Eight years removed from their most recent appearance on the world’s biggest stage, the United States men’s national soccer team have been eagerly preparing to take the field in Qatar at this year’s iteration of the FIFA World Cup. The group that, at the time, was led by current New England Revolution head coach Bruce Arena failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia after an inexplicable qualifying loss against Trinidad and Tobago in Couva. Four years later and the starting XI from that night differs tremendously from the current squad. Michael Bradley has since ceded his captaincy to Tyler Adams. Brad Guzan has vacated the goalmouth for Arsenal’s Matt Turner. Brenden Aaronson and Josh Sargent are vying to lay claim to Revolution forward Jozy Altidore’s former throne at striker. The only player currently on the roster with any World Cup experience at all is second-string right-back DeAndre Yedlin. Yedlin was only 21 and making his first international appearances when the men’s team traveled to Brazil in 2014.
Off the pitch, the head coaching position saw two new faces following the decision to ax Arena after his performance in the qualifiers. Former USMNT assistant Dave Sarachan was tabbed to take over control of the squad and held the position from Nov. 2017 to – Nov. 2018. Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter emerged as a strong candidate for the job in late 2018, and subsequently was offered and accepted the position as manager.
Since the catastrophic collapse at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago, the United States youth teams were working feverishly to churn out top-level talent in order to get the Americans competing on an international stage again. A trend began to emerge of high-level American youth talent journeying overseas to better their craft and managing to make an impact all the same. Easily the most notable of the aforementioned group is Christian Pulisic. While he was playing for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga in 2018, his $73 million transfer to play for Chelsea is by far the largest sum coughed up for an American in the history of world football. While playing for the Blues, Pulisic helped them to two third-place finishes in the league as well as winning the club a Champions League trophy, becoming the first American to ever feature in a Champions League final.
One of the other stars on the team is midfielder Gio Reyna, the son of USMNT legend Claudio Reyna. The elder Reyna made history as the first American to captain a domestic European team when he was given the armband upon his arrival at VFL Wolfsburg. Gio Reyna also made his way to the Bundesliga after a four-year run with NYCFC’s academy, before a transfer to Borussia Dortmund’s academy in 2019 put the 16-year-old in a position to succeed from the moment he took the pitch. Only a year later in 2020 he was promoted to the first team, where he’s since been able to find consistent action and opportunity. Weston McKennie has been a stalwart for both club and country, playing well in a currently very poor Juventus side. His role as a transitional midfielder alongside Kellyn Acosta are key in regaining possession and turning it into quick counters, a tactic that will be crucial against the massive amount of pace teams in Group B hold.
On the defensive end of the field, a backline held together thanks to Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream primarily is aided on the flanks by Sergiño Dest and Ream’s Fulham teammate Antonee “Jedi” Robinson. Unfortunately Dest has struggled staying match-fit as of late, and with a questionable lack of depth behind the defensive core, the United States’ goals against numbers will be something to keep an eye on down the stretch.
The U.S. opens tournament play today at 2 p.m. as they play Gareth Bale and the Wales national team. These sides most recently faced off in a 2020 friendly that ended in a scoreless draw, providing almost no example to follow for how the match will play out. Both sides are in somewhat similar scenarios, as a bevy of young players have found their way into the starting XIs on either end of the pitch. The hope is the United States are able to start the tournament off on the right foot, and cruise into their second game of the tournament on Black Friday against England.
Playing England serves as more than just a battle between world powers, as bragging rights and an intense amount of banter are on the horizon for the victor. Most U.S. soccer fans will remember Rob Green’s epic fail in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when the English keeper let a poor shot by Clint Dempsey somehow roll through his grip and into the goal. Unfortunately, the odds of Jordan Pickford making the same mistake this time around seem slim to none, as the English team is primed for a deep run at possibly winning the entire tournament. Spurs striker Harry Kane could be considered the best No. 9 in the world, while Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold is widely regarded as the best right-back in the world. West Ham’s Declan Rice, Manchester City’s Phil Foden and Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham are set to pace the midfield for manager Gareth Southgate’s team.
Berhalter’s team will conclude group stage play on Tuesday, Nov. 29, when they attempt to best the Iranian national team, headlined by FC Porto striker Mehdi Taremi. Alongside Taremi, Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun creates issues all the same. Dubbed the “Iranian Messi” by those that have been able to see him play, Zimmerman and co. will have their hands full over the entirety of the group stage.
While the tournament itself is surrounded by claims of human rights abuses, rampant homophobia and a sudden and unexpected lack of alcohol available to fans at the request of the Qatari Royal Family, the United States team will be showing their support for those targeted however they can. The colors of a rainbow flag can now be found in the team’s crest at any of their facilities in Qatar, as well as at any of their pre-match fan festivities, though the flag will not be shown on the field at the discretion of the World Cup governing body in Qatar.
With Qatar and Ecuador having kicked off the tournament officially yesterday as Ecuador coasted to a 2-0 victory, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world latches on to watching the games as most of us do every four years.