Kyle BonaguraESPN staff writer12 minutes of reading
The summer of football is over The USA Men’s National Team, the Qatar World Cup is but a fading memory, and coach Gregg Berhalter will soon return after a month-long hiatus. When he returns to the squad for friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman in September, it will unofficially mark the start of the team’s preparations for the 2026 World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico.
As pivotal as 1994 was when the tournament was first held in the United States, the version three years from now will be even more significant for the sport in America. That will be true no matter how the U.S. fares, but as this team’s unprecedented collection of talent enters its prime, expectations will never have been higher.
There isn’t yet a black-and-white way to define what success will look like, but improving on past performance is a logical barometer. So, after bowing out in the round of 16 in 2022, a trip to the quarter-finals – which would equal the team’s best ever finish in the modern era – feels like a good place to start.
There is plenty of work to be done, and before the World Cup becomes the primary focus, next summer’s Copa America, hosted by the United States, promises to be an incredible dress rehearsal. Unlike this summer’s Gold Cup and Nations League, which were invented out of thin air, the Copa America carries real prestige. It will feature all 10 CONMEBOL teams — hello, World Cup Argentina — and six Concacaf teams to create a rare high-stakes tournament in which the United States can compete.
In this version of the USMNT Big Board, we look at the current state of the depth chart and pick a 26-man roster for the Copa America (it’s unclear what roster size the tournament will use). For the purposes of this exercise, we will assume that all players are healthy.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga and more (USA)
How we do it here
As we have done in the past, we go position by position, from goalkeeper to forward, and sort the player pool into four tiers based on recent form and the perceived preferences of the coaching staff. These levels:
Level 1: The project starts. Roster locks and players who are clear starters at their positions.
Level 2: Contributor. Expected to be on the roster and contribute on the field, either as a sub or as a possible starter.
Level 3: On the bubble. In the fight to be on the 26-man squad and provide roster depth.
Level 4: Out of the picture. Whether they’re locks who are injured and thus unavailable, or they’re players who have been around the team but aren’t likely to get much of a look for inclusion, this group isn’t in consideration right now.
Turner’s rise over the past few years has been remarkable and there’s no doubt he’s entrenched as America’s No. 1. It’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario where he loses that job, but the same could have been said of Steffen when he moved to Man City from MLS. As things stand, Turner is No. 2 at Arsenal and his position at the Premier League summit is not set to change this season either. It’s not ideal to go another whole campaign without a steady run of games, but Turner improved at Arsenal – particularly with his feet – so perhaps another year could continue that trend.
After Turner, everything is up for grabs. Horvath helped Luton Town to promotion to the Premier League while on loan, Johnson is a welcome veteran presence, Steffen was No.1 throughout much of qualifying and Slonina has great potential. Any of these options for the second and third spots are legitimate, so we won’t waste any time pretending otherwise.
Choice right now: Turner, Horvath, Slonina
Level 1: Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Antonee Robinson (Fulham)
Level 2: Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach)
Level 3: Reggie Cannon (free agent), DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution), Bryan Reynolds (Roma), Shaq Moore (Nashville SC), Sam Vines (Antwerp), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF)
Level 4: George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld), Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad), Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United), Marlon Fossey (Standard Liege), Julian Gressel (Vancouver Whitecaps), John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
Dest and Robinson are the obvious choices to start on either side, and neither faces any real threat of being released any time soon. They have both been the subject of transfer rumours, but there is real value, from an American perspective, for Robinson to stay at Fulham, where he will play alongside American team-mate Tim Ream. Dest said he wants to stay at Barca, but he cannot afford a season in a row with a small role.
Scally’s ability to play both sides makes him a key asset and should probably be considered the primary back-up to both Dest and Robinson. He ranked No. 7 among all American players in minutes in Europe’s top five leagues last year (2,212) and is still just 20 years old.
All players listed in Tier 3 are viable roster options. Jones and Reynolds both had solid Gold Cups and are on the rise; Vines is naturally left-sided and the trio of Cannon, Moore and Yedlin have all been somewhat interchangeable at right-back.
Choice right now: Dest, Robinson, Scally, Reynolds
After an incredible season at Fulham and in the World Cup, where he was one of the best American players, Ream remains the starting left-sided center back. At 35, it’s fair to worry about how long he’ll be able to maintain his recent level of play, but that’s not a near-term issue. There also doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite for who will start next to him.
Zimmerman gets a lot of flak for being in MLS, but he’s mostly been solid for the US (his performance against Iran in the World Cup was massive) and is in a group with Richards, Carter-Vickers and Robinson likely competing for the starting job. McKenzie and Palmer-Brown are also right there, but they feel more like depth options than potential starters. Trusty is currently at Arsenal in preseason after a strong season on loan at Birmingham City and I like him as the primary backup to Ream at left-sided centre-back.
Neal is also worth a shout here, not because he’s Copa America ready, but he more than held his own in the Gold Cup as a 19-year-old, which bodes well for his future.
Choice right now: Carter-Vickers, Ream, Richards, Trusty, Zimmerman
Level 1: Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
Level 2: Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo)
Level 3: Malik Tillman (Bayern Munich), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Djordje Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar), James Sands (New York City FC), Tanner Tessmann (Venezia)
Level 4: Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Alan Soñora (free agent), Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew), Richie Ledezma (New York City FC, on loan from PSV Eindhoven), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Timothy Tillman (LAFC), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
The teams might want to cheat a little here because McKennie, Musah, Reyna and Adams are all rostered. It’s just a matter of which combination of these three will play in midfield. After watching Reyna play centrally in the Nations League, it should be clear that is where he makes the biggest difference to this team. It’s possible that Berhalter still sees him as a winger, but the team is significantly less dynamic when he’s out.
So if Reyna plays advanced central, that leaves only two spots for Adams, Musah and McKennie. A hard decision! But that’s a sign of a good team. Musah is the most complete player of the three, so I would go with him in one spot. The other is likely a matchup-based decision, but Adams — the team’s World Cup captain — deserves the benefit of the doubt (again, assuming full health).
The depth pieces have all important seasons ahead of them. De la Torre is the standard “next man up” – he was a major contributor at Celta Vigo after the World Cup – and is better suited to help chase a goal rather than lock down a game. Malik Tillman had a breakout season on loan at Rangers, playing mostly in an attacking midfielder role. Sands’ loan spell at Rangers didn’t go too well and is now back at NYCFC, but was reliable in the Gold Cup.
Tessmann is someone to watch out for. He made significant strides at Venezia last season – where he was a more important player than Busio – and would have been on the Gold Cup list had it not been for his wedding this summer.
Choice right now: Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Musah, De la Torre, Malik Tillman
With Reyna positioned in midfield, Weah is by default the starting right winger, playing on the opposite side of Pulisic. Aaronson fits well as a super-sub with the versatility to play in midfield. (Malik Tillman is listed at center but can also play on the wing).
There is a fairly steep drop after that. Booth showed some encouraging flashes in the Nations League group stage, though against El Salvador and Grenada, and is probably best positioned to make a hypothetical final. That’s especially true after Zendejas struggled in the Gold Cup, despite expectations to be one of the team’s best players at the tournaments.
Paredes made 22 Bundesliga appearances last year for Wolfsburg, but has yet to make his USMNT debut. Whether it comes as a left winger or a left back is unknown. Regardless, he has a bright future and should be called up soon. Cowell also has high potential, but his lack of end product will make it difficult to be called in when the rest of the first-choice guys are available.
Choice right now: Pulisic, Weah, Aaronson, Booth, Paredes
Balogun’s arrival represents the biggest source of optimism around the team right now. After scoring 21 goals for Reims last season, he steps right into the starting role and the team’s starting XI looks a lot more dangerous. He is with Arsenal right now on their European tour, but the expectation is that he will be transferred before the end of the summer window. Regardless of where he lands, it will not affect his standing with the United States, who have never had a pure striker in top European league play at the level Balogun showed last season.
Pepi is the obvious backup. His 12 goals for Groningen helped secure a move to PSV, where he will have a chance to pile on a big haul this season.
Place no. 3 is up for grabs. Sargent has had his ups and downs before reclaiming the starting job when the World Cup began, and his 13-goal season for Norwich City in the English Championship was his most prolific of his career. If he builds on that, the depth chart would look like a power position.
Ferreira and Vazquez both had a number of good moments at the Gold Cup and should be considered in the mix for No.3, but it’s hard to see how they can climb higher than that until they prove they can score consistently at a higher level.
Choice right now: Balogun, Pepi, Sargent