USMNT's World Cup squad in Qatar: What to make of Berhalter's picks, and who should start?

There is a strong temptation on roster release day, an unofficial holiday before the World Cup, to pick apart a coach's decisions. It's an inevitable part of the process in the lead-up to the tournament.

More than anything, though, it's a public relations exercise. An opportunity to build excitement -- and in the United States, generates awareness -- as the tournament draws nearer. That was the case when World Cup rosters were 23 players and even more so now that the rosters have swelled to 26.

The reality is that anyone who was on the fringes of a roster this size wasn't going to factor into the tournament in a meaningful way. If someone wants to argue for adding a fourth striker or changing a seventh midfielder, that's their prerogative, but any assertion that those types of tweaks would have a major bearing on how a team performs is intellectually dishonest.

- 2022 World Cup: All squad lists for Qatar

With that said, it's still worthwhile to try to review the choices and understand why the decisions were made. The final roster provides clearest picture of how a coach views his player pool.

That's particularly true for United States men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter, who seldom airs public criticism of his players or speaks definitively about preferring one player to another. Rosters for friendlies and competitions like the Gold Cup or Nation's League are often experimental, built with an eye toward development and assessment for World Cup. That's less true in qualification where the stakes are real, but there's still mixing and matching that goes on.

The World Cup roster is different. The roster is a zero-sum game.

Let's take a look at what we learned from Wednesday's U.S. roster release (projected starters in bold):

Goalkeepers (3)

In: Matt Turner (Arsenal), Ethan Horvath (Luton Town), Sean Johnson (NYCFC)

Out: Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough)

There was a sense for a long time that Steffen was Berhalter's guy. He played for him in Columbus and seemed to be the preferred option for most of the cycle when healthy. It's tough to say how much injuries -- and uneven play that resulted from them -- might have factored into his omission but, either way, it was surprising.

Berhalter's comments Wednesday made it pretty clear that Turner is the preferred No. 1. He values Horvath's track record of being ready when called upon unexpectedly (high praise for the likely No. 2) and Johnson's longevity with the team (the No. 3 goalkeeper is mainly there for good vibes).

Defenders (9)

In: Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Tim Ream (Fulham), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC) Sergino Dest (AC Milan), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Shaq Moore (Nashville SC) Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF)

Out: Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes), Sam Vines (Antwerp), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United FC), John Brooks (Benfica)

The only question at this point is who Berhalter is going to start next to Zimmerman at centerback: Ream or Long? Long has played more minutes than any U.S. player since the team qualified (374 in six appearances), while Ream hasn't been capped since the first game of World Cup qualifying against El Salvador in September 2021.

That discrepancy gave the appearance Long was the preferred option, but the way Berhalter spoke about Ream on Wednesday indicated otherwise: "He's in the Premier League and he is a top performer for his team. It's really hard to ignore stuff like that. And by the way, he's been a guy that's been with us since Day 1. ... I think Tim, based on what we're seeing, the level he's playing at, he's ready to play in a World Cup for sure."

Cannon's exclusion is not shocking but it is noteworthy. Since Berhalter took over in December 2018, Cannon is the most capped fullback in the pool and has consistently been selected over Moore. But, again, it's hard to feign a strong opinion about one or the other when neither figured to see the field. Injuries prevented Richards or Miles Robinson from being considered, and Brooks' continued exile was expected.

Midfielders (7)

In: Weston McKennie (Juventus), Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC)
Out: Malik Tillman (Rangers)

From a talent and upside standpoint, Tillman is superior to Roldan, but -- keeping that 26-man roster size in mind -- with the overall good health of the pool, neither is in a real position to contribute on the field. Roldan is going as a locker room presence and that's fine.

It's noteworthy that U.S. Soccer listed Aaronson at midfield when in the past he's been grouped with the forwards, but it could ultimately mean nothing. He's played both on the wing and central for the U.S. depending on need. His positional flexibility is a huge asset and there's a case, based on his form with Leeds, that he could push into the starting XI. If not, he'll be one of the first two players off the bench.

Wingers (4)

In: Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Timothy Weah (Lille)
Out: Paul Arriola (FC Dallas)

No one has appeared more for the U.S. under Berhalter than Arriola (31 caps), so it would have made sense if he made the final cut. But Berhalter also made a good point to explain, in part, why Arriola has been used so much: "For one reason or another, we haven't always had our wingers fit and available. And now as we lead up to the World Cup, every one of those players is fit and available and it just made that Paul was the man out."

It was going to be either him or Morris for that fourth winger spot -- and it really should be viewed as the No. 5 winger spot because Aaronson is on the roster. For the U.S. to have Pulisic, Reyna and Weah all healthy for a mid-season World Cup is something akin to a miracle. To be able to turn to any of those guys in a bench role is unusual depth and after months of pessimism about the team's attack, it represents one reason to be optimistic.

In: Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Joshua Sargent (Norwich City), Haji Wright (Antalyaspor)

Out: Ricardo Pepi (Groningen), Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin)

The way Berhalter explained it, the coaching staff had two player profiles it was choosing between: Ferreira/Sargent/Pepi and Wright/Pefok.

His full explanation on Wright's inclusion is worth reading, especially because he is probably the most surprising name on the entire roster: "I think when we were looking this as coaches, we were evaluating Haji versus Jordan Pefok, and that's what it came down to. And in this particular case, we felt like Haji is in a great goal scoring form.

"They're both physical strikers. Jordan maybe a little more so, but Haji has pace, he's got the ability to go one v. one, he's got finishing with his head, both feet and he is performing really well in the Turkish league. Let's not forget that the starting striker for Belgium (Michy Batshuayi) also plays in the Turkish league and has five goals and Haji has nine goals and the Belgium guy's probably playing for a better team."

It's an interesting explanation. In calendar 2022, Wright has scored 20 goals in the Turkish league, which is without question the most impressive goal-scoring record of any American player in that span. He has scored nine in 12 games this year.

Pepi's five goals in eight appearances in the Dutch league gave the impression he had rehabilitated his form and had a good chance to be included, but Berhalter said he went with Sargent primarily because he has shown he can be effective in a more physical league (English Championship) and Ferreira because of his understanding of the team's game model.

It's still a mystery of who the starter will be. Ferreira is in the worst form of the three. He hasn't scored in his past seven appearances -- including both U.S. friendlies in September -- and, beyond that, hasn't been getting into dangerous positions either.