Most selections were all but certain for a long time, and some were foreshadowed by recent call-ups. But there was one major surprise: Zack Steffen, Berhalter’s first-choice goalkeeper for much of his tenure, did not make the cut.
“Zack’s been there for me a bunch of times, and to tell him he’s not going to be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for him,” said Berhalter, who coached Steffen with MLS’s Columbus Crew in 2017-18. “It’s more about who we do have and the comfort level with the guys that are on the roster. We felt really comfortable with Matt [Turner] and Ethan [Horvath] and Sean [Johnson]. And that’s the direction we decided to go.”
Steffen, a former University of Maryland star now with Middlesbrough in England’s second tier, started six of the 14 World Cup qualifiers but also missed multiple camps with illness and injury. He has been mostly healthy this season, starting 16 of Middlesbrough’s 20 league matches.
Berhalter declined to detail what factors went into the decision.
Steffen figured to compete with Turner, a backup at Premier League club Arsenal, for the starting job in Qatar. With Steffen absent, Turner seems almost certain of taking the lead role, though he has been nursing a minor injury and hasn’t played since Oct. 20.
“It’s easy to read into [Steffen’s absence] and say that Matt’s most likely the number one going into the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.”
For 30 years, the goalkeeping job has been fairly clear cut, featuring the likes of Tony Meola, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard. Steffen was the natural successor to Howard, who starred at the 2014 World Cup.
“Zack has been an integral part of the group,” said defender DeAndre Yedlin, the only roster member with World Cup experience. “So obviously you’re sad to see him miss out, but this is the business and this is the sport, so we move on.”
Other notable absences included midfielder Malik Tillman, winger Paul Arriola and strikers Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok.
The list was unveiled hours before nine MLS players and the coaching staff were scheduled to fly to Doha, where they will reunite with 17 European-based brethren over the weekend.
Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams headline the squad, which will open Group B on Nov. 21 against Wales and later play England and Iran.
Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah and Brenden Aaronson are in. So are Tim Weah, Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest.
“It feels real now, for sure,” Adams said.
There was some unexpected intrigue. Tim Ream, a 35-year-old center back for the Premier League’s Fulham, made the list even though he hasn’t received any call-ups since last fall.
“He’s playing in the best league in the world, and he’s playing at a very high level,” Berhalter said. The decision is “not a hard one.”
Luca de la Torre, who provides depth in central midfielder, made the cut despite a leg injury that was slated to sideline him right up to the opener. McKennie and Dest are nursing injuries that weren’t deemed serious enough to warrant roster omission.
With European leagues in action this weekend before pausing for the World Cup, Berhalter isn’t out of the woods on the injury front. He does have until Monday to formally submit the roster to FIFA, the sport’s global governing body. Additionally, roster changes necessitated by injury are permissible 24 hours before the opener.
Jordan Morris beat out Arriola for depth on the flanks, and Cristian Roldan got the nod over Tillman. Always big on team chemistry, Berhalter referred to some players as “glue guys.”
Zimmerman said: “We’ve developed a really strong brotherhood. We use that word a lot and don’t use it lightly. There’s guys that certainly fit in that provide a lot of intangibles that people might not see every day, but they’re a big part of our success. Chemistry is definitely one of our strengths, and that’s something we can control.”
Unsettled for much of four years, the crew of World Cup strikers did not take firm shape until recent months. Jesús Ferreira, 21, has been a constant in the player pool, and Josh Sargent, 22, secured his place with a resurgence this season with Norwich City in England.
Pepi also figured to receive the call amid a strong campaign in the Netherlands, and Pefok is playing regularly for a Bundesliga club, Union Berlin. Berhalter, though, opted for Haji Wright, a Turkish-based striker in great form this fall. Pefok’s production has fallen off of late.
“If we had made the decision in mid-September,” Berhalter said, “[Pefok] probably would’ve been a lock.”
With an average age of 25.5, the U.S. team is expected to have one of the youngest — if not the youngest — rosters in the 32-team field. Five call-ups did not appear in any of the qualifiers: Horvath, Johnson, Wright and defenders Cameron Carter-Vickers and Joe Scally.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Berhalter said. “It’s a great opportunity for young players, for old players, for everyone. I just hope that when we get there, we’re ready to take advantage of it because we really do see this as a responsibility. It all starts now.”
Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath (Luton Town), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Matt Turner (Arsenal).
Defenders: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Sergiño Dest (AC Milan), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Shaq Moore (Nashville SC), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC).
Midfielders: Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), Kellyn Acosta (Los Angeles FC), Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders).
Forwards: Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), Tim Weah (Lille), Haji Wright (Antalyaspor).