Berhalter: ‘Heartbreaking’ to drop Steffen for World Cup

United States manager Gregg Berhalter said it was “heartbreaking” to tell goalkeeper Zack Steffen that he had been left off the World Cup squad for Qatar.

Steffen was thought to be a lock to make the team after featuring regularly for the U.S. during this World Cup cycle and battling Arsenal‘s Matt Turner for the starting spot during World Cup qualifying.

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Steffen was also viewed as a favorite of Berhalter’s given that the two worked together at the Columbus Crew from 2016-18.

But when the squad was announced on Wednesday Steffen was left off the team, with Turner, Luton Town’s Ethan Horvath and New York City FC‘s Sean Johnson preferred.

“Me and Zach go way back, and Zach’s been there for me a bunch of times,” Berhalter said of Steffen during Wednesday’s press conference after the squad announcement. “And to tell him he is not going to be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking for me.

“But those are decisions that we made as a staff and we move forward and now it’s about, ‘Well, who do we have in camp and how are we going to be successful?'”

When asked from a technical perspective what went into the decision, Berhalter said: “I think 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 [Turner, Horvath and Johnson], and that’s the direction we decided to go.”

Berhalter was also questioned about this choice of central strikers, with FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira, Norwich City striker Josh Sargent, and Antalyaspor forward Haji Wright chosen.

The U.S. coach lauded Ferreira’s link play, movement in the box, and ability to initiate the team’s press. As for Sargent, Berhalter said the forward “does a lot of things well” and valued his physicality and familiarity with English and Welsh opposition, who will make up the U.S. team’s first two opponents in Qatar.

Wright, who was something of a surprise selection given that he didn’t play in a single World Cup qualifier, was praised for his aerial threat on set pieces, ability in transition and finishing. The striker selections came at the expense of FC Groningen forward Ricardo Pepi — scorer of three goals in CONCACAF qualifying — and Union Berlin’s Jordan Pefok.

“I think when we were looking at this as coaches, we were evaluating Haji versus Jordan Pefok and that’s what it came down to,” Berhalter said. “And in this particular case we felt like Haji is in a great goal-scoring form.

“They’re both are physical strikers. Jordan may be a little more, but Haji has pace. He’s got the ability to go one-v-one, he’s got finishing with his head, both feet and he’s performing really well in the Turkish league.”

Berhalter added that timing also played a part in the Wright-Pefok decision.

“If we would’ve made the decision mid-September, Jordan Pefok would’ve probably been a lock to be in based on his former with Union Berlin,” Berhalter said. “But since then, it’s a different story now. Now Haji has come on more. So that was the tricky thing about it.”

As for Pepi, Berhalter said he lost out in a competition against Ferreira and Sargent.

“We felt it was valuable that Josh was playing in that competition where two of our three opponents are coming from,” the U.S. coach added. “We think that that brings value. The Dutch League I think is a great league, but it doesn’t bring the same physicality that the Premier League brings and the Championship brings.”

The U.S. begins play in Group on Monday, Nov.21, against Wales, followed by matches with England and Iran in its first World Cup since 2014.


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