The U.S. Men’s National Team’s final push to qualify for the 2022 World Cup starts Thursday, March 24, in Mexico City. The USMNT roster is packed with famous, high-end talent that plays for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, like Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, and Manchester City’s Zack Steffen. However, in these crucial final three World Cup qualifiers, the team’s Major League Soccer (MLS) talent will play a decisive role.
For the USMNT to redeem itself from heartbreakingly missing the 2018 World Cup, these four MLS players will have to step up vs. Mexico, Panama, and Coast Rica in the next week to help the U.S. soccer team punch its ticket to Qatar.
4. Paul Arriola, RW, FC Dallas
Paul Arriola made a big move this offseason. The 27-year-old winger transferred from his longtime MLS home at D.C. United to Dallas FC. The Chula Vista, California native has fit in nicely with his new club. The Texas-based squad currently sits in a Western Conference playoff spot. And Arriola scored his first goal for his new team last weekend in a 4-1 route of the Portland Timbers.
Arriola, who also holds a Mexican passport thanks to his great grandparents, already has a solid USMNT resume. He has 48 caps with eight goals and five assists for his country, per USSoccer.com.
RB Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson is out with an injury. So, it will just be Arriola and Lille’s Timothy Weah holding down the right side of the USMNT attack. Whether it’s as a starter or a sub, Arriola will have a significant role to play in the team’s offense in these last three qualifying matches.
3. Kellyn Acosta, CM, LAFC
Kellyn Acosta, 26, is another player that switched MLS teams in the offseason, moving from the Colorado Rapids to Los Angeles FC. However, the results haven’t been as positive as they have been for Arriola.
Through four games, LAFC manager (and former USMNT star) Steve Cherundolo has preferred Spanish midfielder and fellow offseason addition Ilie Sanchez in the central role for his club. Acosta has started three games on the left and one, head-scathingly, at right back.
Acosta has played centrally in recent appearances for the USMNT, with positive results. Since Juventus’ Weston McKennie is likely out until the World Cup (if the U.S. qualifies), manager Gregg Berhalter needs all the central midfield help he can get, so fans will need to watch whether Acosta is ready for that role after playing in different spots for his MLS team.
2. Jesus Ferreira, ST, FC Dallas
In his last MLS match for FC Dallas, 21-year-old striker Jesus Ferreira became the second-youngest player in league history (former Dallas and current USMNT teammate Ricardo Pepi is the youngest) ever to record a hat trick.
The Colombian-born, McKinney, Texas-raised Ferreira is part of a position group that is among the biggest question marks for the USMNT. While there is a lot of talent on the wings and in midfield for the Americans, the No. 9 role is always hotly debated.
Pepi, who now plays for FC Augsburg in Germany, Jordan Morris from the Seattle Sounders, and Jordan Pefok from Young Boys in Switzerland are all options upfront. However, if Berhalter wants to go with the hottest hand (or foot in this case), Ferreira should be the answer.
1. Walker Zimmerman, CB, Nashville SC
If the USMNT wants to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and atone for the disappointment of missing the 2018 tournament, it starts with defense and leadership. That’s where Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman comes in.
The 6-foot-2 center back from Lawrenceville, Georgia, is the rock at the back for both club and country. He is the rare defender that leaps off the screen at viewers thanks to his intimidating presence in his own end and his aerial dominance in the opponent’s box.
There’s a good chance that Zimmerman will be wearing the captain’s armband against Mexico. That makes it his responsibility to keep his young teammates calm, cool, and collected in Estadio Azteca, quite possibly the most intimidating soccer venue in North America. And, if the team gets in trouble vs. Mexico on Thursday, look for Zimmerman to take matters into his own hands on offense as well, just as he did last weekend, scoring his first MLS goal of the season for Nashville.