Zack Steffen, Jordan Pefok among top USMNT roster snubs

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The 2022 World Cup rosters expanded further than ever before, and yet US men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter had to make some tricky decisions with an expanding player pool.

He chose to bring Haji Wright, Tim Ream, Shaq Moore and Cristian Roldan to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.

In doing so, he left a host of qualified candidates from the USMNT’s 26-man roster on Wednesday — and no more than one of his two starting goalies from qualifying.

That keeper was Zack Steffen and while his exclusion won’t be the most momentous of the group, it was the most surprising of Berhalter’s seven biggest squad nudges.

Zack Steffen—G, Middlesbrough

Steffen had been Berhalter’s No. 1 goaltender for most of his tenure as USMNT head coach. He was No. 1 at the 2019 Gold Cup. He was No. 1 for the 2021 Nations League final. He was, it seemed, No. 1 if he was healthy in qualifying.

But then a family matter kept him away from the USMNT camp in May and June. An injury and perhaps some shaky club performances kept him away from camp in September. By this point it was clear that Matt Turner was the likely starter in Qatar.

But why remove Steffen from the squad entirely?

Berhalter dodged the question on Wednesday. “I think it’s more about who we have and how well we’re doing with the guys in the squad,” he said. “We felt very comfortable with Matt, Ethan [Horvath] and Sean [Johnson]. And that’s the direction we’ve chosen.”

However, he admitted that calling Steffen was particularly difficult. The two have worked with the crew since their days in Columbus. “Me and Zack have a long history. And Zack was there for me a few times,” Berhalter said. “And telling him he won’t be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me.”

Zack Steffen had played an important role for the USMNT in this World Championship cycle. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

But the decision is explainable. Steffen has apparently regressed as a shot stopper and fought powerfully with flanks. Johnson and Horvath are both perfect backups — and in an ideal world, neither of them would need to play anyway.

Jordan Pefok — F, Union Berlin

The other big name missing is Pefok and a few months ago when the DC native was leading Union Berlin to the top of the Bundesliga his exclusion would have been blasphemous. USMNT fans would have burned down Soccer House. “If we had made the decision in mid-September, Jordan Pefok would probably have been suspended,” agreed Berhalter.

“But since then,” he continued, “it’s a different story.”

Pefok hasn’t scored since mid-September. Haji Wright, on the other hand, has scored nine goals in 12 Turkish Süper Lig games. “Haji is in top form,” said Berhalter. “They are both physical strikers. Jordan maybe a bit more but Haji has pace, he has ability to play 1v1, he finishes with his head and both feet. And he plays really well.”

So that’s it. “We hope that these decisions are correct,” said Berhalter. “Might not.”

Ricardo Pepi — F, Groningen

Pepi has had a hurricane for 18 months. He stormed onto the stage with FC Dallas, chose the USMNT over Mexico and scored some mighty goals in World Cup qualifiers. Then he moved to the Bundesliga in Augsburg for $ 20 million … and didn’t score for almost a whole year.

But now he’s back under the gates, as they say, and still only 19. Berhalter obviously likes him. He looked like a good bet for Qatar, especially looking ahead.

But Wright was just as hot for an extended period of time, against competition of similar quality. Pepi’s profile more closely matches that of Josh Sargent, and Berhalter has contrasted him with that.

Sargent, Berhalter said, “does a lot of things well. He also plays against these guys from England and Wales every week, he will be familiar with the opponent which we think will be valuable. And I think he gives a physical presence, with his dogfights and his competitive nature, that’s going to help this group.”

Pepi on the other hand? “The Dutch league is a great league but it doesn’t bring the same physicality as the Premier League and the Championship,” said Berhalter. “And that was something that went into our decision.”

Malik Tillman — M, Rangers

Tillman, a 20-year-old loaned to Rangers from Bayern Munich, had impressed Berhalter in June after signing for the USMNT via Germany. His club performances have been inconsistent since but he seemed the ideal dice roll at the bottom of the squad, an offensive spark off the bench when others falter.

Instead, like Pepi, he has to wait until 2026.

Reggie Cannon—D, Boavista

Cannon has been a permanent member of the USMNT roster since the 2019 Gold Cup. His move to Portugal was the opposite of smooth, but his experience playing on the right side of a back three for Boavista gave him – or so it seemed – a unique place in this USA squad.

His exclusion won’t be too momentous, but it’s definitely surprising. The rationale, according to Berhalter, is to prioritize Shaq Moore’s 1-on-1 defense in a group with several dangerous wingers.

Mark McKenzie—D, Genk

There’s an argument that given the USMNT’s weakness in central defence, Berhalter should have picked a fifth centre-back – and that fifth almost certainly would have been McKenzie.

A Bronx-born product of the Philadelphia Union Academy, McKenzie relocated to Genk, Belgium in 2021 and seemed to be establishing himself as a regular for the national team around that time. He started all four games in May and June 2021 and one World Cup qualifier each in September and October.

He’s prone to errors, but he’s fast, probably faster than any other healthy central defender in the US pool. With Miles Robinson and Chris Richards both out through injury, McKenzie seemed a logical replacement.

But Berhalter (probably rightly so) favored Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose profile resembles McKenzie’s; and Tim Ream, whose profile is very different but who brings ball skills and veteran presence that could be valuable.

James Sands – D/M, Rangers

It’s amazing that Sands didn’t take a closer look. He can play at centre-back, right-back or centre-back and has played all three for Rangers and/or USMNT. That versatility seemed to make him a valuable asset at the World Cup.

But in some ways, expanding from 23-man rosters to 26 Sands may have hurt. Individual versatility became less necessary. Berhalter could take at least one backup in each position, plus a couple of luxury players, without worrying about depth in a possible injury crisis.

Still, Sands’ pass from behind earned at least a September call-up and a chance.



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