The conversation can’t be delayed. Procrastinating about specific personnel decisions that will expose Gregg Berhalter’s future at the helm of the United States men’s national team are now harmful to delay after this weekend. Miles Robinson went from World Cup lock to out of the 23-man roster being brought to Qatar with one extremely unfortunate step. And that’s a big dilemma for Berhalter.
After being a rock at the back for the Americans during the World Cup Qualifying Octagonal, Miles Robinson will play zero minutes in Qatar because of non-contact injury suffered playing for his club, Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United last Saturday. Robinson suffered a ruptured achilles tendon and is out for the rest of the year. The shortest prognosis for Robinson is eight months. The US plays its first 2022 World Cup match in just over six.
There wasn’t a long-term injury that’ll expose Berhalter’s ability to adjust lineups leading the Yanks than Robinson. Any soccer fan with a brain would start Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. Robinson’s omission until a champion is crowned in Qatar creates a fork in the road for Berhalter, with he and Walker Zimmerman all but penciled in to be the starting center back duo at the World Cup.
Berhalter’s puzzling roster choices are well documented, as are the random squad rotations. Those mistakes were just small enough where the United States got third place in the Octagonal, the shallowest plateau for an automatic berth from CONCACAF to Qatar. Due to a late-fall World Cup as opposed to the traditional summer event, Berhalter has six months to prep Robinson’s replacement. He’ll go one of two routes.
The wrong direction would be relying on players solely featured in recent WCQ games or completely new selections. Berhalter committing to pairing Zimmerman with Aaron Long, who featured at center back in the last trio of USMNT games, would yield alright results. Since when is mediocrity preferred? The Yanks’ head coach has been hinting at calling in Cameron Carter-Vickers, a 24-year-old who played in zero Octagonal games, for June’s friendlies. I’m all for expanding horizons, but going with someone completely new is risky if you don’t plan to stick with them throughout 2022. And Berhalter has shown no ability to stop tinkering with lineups.
Who will step up in Robinson’s place?
The group of players Berhalter needs to be dipping into for an elevation with Robinson’s vacancy is those who’ve played in major games for the team since its Nations League triumph but might’ve not been in the last round of Octagonal games. Is that a nitpicked way of presenting the best choice in John Brooks? Possibly. But where else would you find a true back-end stopper who’s scored a World Cup goal before? Of the players truly in contention to represent America in Qatar, only he and DeAndre Yedlin were in the squad for the last time the country played in a World Cup eight years ago. Remember his goal against Ghana? Brooks’ header into the back of the net was more unlikely then.
Why Brooks wouldn’t be the obvious choice is beyond comprehension. I guess he still has to “earn it” in whatever moving-goalposts way Berhalter throws in front of him. When combining experience, potential, national-team pedigree and the chemistry with Zimmerman, the ideal choice is Brooks. And it’s not particularly close to second place.
Should Brooks’ isolation from the Yanks incredulously continue, under consideration should be Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie and Tim Ream, with Richards having the upper hand of that trio due to not having a red-flag performance in a national team jersey over the last 12 months. Ream is the oldest and most experienced of that bunch but has appeared a step slow at the international level in recent years against CONCACAF competition, much less the best from the rest of the world. Head back to the Nations League Final and watch the opening 90 seconds and you’ll get my thoughts on McKenzie. Yes, it’s a mistake. But one that should stick with him.
Richards has the proper training, rising through FC Dallas and Bayern Munich’s developmental ranks. He finds himself at Hoffenheim, a mid-table Bundesliga club that’ll give him consistent playing time, something a lot of other USMNT regulars have struggled with. Due to a lack of tested options at center back, Berhalter may need to adjust who he calls into Qatar, with James Sands now being much more valuable as a defensive midfielder for added help. That probably leaves one attacking option off the plane to Qatar.
Converting a non-traditional center back to the position has had mixed results for the USMNT at previous World Cups. Look at Geoff Cameron in 2014, who was solid overall but had a huge gaffe against Portugal. Either way, Berhalter’s management of this situation and how it plays out in Qatar will either guarantee he’s the right man to lead the Americans as World Cup co-hosts in 2026, or prove he’s not and someone else will get that opportunity. My money’s on the latter.