What Will the USMNT Look Like at the 2026 World Cup?

Megan SwanickDecember 12, 2022

What Will the USMNT Look Like at the 2026 World Cup?

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    DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03: Giovanni Reyna of USA  and Christian Pulisic of USA  look dejected after their sides' elimination from the tournament  the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images)
    Stefan Matzke - sampics/Corbis via Getty Images

    There are four matches remaining in the 2022 World Cup, but we're already thinking about what the U.S. men's national team will look like in 2026.

    It will be a tournament of unique opportunity, and success will have incredible importance. Alongside our neighbors to the north and south, the United States will be hosting. Should the right pieces align, this team could make a deep run. It could captivate more minds.

    The men's national team has a long way to go. Undoubtedly, some of this is impossible to predict. But we'll be tracking progress toward that tournament in the years interceding. And that starts now, with a stab at what the team will look like in 2026.

The Definite

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    TOPSHOT - USA's midfielder #08 Weston McKennie and USA's midfielder #04 Tyler Adams celebrate their team's first goal scored by USA's forward #10 Christian Pulisic during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and USA at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 29, 2022. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
    PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

    You've likely heard how young this team is. The second-youngest in Qatar, in fact. That should mean several decisive players will be in their primes at the next tournament.

    A familial cadre of characters at the presumed peak of their careers, with four years of experience under their collective belts, is cause for celebration in and of itself.

    Below, a look at the players who seem like locks for the 2026 squad.

    Forwards

    Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson

    Midfielders

    Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah

    Defenders

    Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson

    Goalkeepers

    Matt Turner

    Reyna's recent transgressions aside, the rest of the prospected squad acquitted themselves to great extent in Qatar. All the players mentioned here are playing at high levels with club teams in Europe and have an excellent chance to represent the Stars and Stripes on home soil.

The Likely

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    SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA - MARCH 30: Ricardo Pepi #9 and Miles Robinson #12 of the United States look on during a FIFA World Cup qualifier game between Costa Rica and USMNT at Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica on March 30, 2022 in San Jose, Costa Rica. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
    Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

    Outside of Tim Ream, you'll likely see mostly the same cast of characters in 2026. (Then again, no one expected Ream to start throughout the World Cup at the beginning of the year, so anything is possible.)

    There's also a handful of youngsters with the potential to break in. Form, club, career choices and timing will dictate if they do.

    And finally, there's the "just missed" crowd: those left off due to injury, or a tough final choice.

    As ever, variables of injury, club decisions, luck and hard work will make or break these projections. But here are a few names we think will have strong contention:

    Forwards

    Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi

    The striker position remains one of serious need. Developing options here is essential for 2026.

    Sargent and Pepi have high potential, and both are performing well with their clubs. Sargent made two starts against Wales and Iran, clocking 158 minutes plus stoppage time in Qatar. Sargent was wavering against Wales but dynamic against Iran, making his case for a future in that role.

    Ricardo Pepi scored three goals through World Cup qualifying but was left off the roster, one of Gregg Berhalter's biggest shocks. A rough transition to Bundesliga in January 2022 could have been the culprit. But Pepi moved to the Eredivisie this fall and was in hot form scoring five goals across eight appearances before the roster drop. Still just 19, Pepi has plenty of time to develop and make his comeback case for 2026, potentially working his way into goal-scoring in a top-five league.

    Speaking of top five leagues, the USMNT needs a striker scoring goals at that level to truly compete. Assuredly, there is time for one to emerge from unknown corners. Sargent or Pepi could arrive there. But recruiting an emerging dual-national could be the ticket, and eyes are on Folarin Balogun to be that man. The 21-year-old has eight goals in Ligue 1 this season, currently on loan from Arsenal.

    Midfielders

    Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio, Malik Tillman

    Busio and Tillman are just 20 years old, and Luca de la Torre is 24. All three possess a creative potential that would take USMNT midfield depth to the next level. Whether in regard to playing time or league level, all three have work to do to develop before they get there.

    Defenders

    Chris Richards, Miles Robinson, Joe Scally

    Center backs Chris Richards and Miles Robinson would have been selected had injuries not kept them sidelined. The pair may have even started considering their fit with Berhalter's style of play.

    Robinson will be 29 by 2026, and should his return from an Achilles tendon rupture go smoothly, his athleticism and (by then) veteran presence could be essential to the back line.

    Richards will be just 26. Currently with Crystal Palace in the Premier League, his ceiling is highest among U.S. center backs. His creative skill set and comfort with the ball play to the team's needs.

    Joe Scally's slow emergence and lack of minutes has at times been a head-scratcher. Undoubtedly, he is young. But the 19-year-old versatile fullback can play left or right and is clocking consistent starts in the Bundesliga.

    He's featured in just three friendlies for Berhalter. Admittedly, his 45 minutes against Morocco and 90 arduous minutes against Uruguay were shaky in June. But his 31-minute cameo against Saudi Arabia was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise alarming pre-tournament window.

    Should his club form continue, Scally is likely to see more return on his potential in 2026, when he'll be just 23.

    Goalkeepers

    Gaga Slonina, Ethan Horvath/Zack Steffen

    Horvath and Steffen are both listed here as "likely," though we'll probably see just one or the other.

    Ethan Horvath has been a stalwart of Berhalter's depth keepers. He's had some notable success. He's also done well with Luton Town in the English Championship this year. Aged 31 come 2026, Horvath is fairly likely be a veteran depth presence on that squad.

    Steffen was Berhalter's go-to keeper for most of World Cup qualifying, and his absence was the biggest shock of the roster drop. Steffen has since spoken about the pain of that decision and his determination to return for 2026. He very well may.

    Gabriel "Gaga" Slonina is the well-regarded young keeper to be excited about. With a record transfer to Chelsea, his development into a top keeper in the coming decade may well meet expectation.

The Names to Watch

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    WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 12: Daryl Dike of West Bromwich Albion celebrate victory over Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship match between West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City at The Hawthorns on November 12, 2022 in West Bromwich, England. (Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images)
    Ashley Allen/Getty Images

    With 10 "definite" and 10 "likely" roster spots predicted (counting just one of Horvath or Steffen), that leaves space for six additional players to make their way in.

    Breaking in from MLS

    Players plying their trade in MLS could develop further abroad—or dominate at home—and take that space. Brandon Vazquez (24), Djordje Mihailovic (24), Jesús Ferreira (21) could do that from attacking positions.

    There's a U20 World Cup approaching this May-June in Indonesia, and the Summer Olympics provides a closer look in 2024. Young American ballers could use those tournaments to launch their careers further, get more time in MLS, make a big move overseas or catch the senior team's eye. Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, Brandan Craig, Cade Cowell, Caden Clark, Diego Luna and John Tolkin all deserve a look and a shout.

    Developing talent abroad

    There's a collection of young players already abroad with few or no (senior) national team callups. They've plenty of time to grow, commit to USMNT and/or flip that switch with the national team. Johnny Cardoso, Auston Trusty, Kevin Paredes, Justin Che, Jonathan Gómez, Richard Ledezma and most recently Paxten Aaronson all fall within that realm. George Bello is still worth keeping an eye on in the back line.

    A few players abroad who are already in senior team rotation could make their cases stronger next time around. They were ultimately left off due to injury, form or preferred personnel. James Sands, Mark McKenzie, Matthew Hoppe and Daryl Dike (injury) fall in those ranks.

The Starting XI

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    DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 3: Weston McKennie #8, USMNT of the United States making their way out to the field to warm up before a FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USMNT at Khalifa International Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
    John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

    Please allow us to begin with some throat clearing: Much of this is impossible to predict.

    That being said, here's how the team might line up in 2026:

    Forwards

    Christian Pulisic, Ricardo Pepi, Tim Weah

    The striker position remains the most up in the air. Here's hoping Ricardo Pepi soars back into the top five leagues with a more developed game and consistent form. He wouldn't be the first U.S. striker to find form in the Eredivisie.

    Daryl Dike's return to health will be one to watch, as will Josh Sargent's progress and Folarin Balogun's decision on where to play.

    Midfield

    Giovanni Reyna, Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams

    Weston McKennie was a top performer in Qatar, and the "MMA" midfield is a formidable force. But with all of you as my witnesses, I'm breaking it up.

    I see Reyna's club trajectory heading in an upward direction in the coming years. I also think with fresh eyes on the squad, we'd see Reyna move more centrally, where he's likely at his best. "MMA" can be dominant, but Reyna's addition makes things more creative. His dynamism lends itself to the chance creation the team so desperately needs.

    Defenders

    Antonee Robinson, Chris Richards, Miles Robinson, Sergiño Dest

    The lineup we could have seen in 2022 may actually come true the next time around. Major caveats here include everyone's health, or, more specifically, their return to it. Antonee Robinson has also been a necessity at left back, impossible to replace. But at 28 he may not have the same explosive pace that is his trademark, and some young players could challenge for that spot.

    Goalkeeper

    Matt Turner

    Turner's performance in Qatar was mostly excellent. His development while playing backup at Arsenal is clear. Should he keep form and find minutes in the coming years—careful not to err too long on the bench like Steffen—it's safe to assume Turner will be the keeper in 2026.

    Though, a rapidly developing Gaga Slonina could keep him honest.

The Coach

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    DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03:  USA Head Coach Gregg Berhalter applauds the USA fans after defeat in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)
    Visionhaus/Getty Images

    Should Gregg Berhalter decide to seek other opportunities, he'd do so in the knowledge he guided the USMNT through a key transition period and achieved each mandate set before him. He won multiple trophies in CONCACAF, qualified the team for the World Cup and departed Qatar with a respectable round-of-16 finish.

    There's been speculation Berhalter would like to return to the club level, perhaps in Europe. The move would suit him well. Berhalter always seemed more accustomed to the constant touch provided to club coaches. The allure of national team management may have worn off.

    Should he leave, the introduction of a new manager could provide fresh eyes and a new opportunity as we look toward 2026. It would also beg a few key questions.

    Who is available?

    Who would want the job?

    How soon would they be able to fill the role?

    A few ideas:

    The Americans

    No national team has ever won the World Cup without a corresponding coach from that same nation. It's worth consideration, though, within the context only eight teams have won the World Cup to begin with.

    That being said, there seems to have been a post-Jürgen Klinsmann preference to hire an American coach. Should they do the same post-Berhalter, there are four names most likely to pop up first: Jesse Marsch, Pellegrino Matarazzo, Jim Curtin and Steve Cherundolo.

    Curtin and Cherundolo would be interesting fits, each having done impressive work with the Philadelphia Union and LAFC in MLS, respectively. But both may want to gain international experience, or more trophy-laden years in MLS, before leaping to the national team.

    Jesse Marsch is the big-name American at the minute, and he's hinted at national team interest before. Marsch says he's focused on Leeds United. And pending the success of this season, that seems true.

    Of those, Matarazzo is the most available and among the more interesting options. The New Jersey-born Italian American made his playing career in European lower leagues. He worked his way into the management world in Germany—working under the tutelage of Julian Nagelsmann—before taking the helm of Stuttgart in 2019. He was relieved of his position this past October.

    Casting a wider net

    One would imagine the opportunity to manage a host nation through a World Cup would entice a few prospects from abroad. The emerging talent of the USMNT should add to that stock.

    The same questions of suitability and availability abound.

    Dare I speak the name Marcelo Bielsa into the void? The idea of Thomas Tuchel has been thrown out. Given recent frays in his relationship with Christian Pulisic, it seems unlikely.

    Should Gareth Southgate indeed be on his way out of England, murmured interest could find solid ground. And on the note of usurping other national team coaches, there will be quite a few available by the end of this month.

    There's no perfect or obvious replacement for Berhalter, should he depart. A transition period could be best. Berhalter or an interim manager would work with the squad through the upcoming months while the United States Soccer Federation conducts a thorough, wide-ranging, no-stone-unturned search for the best person for the role.

    It's highly possible that will take some time.

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