USMNT roster for pre-World Cup friendlies: Pulisic, McKennie lead squad, Pepi surprise inclusion

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With one final chance for players to make an impression before November’s World Cup, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter had just a few surprises in his 26-man roster for friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia later this month. The roster is headlined by stars Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah.

The most notable inclusion in the squad is that of forward Ricardo Pepi, who has struggled for playing time and goals since moving from FC Dallas to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga last year. Pepi, who recently went on loan to Groningen in Holland, is back in the team and back in the picture to fight for a roster spot at a striker position that is suddenly flush with options.

Pepi, 19, will join FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira and Norwich City forward Josh Sargent on the depth chart at the No. 9 in this camp. Union Berlin’s Jordan Pefok (two goals, three assists in the 2022-23 German Bundesliga season), FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez (16 goals, five assists in the 2022 MLS season) and Antalyaspor’s Haji Wright (five goals in the 2022-23 Turkish Süper Lig season) were not included in the squad.

Pepi, who broke out last year by scoring three goals for the U.S. during qualifying, has not scored a goal for club or country since netting twice against Jamaica last October. He started a play that led to a goal in his first appearance for Groningen last weekend, but his form has been well short of scoring surges for the likes of Pefok and Vazquez.

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Sargent returns to the squad for the first time since September, when he appeared in all of the U.S’s first three qualifying matches, starting twice. Sargent fell out of favor as he struggled to make an impact as a winger for a Norwich team that was relegated from the Premier League last season. Sargent, though, has scored five goals in eight Championship appearances for Norwich to start this season.

There are three notable injury absences in the squad: left back Antonee Robinson (ankle), goalkeeper Zack Steffen (knee) and winger Tim Weah (foot). Midfielder Cristian Roldan, who has been a part of every U.S. roster since last summer’s Gold Cup, is also out due to an injury.

Robinson’s injury has opened the door for Berhalter to learn more about a potential backup for the Fulham fullback at the World Cup. Sam Vines, 23, has been playing consistently at Royal Antwerp in Belgium and is a true left-footed option. Joe Scally, 19, is a consistent starter at right back for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga and could provide some roster flexibility if he can show he’s a solid option to play on the left, where he has played for both Gladbach and the U.S. in the past.

Steffen’s absence is notable in that he is in a fight for his starting job while on loan at Middlesbrough. His injury and form have opened the door for other goalkeepers to make a claim for a roster spot, with Luton Town’s Ethan Horvath and NYCFC veteran Sean Johnson making the squad for the September friendlies and the Chicago Fire’s young star Gaga Slonina waiting in the wings. Matt Turner, who moved from the New England Revolution to the Premier League’s Arsenal this summer, now seems in prime position to start in Qatar.

USMNT and Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner.


(Photo: David Price / Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Berhalter opted not to bring extra players for this squad, sticking with the same number of players he will be allowed at the World Cup. That means some bubble players were left off this roster, most notably Rangers center back James Sands, Fulham center back Tim Ream and the aforementioned forwards, Pefok and Vazquez.

Berhalter brought just four center backs in this team: Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, New York Red BullsAaron Long, Crystal Palace’s Chris Richards and Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman. Reggie Cannon, Sergiño Dest and DeAndre Yedlin were named as right back options, while Scally and Vines will likely compete at left back.

With Weah out injured, Seattle’s Jordan Morris and FC Dallas’ Paul Arriola will look to secure their spot on the plane to Qatar. The winger depth chart, though, is headlined by some of the biggest stars on the roster: Chelsea’s Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s Reyna and Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson.

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The midfield group was as expected, with Leeds’ Adams, Juventus’ McKennie and Valencia’s Musah the expected starters in a group that also includes LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta, Celta Vigo’s Luca de la Torre and Rangers’ Malik Tillman.

The September squad continues to highlight the youth of this U.S. national team. Thirteen players are aged 23 or younger. Through 14 World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. starting 11 came in at an average age of 23.82, almost two years younger than the next closest team that qualified for the World Cup, Ghana at 25.67. Just one player in this team has World Cup experience: Yedlin.

The U.S. will convene in Cologne, Germany this weekend. They’ll train there before making a quick trip to Dusseldorf for the friendly against Japan on Sept. 23, then travel to Murcia, Spain for the friendly against Saudi Arabia on Sept. 27. The matches will be the first opportunity for 21 players on the U.S. roster to play against an opponent from the Asian Football Confederation. The Americans will face another AFC opponent in Iran in their final group stage match at the World Cup in November.

Players will return to their clubs following camp. Berhalter may hold a camp in October for MLS players whose teams fail to qualify for the postseason, but the full U.S. roster won’t get back together until after the 26-man World Cup team is named on Nov. 9. The U.S. will open camp in Qatar on Nov. 14, then open Group B play against Wales on Nov. 21.

Detailed roster by position

GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Luton Town), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Matt Turner (Arsenal)

DEFENDERS (9): Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Sergiño Dest (AC Milan), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Malik Tillman (Rangers)

FORWARDS (8): Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Ricardo Pepi (Groningen), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Norwich City)

(Photo of Ricardo Pepi: David Berding / Getty Images)