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Ahead of the United States playing against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter was asked if he had a preferred starting XI in mind when the United States kicks off at the World Cup in November. His answer was quite telling. 

"Ideally, in a perfect world, I have an idea. But one thing I know is, that's not international soccer, so do I think that I have the best players in each position identified yet? Yes, I do. But do I think they're all going to be available for the start of the World Cup? I don't know," Berhalter said. "That's what every international manager will be dealing with right now. We'll be holding our breath hoping that that's the case. But even in this camp, we're missing five starters. So it is what it is and you just have to roll with it. You can't use it as an excuse and what you need to do is give the players that are here confidence instead of worrying about the players that aren't here."

So, Berhalter is essentially saying that he has six starters to work with and five aren't on the current team. But who could they be? Let's take a crack:

The surefire starters

Three that are missing are simple with center back Miles Robinson, midfielder Yunus Musah, and left-back Antonee Robinson all missing due to injury. Each is the clear best option at their positions and are irreplaceable to the national team. The team defense was impenetrable with both Robinsons on the pitch with Walker Zimmerman, and the play of their backups only makes Berhalter miss them more in their absence. Musah has grown to a point where he should be considered an automatic starter in the midfield as well. 

No one can match Musah's ball progression, and trying Brenden Aaronson or Gio Reyna in midfield would result in Weston McKennie needing to take up a deeper place on the pitch when he excels in freer roles. But after that trio, it's anyone's guess who the other starters are that Berhalter is referring to. 

Also missing in action

Tim Weah, Zack Steffen, Chris Richards, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and now Reggie Cannon are all injured and unavailable for the upcoming match. If Richards was getting consistent playing time, he likely would've risen to become a starter, but after missing the summer international window due to injuries and then missing this window, his place at the World Cup may be in doubt now. 

Cannon and Carter-Vickers are depth options who would need help to become starters leaving the team with Weah and Steffen. While Steffen has struggled, being left out of the camp due to an injury despite starting the most recent game for Middlesbrough -- a 0-0 draw with Rotherham -- he has been Berhalter's number one in net for a while. The quote makes you think that if Steffen is healthy on November 21, he'll be the starter in Qatar no matter what Matt Turner does.

Despite Turner's strong shot-stopping ability, Berhalter prefers a keeper that is good with the ball at their feet and Steffen has more confidence playing from the back due to his time with Manchester City. As Berhalter wants players who fit his system, that could see Steffen start even if Turner may be sharper in front of goal. 

Weah has been electric in his time with the national team but he plays in one of the deepest positions, manning the right wing. Joined by Reyna and Aaronson, the wing is dripping in quality but Weah has started six of the last nine matches that he was available for. During most of that time, Reyna also wasn't available but it shows how highly Berhalter rates Weah. 

Predicting the XI

By the World Cup, things could change with Aaronson or Weah earning a starting role, but Berhalter's top lineup sounds like this: 

  • GK: Steffen
  • LB: Robinson
  • CB: Robinson
  • CB: Zimmerman:
  • RB: Serginio Dest
  • MID: McKennie
  • MID: Tyler Adams
  • MID: Musah
  • FWD: Christian Pulisic
  • FWD: Jesus Ferreira:
  • FWD: Weah

While that's a solid first 11, the battles to replace Miles Robinson and unseat the rest of the starters will be critical between now and Qatar. 

Based on who is projected to be available, an XI at the World Cup may look something like this: 

  • GK: Steffen
  • LB: Robinson
  • CB: Aaron Long
  • CB: Zimmermann
  • RB: Dest
  • MID: McKennie
  • MID: Adams
  • MID: Musah
  • FWD: Pulisic
  • FWD: Ferreira
  • FWD: Weah

If that's the case, there is certainly cause for concern around some positions as keeper and center back have holes while the wing and even center forward may not have the best available player there. Facing Saudi Arabia, if Mark McKenzie is given time, he can push Long while Turner will need to play lights out to unseat Steffen. Wing depth is a good problem to have but Aaronson has been one of the best-performing options in the squad when called upon. Tough decisions are coming for Berhalter between now and the roster confirmation date on November 14.