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USMNT roster set for key upcoming World Cup qualifying stretch

Weston McKennie, seen here celebrating a goal for Juventus against Inter Milan in the Italian Super Cup final Jan. 12, is expected to start for the U.S. squad Thursday against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)
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The latest U.S. men’s national soccer team roster — 28 strong and split almost evenly between MLS and European-based players — is slightly larger than usual for a block of World Cup qualifiers. But these are not normal times, and with the next three matches carrying enormous weight as the Americans inch closer to a berth in Qatar late this year, Coach Gregg Berhalter beefed up.

First and foremost, he said after the squad was unveiled Friday, is the threat of the fast-spreading omicron variant. Already, he had to replace midfielder Gianluca Busio, who tested positive before departing Italy.

Some players at a recently completed MLS camp in Phoenix were sidelined with the virus.

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There is also the danger of yellow-card suspensions for goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Tyler Adams. With their next caution, they would miss the subsequent match.

As always, Berhalter worries about injuries. In this window, a match on artificial turf against Canada on Jan. 30 in Hamilton, Ontario, could leave lasting aches and pains.

And there is the strain of playing three games in seven days, the result of a schedule pushed back and compressed by the pandemic. The Americans have done it twice before during the qualifying process, but this time MLS players are in their offseason and some European-based charges are not starting regularly.

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In case 28 are not enough, Berhalter said he has alternates on standby.

“We feel we will have enough cover no matter what happens in this window, although we are expecting the worst,” he said. “Every window has its own little story to tell, and we’re expecting this one not to be any different.”

The Americans will open camp Monday in Columbus, Ohio, and host El Salvador there Thursday. They will then visit first-place Canada, followed by a Feb. 2 match against Honduras in St. Paul, Minn.

With six qualifiers left, the United States is second in Concacaf’s eight-nation final round, which will award three automatic berths to the World Cup and one spot in an intercontinental playoff this summer. With more difficult games looming in March, though, it’s imperative to collect points now.

Although fitness is a concern for MLS players, Berhalter didn’t shy from selecting them. Thirteen from the domestic circuit — all of whom were at a two-week camp in Phoenix to boost conditioning — will join 15 who are in the middle of European club seasons.

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“We pushed them hard this camp, enough so we are confident they are fit enough to compete,” Berhalter said of the Phoenix session, which wrapped up Friday. “We think fitness will not be an issue in this camp.”

Even so, he added, “there are positions we are loaded in because we don’t expect them to be 90 minutes’ fit.”

Even with a larger group, there were several notable absences, including German-based defender John Brooks and striker Jordan Pefok. Pefok is coming off a four-goal performance in his most recent appearance for Swiss club Young Boys. However, since that Dec. 19 match, he has been on the Swiss League’s winter break.

Forward Josh Sargent, the first-choice striker when qualifying began in September, was not selected again because he hadn’t scored for the Premier League’s Norwich City since August. As the roster was being announced and Berhalter spoke Friday, Sargent scored twice in a 3-0 victory over Watford.

The squad does include Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Juventus’s Weston McKennie and Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest. However, young standout Gio Reyna remains unavailable. Although he has returned to training with German club Borussia Dortmund, he has not played in a competitive match since Sept. 2 because of a hamstring injury.

With so many candidates in camp, Berhalter is expected to rotate the 23-man active roster with each match. Despite the tight window, he did not rule out starting some players all three matches.

New to the qualifiers is Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris, who fully recovered from an ACL injury last year. Last month he made his first U.S. appearance in more than two years by starting in a friendly against Bosnia.

In the big picture, Berhalter said, “All we want at the end of the window is to be in position for the March window to qualify for the World Cup.”

U.S. roster

Goalkeepers: Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Gabriel Slonina (Chicago Fire), Matt Turner (New England Revolution).

Defenders: Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC).

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (Los Angeles FC), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Sebastian Lletget (New England), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders).

Forwards: Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Tim Weah (Lille), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew).

This story has been updated.