Listen, his behavior was unacceptable. He took responsibility for it. And we move on. We really do move on.”
Berhalter had said upon dismissing McKennie from the September qualifying window, “I’m sure when he’s playing well, he’ll be back on the team.” It’s not clear what was unclear about that, but with teammates Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna unavailable because of injury, the whole “performing well” wasn’t even a deal-breaker for McKennie. The USMNT will need his experience — with 25 caps, he ranks ninth among the 24 field players on the roster — and talent.
In the first 135 minutes the U.S. played in September after McKennie was suspended, the team was outscored 2-1 and might have benefited from the energy and aggression he adds, as well as his capacity for generating offense. His strike rate of one goal for every 3.5 games is superior to four of the six forwards on the October roster.
“Weston’s a very dynamic midfielder. He covers a ton of ground. He arrives in the penalty box. He can unbalance players with the ball dribbling, without the ball running. And defensively, he’s very strong. He’s a top-quality player,” Berhalter told SN. “We’re still waiting for him to hit that top with Juventus. We know he can do it. We’ve seen him do it in the past. But they’re working with him hard. He’s working hard on his game, and we’re confident he’s going to get to a good spot.”
Berhalter’s insistence that the USMNT is moving on from what occurred with McKennie in September included the phrase, “This is something that’s done.” It would seem logical, though, that McKennie would be on a sort of “yellow card” with the team, that it’s essential someone who already slipped once not allow such behavior to be repeated.
“You talk through it, and you work through it, and the player takes responsibility, and I think there is part of it that you move forward and you say: OK, it’s a clean slate for you,” Berhalter told SN. “But there’s a certain amount of trust that Weston needs to rebuild with the group. And he’s willing to do that. I think that’s the important thing.”
On the basis of goals scored — the second tiebreaker employed — the U.S. stands tied for second place among the eight teams in the final CONCACAF qualifying round. The first three teams automatically reach Qatar 2022, and a fourth enters a playoff. With two home games in this window (vs. Jamaica on Oct. 7 and vs. Costa Rica on Oct. 13) and a trip to contender Panama in between (Oct. 10), there is much at stake for the USMNT. And the Americans enter these games without, perhaps, their two most talented players.
Berhalter said he would not rule out either or both Pulisic and Reyna joining the team in time for the Costa Rica game, but termed such a development “unlikely” because of their lack of recent training.
There were other notable developments about how Berhalter constructed the roster:
Big changes at forward
Of the forwards, only Ricardo Pepi of FC Dallas (below) and Gyasi Zardes of the Columbus Crew can be considered pure strikers. Matthew Hoppe of Mallorca can play the position, but with the USMNT he has primarily been deployed as a left winger in a 4-3-3 alignment. Berhalter said Tim Weah of Lille also can play at center forward.
Such pure strikers as Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike and Josh Sargent were excluded from the roster, with Berhalter saying he wants to see more speed from the forward unit against the opponents in this window. Their absence is a clear indication that Pepi’s superb play in the 4-1 victory over Honduras earned a huge role for him in this window.
“The way we always want to play is to be aggressive, is to break lines, is to play behind the back line,” Berhalter said in a conference call with reporters. “One of the benchmarks we discuss with our team is runs behind the back line, and I just didn’t think we did that effectively enough, particularly in the first two games. So that’s a focus of ours moving into this next window.”
Musah as Pulisic stand-in?
Midfielder Yunus Musah (below) returns after remaining with La Liga club Valencia in September. Although Musah played on the wing for the USMNT in several friendlies, Berhalter said he views the 18-year-old as a central player. If he performs well in camp prior to the Jamaica game, he could be deployed as the replacement for Pulisic and given an opportunity to create.
“With his ability to break lines dribbling, his mobility, I think he’s a good option to have in central midfield,” Berhalter said. Musah is not yet cap-tied to the U.S., but would be if used in a World Cup qualifier.
Goalkeeper depth chart
Matt Turner of the New England Revolution appears to be the No. 1 choice in goal after leading the U.S. to the Gold Cup title in August and then performing well in the September qualifying window, allowing just two goals in three games and making several key stops.
The decision about who to start in those games was simplified by Zack Steffen of Manchester City missing out with an injury and then testing positive for COVID. He is back in camp, along with Sean Johnson of New York City FC. Berhalter was asked how that group would be arranged on a depth chart and responded by saying, “Matt’s an example of taking advantage of his opportunity … For all the goalies, we look at how they’ve been playing, the form they’re in and their past performances for the national team.
“What I can say is that Matt’s been doing an excellent job. We know Zack; we know what he can bring. Sean Johnson is another guy who’s been playing well in NYC. So we feel like we have great cover, great depth in the goalkeeper position.”