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USMNT World Cup roster: Kellyn Acosta realizes his dreams, Zack Steffen’s are crushed

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter reads some information during a training session.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has finalized his World Cup roster ... for now.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)
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Kellyn Acosta settled on one word to describe the last five days of his life.

“It’s just been a whirlwind,” he repeated multiple times

Last Saturday in Los Angeles, he scored his first playoff goal and won his first MLS Cup in LAFC’s penalty-kicks victory over the Philadelphia Union. Then Wednesday in New York he was handed a U.S. national team jersey and told he was going to his first World Cup.

“Ten years of trying to get to this point,” the LAFC midfielder said. “To not only win MLS Cup but also in the same week go to the World Cup, you would think I was crazy if I said that. But it’s a huge achievement for myself, for my family.”

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Acosta is one of four players named to the team Wednesday, along with Christian Pulisic, Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin, who was also in Trinidad five years ago when the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

“That’s the beauty of the game,” he said. “Sometimes you work hard at something, you get rewarded and you get another opportunity.”

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Yedlin, Acosta and Pulisic are the three most experienced players in terms of international appearances, and Ream, 35, is the oldest. With an average age of just more than 25 years, the 26-man roster for Qatar is the second-youngest in U.S. World Cup history and probably will be the youngest in the 32-team tournament.

The U.S., ranked 16th in the world by FIFA, was drawn into the toughest of the eight groups in Qatar. The Americans will open play Nov. 21 against No. 19 Wales and will also play No. 5 England and 20th-ranked Iran in the first round, needing to finish in the top two to advance to the knockout rounds.

The omissions from Gregg Berhalter’s roster were probably more noteworthy than the selections. Left off was Zack Steffen, the most experienced goalkeeper in the U.S. player pool, and forward Ricardo Pepi, who appeared in 10 of the team’s 14 World Cup qualifiers, scoring three goals.

Steffen’s absence means Arsenal’s Matt Turner will be the team’s No. 1 keeper, backed by Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson. Pepi, who leads Groningen of the Dutch Eredivisie with five goals in eight games, was replaced by Haji Wright, who made his national team debut in June.

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Berhalter, who began calling players Sunday to inform them of their World Cup status, said the call to Steffen was among the toughest. Steffen made his MLS debut under Berhalter with the Columbus Crew and started six of the 14 World Cup qualifiers for the U.S.

“Me and Zack go way back and Zack’s been there for me a bunch of times,” the coach said. “To tell him he’s not going to be part of the World Cup team was heartbreaking.”

Steffen missed time with Middlesbrough, his second-tier English team, to injury this fall, but Berhalter said his decision wasn’t based on Steffen’s fitness.

“It’s more about who we do have,” Berhalter said, “and the comfort level with the guys that are on the roster.”

Wright, meanwhile, won his spot based on recent performances in Turkey, where his nine goals for Antalyaspor is second in the Super Lig.

“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,” Berhalter said.

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic hands the ball to Haji Wright prior to a penalty kick.
U.S. forward Christian Pulisic, right, hands the ball to Haji Wright prior to a penalty kick during the second half of the team’ international friendly match against Morocco on June 1 in Cincinnati.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

Injuries impacted Berhalter’s roster in other ways though. Defender Miles Robinson, who started 11 times in World Cup qualifying, torn his left Achilles tendon in May and defender Chris Richards, who hasn’t played since August, said earlier this week he would not be available.

There are also fitness doubts with defender Sergiño Dest and midfielders Weston McKennie and Luca de la Torre, but all three made the team.

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McKennie, who plays in Italy with Juventus, is part of a team core than includes Chelsea forward Pulisic, Leeds United midfielder Tyler Adams, Lille’s Tim Weah, Fulham defender Antonee Robinson and former LAFC defender Walker Zimmerman, now with Nashville SC. Only Zimmerman, 29, is older than 25.

“Looking at us as a young team, people see positives and negatives,” Robinson said. “But this group, a good part of us have been together for four years now. I look at this team and see young talent playing so well, so many different levels, so many different leagues. The only thing I see is hunger, determination, intensity, energy.

“When you step on that pitch it doesn’t matter how old you are. I don’t feel like anyone feels like they’re young and inexperienced. People are just fired up and ready to go.”

Berhalter agreed.

“It’s a little bit underrated how this young group has developed, how this program has developed,” he said. “We virtually started with a new player pool in 2018 and now we’re back in the World Cup [and] the final determination on this group will be at the World Cup. That’s how generations are measured.

“We can talk, ‘Oh yeah, it’s great, we beat Mexico three times or we won a Gold Cup or a Nations League.’ But the real measuring stick for this group is certainly going to be how we perform in Qatar.”

The first game is less than two weeks away.

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The roster (club teams, caps and goals in parentheses)

Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath (Luton Town, 8/0), Sean Johnson (New York City FC, 10/0), Matt Turner (Arsenal 20/0)

Defenders: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic, 11/0), Sergiño Dest (AC Milan, 19/2), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls, 29/3), Shaq Moore (Nashville SC, 15/1), Tim Ream (Fulham, 46/1), Antonee Robinson (Fulham, 29/2), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach, 3/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami CF, 75/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 33/3)

Midfielders: Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United, 24/6), Kellyn Acosta (LAFC, 53/2), Tyler Adams (Leeds United, 32/1), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo, 12/0), Weston McKennie (Juventus, 37/9), Yunus Musah (Valencia, 19/0), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC, 32/0)

Forwards: Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas, 15/7), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders, 49/11), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea, 52/21), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund, 14/4), Josh Sargent (Norwich City, 20/5), Tim Weah (Lille, 25/3), Haji Wright (Antalyaspor, 3/1)

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