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Steffen vs Turner, Pepi's backup and the USMNT selection issues Berhalter must address before Qatar 2022

13:00 GMT 27/01/2022
Pepi USMNT 2021
Several spots may already be set in stone but there are still some big questions around the U.S. squad going into the latest round of qualifiers

As the U.S. men's national team enters the home stretch of World Cup qualifying, we have a pretty good idea of where things stand.

We know what they need to do to book their spot in Qatar and we would all probably agree on Gregg Berhalter's ideal XI.

However, there are rarely any guarantees in international football. Things change quickly and it's rare that everything falls into place.

So, it's vital to have as deep a player pool as possible.

"I really took advice from some of the ex-national team coaches," Berhalter said, "in particular Bruce [Arena] and Jurgen [Klinsmann] and Bob [Bradley], and they're telling me, 'Listen, the national team, you're not going to be able to call on all your guys all the time.'

"It's just not happening due to injuries, suspensions, club releases, whatever you have. It's going to be complicated.

"So, we've rolled with that mindset and we just adapt and whoever's in camp, whoever's fit, whoever's available, we go with them.

"We're confident in the depth of this group."

But when push comes to shove, that depth will need to be narrowed down, but how will Berhalter do it?

Here's a look at some of the big positional battles that the U.S. will still need to sort out as their 2022 schedule gets going.

Goalkeeper competition

While many positions are either relatively spoken for or have a wide variety of different options, the goalkeeper spot is one that features a good old-fashioned one-on-one battle.

Based on Berhalter's lineups so far, Zack Steffen remains in pole position to be the USMNT's No. 1. When healthy, the Manchester City backup has been Berhalter's go-to guy, featuring in the Nations League and each of the last three World Cup qualifiers.

However, ahead of Thursday's clash with El Salvador, Steffen isn't healthy once again, opening the door for Matt Turner to continue to make his case.

Turner has been spectacular since making his USMNT debut a year ago, leading the team to Gold Cup glory before shining through his own World Cup qualifying appearances. In total, Turner has allowed just four goals in 13 USMNT caps.

The New England Revolution ace has been the best goalkeeper in MLS and has been virtually faultless with the USMNT, but Steffen's club atmosphere at Manchester CIty and ability to play with his feet have given him the edge so far.

Can that change in the months to come? Could a proposed move to Arsenal see Turner leapfrog Steffen? Can the Manchester City star stay sharp enough despite being a backup at the club level?

Those questions are what make goalkeeper the team's most interesting positional battle.

No room for Brooks?

If this current USMNT squad is any indication, Berhalter has nailed down his centerbacks.

Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman are all but officially the team's go-to centerback duo, with both making the roles their own in the summer and fall.

Despite the stigma that still surrounds MLS players, both Robinson and Zimmerman have played at an incredibly high level and both are safe, trusted players for the U.S. in every game they play.

Behind them are a pair of young up-and-comers in Mark McKenzie and Chris Richards, both of whom are continuing to find their ways in Europe. Richards, in particular, is likely the starting central defender of the future, but it remains to be seen just how quickly he can claim that role as his own.

So, where does that leave someone like John Brooks, one of the few players in the pool with World Cup experience (including that famous goal)?

And what about Aaron Long, who continues his return from injury? Could James Sands figure in at centerback or in the midfield? Is there still a spot for a versatile veteran like Tim Ream or for someone like Matt Miazga to play his way back into the picture?

The pool is deep, but it appears a few have separated themselves for the time being

Wealth at winger

Christian Pulisic is a guaranteed starter because he's the face of American soccer.

Gio Reyna is a guaranteed starter because he may have the highest upside of any American player.

Brenden Aaronson is a guaranteed starter because he was the USMNT's best player in 2021.

Tim Weah is a guaranteed starter because he may just be the USMNT's most dynamic and dangerous attacker.

Are you beginning to see the problem here?

The U.S. has an incredible amount of talent at winger, a position where just two of them can play. Pulisic, Reyna, Weah, Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Konrad de la Fuente... Only two of those can start on the wing in Berhalter's 4-3-3.

For the time being, that's great news. Even with Reyna hurt, the U.S. has the depth and talent to manage these grueling three-game weeks that compose World Cup qualifying.

Berhalter doesn't have to run a player like Pulisic into the ground because he can look elsewhere. He doesn't have to worry about whether he can trust Weah or Aaronson to make the difference because he's seen them do it.

However, in the big games, the one-offs, the do-or-dies, the World Cup games, it remains to be seen who Berhalter would turn to and which players would move from star starters to potential ace-in-the-hole supersubs.

Pepi... and then?

Ricardo Pepi is the USMNT's go-to No. 9 right now, and teams can certainly survive with just one monster of a striker.

But few teams can survive a World Cup with only a teenager up front so, at some point, someone will need to either compete with or back up Pepi.

That role falls to Gyasi Zardes this camp and, despite his detractors, it's easy to see why.

He works hard, he presses, brings energy, scores goals. He's a perfect backup striker for CONCACAF games and Berhalter trusts him for a reason.

But Zardes probably isn't the guy. The best bets to truly push Pepi are players not currently in the squad.

Daryl Dike's injury setback comes at a bad time, as his move to West Brom is meant to be his springboard back into the conversation. Now, there's a chance he's out for the rest of World Cup qualifiers, giving him fewer opportunities to impress.

Josh Sargent, meanwhile, is finally scoring for Norwich, which is great news for the USMNT. His move to Norwich now looks very much like a sidestep from Werder Bremen, as Sargent left one creatively-devoid, relegation-bound team for another.

Over the next 12 months, Dike and Sargent will need to make their case to compete or perhaps even unseat Pepi, who also has a lot to prove now that he's at Wolfsburg.

Where's your wildcard?

For the 2014 World Cup, the USMNT's wildcards were DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green.

Just months after making his USMNT debut, Yedlin was on the plane to the World Cup, where he went toe-to-toe with Eden Hazard and earned a Premier League move.

Green's debut, meanwhile, came at that World Cup, as his dual-national status made him a coveted prospect in the run-up to his famous callup.

Those sorts of things happen in the year leading up to the World Cup, where you can see a player catch fire and find his form to book a late ticket to the big one. There certainly are contenders in this player pool, which is loaded with young stars on the cusp of a breakout.

Could it be Caden Clark, the young RB Leipzig midfielder that already has confidence and attacking ability to spare? Or maybe Cade Cowell, a freak athlete whose pace can make even the most talented defenders uncomfortable?

What about someone like Kevin Paredes, a player on the verge of a European move that plays in a position of need on the left?

And there's even Gabriel Slonina, a 17-year-old goalkeeper that is with the squad and could beat out a veteran in Sean Johnson to earn that third goalkeeper spot?

Given the ridiculous amount of young talent in American soccer and understanding just how quickly things move in a World Cup year, there's a chance this year's wildcard isn't even mentioned on that list.

But it doesn't take long to burst onto the scene, and when better to do so than a World Cup year?