Raising the Floor

At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the USMNT had two game plans:  a ball-dominant possession-orientated game plan and an against-the-ball defensive game plan.  This was easiest to see in the games versus Wales and Iran.  As I pointed out in, “USMNT- Unlocked” (chasingacup.com/usmnt-unlocked), the team under Berhalter could only play well when they had almost all or all of their best players on the field.  Berhalter finally recognized this or as the games meant more, stopped experimenting with players that couldn’t execute.  To play his best 9 players for 270’ apiece wasn’t practical and a few of the players weren’t able to go 90’ in any game. What Berhalter instead came up with was to play the ball dominant style and then switch, with subs of defensive players, to an against the ball strategy.

That was the workaround in Qatar.  That makes improving the USMNT going into 2026 an exercise in raising the floor of the team.  Finding players that can sub in and be capable of carrying out the ball dominant playing style.  Certainly, if a player emerges that is better than one of the starters in Qatar, that would help just as well because a good player drops to the bench.  The following are five players that are on the inside track to improve the bench that was in Qatar; and improve it now.

Position:  Box to Box Midfielder/”8”

Qatar Bench:  Kellyn Acosta

Candidate:  Malik Tillman

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Tillman played most of the Fall for Rangers on the wing or as a second forward.  Since the WC, he has been playing more as a box to box or attacking midfielder.  He is playing very well with some youthful inconsistencies.  But he is calm on the ball, technically sound, bigger and stronger than most on the field, and has good vision.  He is probably ready for the role of Mckennie’s backup right now and might progress to even play the role Musah has.  Acosta was best during the cycle when playing against the ball as a “6”.  Which is a nice way of saying he was pretty pedestrian to bad outside of two games against Mexico subbing for Tyler Adams.  In Qatar, he came in as an 8 and was mostly ineffective in possession and invisible when the other team had the ball.  He did fall asleep on the throw in and let his man get into a dangerous crossing area that led to the tying goal.

Position:  Swing Man (CM/8)

Qatar Bench:  Christian Roldan

Candidate:  Taylor Booth

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Since the World Cup ended, Booth has been the most in form American player anywhere (except possibly Tyler Adams or Bryan Reynolds, see below).  Playing on the wing for Utrecht but often dropping deeper to run the offense, he has drawn the attention of PSV, Ajax and other clubs in the top leagues.  He came up in the youth ranks as a central midfielder but is thriving on the wing where he can find space.  He could certainly fill the role that Roldan has had because Roldan almost never plays anyway. Berhalter, obviously, doesn’t think of Roldan as able to execute on the field, but as more of an assistant coach in the locker room.  Maybe that is important, but when you barely hold a lead versus Iran and blow the lead versus a bad Wales team, it tells me you need players, not more coaches.

Position:  Winger

Qatar Bench:  Jordan Morris

Candidate:  Kevin Paredes

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Paredes has regularly featured off the bench for Wolfsburg since the winter break concluded.  He is technically sound and able to beat defenders off the dribble.  All signs point to him making the steps necessary to become a Bundesliga starting left winger.  Morris has always been streaky and usually hurt.  In Qualifying, he was a shell of his best self and it is a mystery why he was even on the field having not even come back fully from his injury.  In Qatar, he was ineffective in very limited minutes.  Morris has a lot of fans and detractors.  His fans will come up with scenarios where he makes sense on a team.  They usually come down to: “late sub, when you don’t want to leave the better players on, other guys are hurt, but you want his speed for balls over the top or maybe to out jump smaller central American defenders.”  As you can see, it is a very limited role for a technically limited player.  A better player would allow for a like for like replacement and not necessitate the whole game plan changing.

Position:  Striker

Qatar Bench:  Jesus Ferreira

Candidate:  Ricardo Pepi

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Since moving to Groningen in the Eredivisie right at the transfer deadline, Pepi has basically started and finished every game for the Dutch club.  He has 10 goals and 3 assists in 21 appearances.  While his finishing has possibly been somewhat lucky, his passing has been some of the best by a forward in the Eredivisie this season.  Ferreira had a great season in MLS in 2022 before tailing off at the end of Summer.  It is still a puzzle why Berhalter chose to bring Ferreira who hadn’t scored in months over Pepi who was regularly scoring in Holland. The choice looked even worse after Ferreira was worse than ineffective against The Netherlands in the Round of 16 and had to be hooked early.

Position:  Right Back

Qatar Bench:  Shaq Moore/DeAndre Yedlin

Candidate:  Bryan Reynolds

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Reynolds was the poster boy for fans who think too many players leave MLS for Europe too soon.  Bryan transferred to Roma after just a half season of MLS and seemed to start well.  But when Roma changed manager, Reynolds was publicly held up as an example of poor bench players and his transfer became a disaster.   He was sent to KV Kortrijk in Belgium where he played ok but not great.  He was loaned out again to a different team in Beligium, Westerlo, this season.  As the season has gone on, Reynolds has hit his stride.  Since the WC, he has been one of the best fullbacks in Belgium.  Shaq Moore is a journeyman player who spent most of his career in the Spanish Segunda and is now in MLS.  He is a decent player when defending or going forward in a straight line.  He is not good at being an important hub in a possession game plan, as modern fullbacks have to be.  In Qatar, USMNT attempts to play it out from the back often came to an end with Moore or his other team mate, Yedlin.  

Right now, I think that replacing Ferreira, Moore, Acosta, and Roldan with Pepi, Reynolds, Tillman, and Booth would instantly upgrade the floor of the USMNT.  Paredes might not be an instant upgrade for Morris this week, but he is on the path to be there by this Summer or the Copa America in 2024.  This article did not even discuss players on the Qatar team, or missed through injury, like Joe Scally and Chris Richards.  Or players in Qatar that didn’t play as much as hoped because of the predetermined game plan switch like Luca De La Torre and Gio Reyna.  A quick run through of immediate upgrades shows that not only can we have a much better squad in March than last November, but that it is far deeper than the Qatar squad suggested.