U.S. men’s national soccer coach Gregg Berhalter finalized his 26-man World Cup roster Sunday, then began the arduous process of informing players.
“I had the computer screen with the roster in front of me,” Berhalter said Wednesday after the formal unveiling in New York, “then just started texting players: ‘Hey, you available?’ When they said yes, I just called them. That was it. No real science behind that.”
Then he began calling the guys who didn’t make it.
“That’s when the real difficult conversations started,” Berhalter said.
One of those was with FC Dallas star Paul Arriola, a 27-year-old winger from Chula Vista who was on Berhalter’s roster for 11 of 12 World Cup qualifiers and hadn’t missed a call-up for a competitive game in more than a year. Only four players headed to Qatar have more than his 48 caps with the senior national team.
A player with San Diego County roots did make Berhalter’s 26, but it was the one most figured was in jeopardy of missing out: midfielder Luca de la Torre, who pulled a hamstring at Spanish club Celta Vigo three weeks before the Nov. 21 opener against Wales.
“Really painful conversation to make,” Berhalter said of Arriola, “because he has been there since day one. For one reason or another, we haven’t always had all our wingers fit and available. And now, as we lead up to the World Cup, every one of those players is fit and available. It just made Paul the odd man out, and it sucks.”
Fellow wingers Jordan Morris, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah and Cristian Roldan all have missed extensive time with injuries through the qualifying cycle.
“Now everybody is back,” Berhalter said, “and that’s the worst possible thing, when this guy has been with us since day one and you’ve got to tell him he’s not coming to the World Cup.”
A few hours later, Arriola posted a message on his Instagram account.
“The past few days have been extremely difficult,” he wrote, “some of the hardest I’ve had in a while. I’m heartbroken … This year my goal was to put myself in the best position possible to get to this point, and I believe I did. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.”
His exclusion was one of several roster surprises. The most notable was Zack Steffen, the No. 1 goalkeeper for much of qualifying before being unseated by Arsenal backup Matt Turner. But Turner injured his groin three weeks ago and last played Oct. 20. Berhalter opted to take Ethan Horvath from England’s Luton Town and Sean Johnson from MLS club NYCFC as cover instead of Steffen.
Also left out were forwards Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok. Pepi scored three goals in seven appearances with the national team in 2021, then cooled off after moving from MLS to clubs in Germany and the Netherlands. Pefok has three goals this season (but none since Sept. 18) for Union Berlin, currently in second place in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Berhalter opted for in-form Haji Wright, a 6-foot-3 forward from Los Angeles who has four goals in his last four games with Turkey’s Antalyaspor.
The only player among the 26 with prior World Cup experience is defender DeAndre Yedlin, who was 20 at the 2014 tournament in Brazil (the U.S. didn’t qualify for 2018). Five of the 26 did not appear in qualifying for Qatar. With an average age of 25½, it trails only the 1990 squad (24) as the youngest U.S. World Cup roster in history.
Reyna, Yunus Musah and Joe Scally are all 19. Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Sergino Dest and Josh Sargent are 22. Even captain Christian Pulisic, who has been playing with the national team since 2016, is just 24.
The inclusion of the 24-year-old de la Torre was a mild surprise given his injury concerns and dearth of playing time at Celta Vigo (54 minutes across five games this season). But he has had an increasingly larger role in Berhalter’s midfield, enough that the coaching staff was willing to take the chance on him.
“He has been training, he’s up to 95 percent of his top speed, he’s doing a bunch of fitness work,” Berhalter said. “He’s going to be ready, I think. If I was to say now, my guess is he wouldn’t be 90 minutes fit for Game 1. He’s a guy we’re going to have to ramp up during the tournament.”
De la Torre played for the Nomads and San Diego Surf youth clubs before heading to Europe at age 15. He’s been with Fulham in England, Heracles Almelo in the Netherlands and now in Spain’s La Liga.
“For me, making the World Cup roster means that all the work I put in over the last few years has paid off,” de la Torre said in comments provided by U.S. Soccer. “It’s confirmation that if I really believe in something and I work for it, it can happen.”
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