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USMNT roster for final pre-World Cup camp includes Ricardo Pepi, who hasn't scored in 11 months

Ricardo Pepi has played more than 1,300 minutes of soccer since the first week of last October. He has played in seven different countries and five different competitions for four different teams. He still has not, in over 11 months, scored a single goal — and yet he is one of three strikers on a U.S. men’s national team roster for two final World Cup tune-ups.

The USMNT announced that roster, its last before the 2022 World Cup, on Wednesday. It does not include Jordan Pefok, the scorer of 27 goals last season, and of a few for the German Bundesliga leaders already this season. It also does not include Brandon Vazquez, a breakout MLS star.

It does, however, include FC Dallas sensation Jesus Ferreira, rejuvenated Norwich City forward Josh Sargent, and Pepi, a 19-year-old striker who burst onto the scene last year, but who last scored on Oct. 7, 2021.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter justified the decision by saying Wednesday that he wanted to "take a look" at Pepi and Sargent, and that he was "trying to get [Pepi] confidence, we're trying to get him into the group and see if he can make a push for the final roster."

On Pefok, Berhalter said: "We're pretty confident we know Jordan's profile, we know what he can do. And we didn't feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he can be on the [World Cup] roster or not."

Elsewhere, the roster includes 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman and Royal Antwerp left back Sam Vines — who has not played for the USMNT since last summer’s Gold Cup.

It includes Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who appears to have won a World Cup spot at center back; but not Rangers defender James Sands, who appears to be on the outside looking in, nor Fulham captain Tim Ream, who has been out of the picture since last fall.

The World Cup roster will be unveiled on Nov. 9 ahead of FIFA's Nov. 14 deadline. Injuries to Antonee Robinson, Zack Steffen and Tim Weah prevented this roster from truly foreshadowing November’s. It does not provide clear answers to questions at positions like fullback, winger and third-string goalkeeper.

It is also "not the final roster," Berhalter stressed on a Zoom call with reporters. "This is not the final roster for the World Cup. A lot can happen between now and Nov. 9."

But it certainly hints at what the final roster might look like.

Full USMNT roster for September camp

Berhalter called in 26 players, the same number he'll have at the World Cup. They’ll be his 26 for friendlies against Japan (Sept. 23, 8:26 a.m. ET, ESPN2/UniMás/TUDN) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27, 2 p.m. ET, FS1/UniMás/TUDN), the USMNT’s last two games before it gathers in Qatar ahead of its World Cup opener on Nov. 21.

Goalkeepers: Matt Turner, Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath
Fullbacks: Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally, Sam Vines
Center backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers
Central midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, Malik Tillman
Wingers/attacking midfielders: Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris
Strikers: Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi

U.S. forward Ricardo Pepi (9) plays during the second half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match against Mexico, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)
Ricardo Pepi helped the U.S. qualify for the 2022 World Cup, but hasn't scored a goal since last October. (AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

Who’d be on the roster if not for injuries?

Steffen, the USMNT’s No. 1 goalkeeper throughout qualifying, has not played for Middlesbrough, his club in the English second tier, since Aug. 20. Berhalter said Wednesday that Steffen has "been struggling with a little bit of a knee injury," and that he recently got a PRP injection, and is "waiting on that to calm down a little bit. But we expect him to be on the field shortly."

With Steffen out, Berhalter called in both Sean Johnson and Ethan Horvath. When Steffen returns, the assumption all along has been that he will be one of the three keepers heading to Qatar. But Berhalter spoke as if that wasn't a certainty. The only lock (and likely starter) at the position appears to be Matt Turner.

Robinson and Weah are also close to returning, both from sprained ankles. Robinson hurt his in a Sept. 3 Premier League match at Tottenham, and is "day-to-day," Berhalter said. He is the undisputed starting left back when healthy, and his World Cup status is not in question. For the September camp, in his stead, Berhalter tabbed both Joe Scally and Vines; but there is likely only room for one on the World Cup roster.

Weah is the third and final roster likelihood who’ll miss the September friendlies due to injury. When he returns, he’ll likely bump either Paul Arriola or Jordan Morris off the roster.

Who are the biggest snubs?

On Wednesday's Zoom call, Berhalter rattled off the names of 13 players not on the September roster who are "in consideration": Steffen, Chicago Fire goalkeeper Gaga Slonina, Nashville right back Shaq Moore, Cincinnati center back Matt Miazga, Genk center back Mark McKenzie, Sands, Ream, Troyes center back Erik Palmer-Brown, Internacional midfielder Johnny Cardoso, Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson, Pefok, Antalyaspor striker Haji Wright, and Vazquez.

Aside from Pefok, the biggest snubs are Sands and Ream. Sands has been starting regularly in Scotland and in the Champions League. His performances have been up-and-down, but his ability to play center back, right back and defensive midfield seemed to make him a logical inclusion.

Ream, meanwhile, started every single game of Fulham’s English Championship-winning campaign last year, and has been excellent in the Premier League so far this season. His solidity and smarts prompted renewed calls for Berhalter to reintegrate a player who, until last fall, had been a USMNT regular, and oftentimes a starter. (Ream had also been a leader with the USMNT players’ association until last summer.)

The case against Ream, though, is that he has never been the fleetest of foot, and is even less so now, at age 34. The USMNT’s pressing system necessitates a center back with pace — someone who can "play a high line, cover a lot of space behind them," Berhalter said Wednesday. He also wants someone who is "dominant in the air, dominant on offensive and defensive set pieces. And that's not Tim's strength."

Pepi over Pefok

The most controversial decision is Pepi over Pefok. The latter, a 26-year-old target man, earned a summer move to Union Berlin and has scored or created five goals in his first five Bundesliga games. He missed one with a minor injury, but played 74 minutes on Sunday in a 1-0 win; the injury is not a reason for his exclusion.

Pepi, on the other hand, has endured a whirlwind year. He broke into the USMNT as an 18-year-old last fall, and without him, the U.S. might not be here. He spearheaded a comeback in Honduras and a win over Jamaica to steady a wobbling World Cup qualifying campaign. By October, he’d established himself as the national team’s starting striker.

His exploits at FC Dallas and with the USMNT earned him a $20 million move to FC Augsburg in the German Bundesliga. But there, over the second half of the 2021-22 season, he played sparingly, sometimes out of position, and often not at all well. He recently moved to Groningen in the Netherlands on loan, seemingly in an attempt to revive his club career. And Berhalter, who watched Pepi's first game with Groningen this past weekend, is desperately hoping he can revive his U.S. career as well.

"He's started really important games [for the USMNT], and we just weren't willing to give all that up right now," Berhalter said. "We still think there's a big upside with him. We still think he's got really good potential. ... He is a guy that we've counted on in the past, and we want to give him an opportunity in this window."

But Pefok seemed like the logical pick. Berhalter will likely take three strikers to Qatar. Fans and pundits have argued that one of the three should be a penalty-box target who doesn't necessarily fit Berhalter's "game model," but whom he can throw on when down a goal with 20 minutes to play, when game models go out the window.

And of course, it still could be. Berhalter, on Wednesday's media call and in conversations with players, stressed again and again that the roster is not yet finalized.

But he also said that his striker picks "may not be the best forward," but rather the "guy that fits what we're doing the best."

He is looking for strikers who can spearhead a press, and drop deep to combine with midfielders, and stretch an opposing defense. One of the three will be Ferreira, the probable starter, a “pressing machine” with creative qualities who’s on an MLS goalscoring tear. "He checks all those boxes," Berhalter said Wednesday.

Another should be Sargent, a hard-worker and all-around threat who’s re-found his form.

The third spot remains up for grabs. "I can understand that Jordan should be in consideration," Berhalter said. "He was in consideration. Major consideration. In the end, we decided to go with these three strikers for this camp to be able to evaluate them."

Other USMNT position battles

Berhalter told the Associated Press earlier this month that, barring injuries, his World Cup roster is about 85% settled. On Wednesday, in framing a hypothetical sentence, he said: "If we're 80% done now with the roster, or we think we're 80% done, still things can change from there."

The five unsettled spots are, presumably, second- and third-string goalkeeper (Steffen vs. Johnson vs. Horvath), reserve left back (Scally vs. Vines), reserve winger (Arriola vs. Morris) and third striker (Pepi vs. Pefok).

Beyond striker, the most interesting and relevant decision might be at fullback, where four of the five most talented and accomplished players — Sergiño Dest, Reggie Cannon, DeAndre Yedlin and Scally — are right-footed. Berhalter will have to decide whether to take a second left-footer — Vines — to back up Robinson; if not, both Dest and Scally can provide cover.

On choosing to not call in a second left-footer behind Vines, with Robinson out, Berhalter said: "We didn't feel like we had enough depth on the left side to go with two left-footers, and so we went with one." He said that Vines, at age 23, is in the "form of his life," but also indicated that he's willing to play with a right-footer on the left.

Updated USMNT World Cup roster prediction

With the September roster in mind, here’s our updated prediction for the USMNT’s World Cup roster, assuming full health:

Goalkeepers: Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson
Fullbacks: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally
Center backs: Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers
Central midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Kellyn Acosta, Malik Tillman
Attacking midfielders/wingers: Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Paul Arriola
Strikers: Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi