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Countdown to Qatar: How Prepared Is the USMNT for the World Cup?

The men’s national team is finalizing its plans for its first World Cup since 2014. Not everyone is sold.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Gregg Berhalter’s World Cup plan exists in many fragments across several mediums. There are whiteboards at the U.S. Soccer Federation headquarters containing tactical outlines and depth charts, as well as spreadsheets with detailed roster breakdowns. An internal database hosts all of the U.S. men’s national team’s logistics, and then there are the details constantly swirling in his own mind.

Even a regular World Cup, if there is such a thing, is a wildly complicated enterprise. The upcoming tournament in Qatar is orders of magnitude more complex. It is the strangest World Cup yet, hosted by a country slightly smaller than Connecticut with a population the size of Chicago’s, and held in the middle of the European club season rather than in the summer, to avoid Qatar’s infernally hot summer. The games will be played at an accelerated pace to make up for its awkward timing, jamming an already-tight 32-day tournament into just 29 days.

So Berhalter and his staff have been planning. And planning and planning and planning. There’s a dictum among the coaching staff: Have a plan; make a better plan.

The trouble is, in the international game, coaches can plan all they like, but they have little control over their player pool. Younger players, especially, can be prone to enormous swings in form—the U.S. will also probably have the youngest team at the World Cup and possibly its least experienced at the international level. Players who recently changed clubs or encountered new managers might find consistent playing time difficult to come by. And then there is the looming specter of injuries that can derail a team so close to the start of the tournament.

Berhalter’s staff is trying to deal with these variables as best they can, but they’ve lately encountered another challenge: The team’s recent results have been uninspiring, to put it charitably.

Something of a backlash has been brewing against Berhalter’s methodical approach, as fans and observers feel the team is not living up to its abundant promise. Two late-September friendlies—a 2-0 loss against Japan, and a 0-0 stalemate with Saudi Arabia—led to criticisms that Berhalter has been too dogmatic in his tactical approach, fitting his players to his system rather than the other way around. For insisting on building out of the back while most of the defenders capable of doing so are injured, leading to turnovers in perilous places.

Not all of the fan base is sold on Berhalter’s plan.

Berhalter is aware of the criticism, but he remains assiduously attached to his process. “I think it was a positive step for the group,” Berhalter said of the camp in a press conference after the Saudi Arabia game. “I think we got some clarity.” On the day we talked in late August, he had showed up at his office at the federation’s Chicago headquarters at 8 a.m. and would stay there until 8 p.m. He was traveling to New York the following day to attend a Nike event revealing the new U.S. World Cup jerseys before embarking on a five-day scouting trip to Europe to watch several players in action with their clubs. His staff had just come back from a five-day team-building retreat in Montana. Berhalter estimates that he watches 15 games every week and gets footage from another 30. He and his staff update their player reports weekly.

Berhalter faces the usual coaching headaches. He has too many worthy goalkeepers and not enough proven or consistent strikers, just a corps of promising young attackers wafting in and out of form. Key players keep getting injured just before national-team duty calls, meaning he rarely sees his ideal starting 11.

I asked Berhalter how many players he is still considering for the World Cup roster. He tells me to give him a minute. He opens up a file and does a quick count. “Forty,” he says. The power of spreadsheets. (I asked if he could type in B-R-O-O for me. Berhalter chuckled but said nothing until I moved on to my next question. Sorry. I tried my best.)

But these past months, his energy hasn’t gone to planning just his team, but also into planning everything else. Faced with this complicating set of factors, Berhalter is trying to plan his way onto solid ground. “The only way to get through this is being prepared,” he says. “I feel like we’re in a good spot. We’re not all the way there yet because of logistics. But in terms of our planning and timelines we’re ahead of schedule. It’s going really well. What we try to do is stay in the present and not worry about things we can’t control and put all the effort in things we can control and we go from there.”

If it seems like Berhalter is merely checking items off a to-do list, it’s worth considering the context of his tenure. In some ways, Berhalter’s coaching style stands in contrast to that of his two predecessors. Bob Bradley’s teams competed well during his five-year tenure, which ended in 2011—they reached the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup and the knockout stages of the World Cup in 2010. But he was pilloried for playing conservative soccer. Bradley was replaced by the great disruptor, Jürgen Klinsmann, who promised to introduce more pizzazz to the team’s playing style. Klinsmann led the USMNT to another knockout stage at the 2014 World Cup, but his tenure ended acrimoniously in 2016. Consciously or not, Berhalter combines Bradley’s rigorous discipline with Klinsmann’s expansive vision for the future.

Berhalter comes across as rigid, like Bradley, yet also studiously zen, like Klinsmann. As if that might arm him against his own inexperience on the game’s biggest stage and, more acutely, that of his players. For a while, it seemed to work—the U.S. claimed the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League in quick succession in the summer of 2021. Now that it isn’t working nearly so well, Berhalter’s meticulous methods grate on some fans and observers.

The closer we get to the World Cup (the U.S. opens the tournament on Nov. 21 against Wales), the harder it is to disguise his team’s youth, inexperience, and inconsistency—and that it seems far more suited to the 2026 World Cup than the one happening next month. Yet Berhalter, and his plan, will be graded only once in this cycle: in Qatar.

Panama v USMNT Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Berhalter’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup began in September 2019, nine months after he was appointed as head coach and two years before the men’s national team played its first qualifying game.

USMNT officials briefed Berhalter on possible training venues and hotels in Qatar. Tom King, the federation’s longtime managing director of administration, who is charged with scheduling games and booking friendly opponents, among other things, started with a list of 28 possible FIFA-controlled training grounds and the hotels they were paired with and whittled their options down to 10. King and Berhalter traveled to Doha that same month to visit their three preferred hotel-practice-facility combinations. Their foresight paid dividends: When FIFA opened the bidding for the venues on October 1, 2019, U.S. Soccer was the first to submit its application and, as such, got its top choice. Little wonder—King had practiced entering the venue request into the website as fast as possible to shave priceless seconds off the process. They wound up with the 25,000-seat Al Gharafa Stadium in Doha as a practice venue. The stadium doesn’t have two connecting fields, as Berhalter and his staff prefer, and at a commute of around 20 minutes, it was a little further from their hotel than they would have liked. But that was a worthwhile price to pay because it also bagged them the Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel on the Pearl, a luxurious resort on a man-made island, the staff’s favorite option for its ample amenities. The players will have to stave off boredom for as long as a month, since they will stay in the same location all tournament.

U.S. Soccer has separate teams working on World Cup logistics: Some staff members are tasked with accommodations, others with arrangements for the practice facility, and others with arranging entertainment options for the players in their downtime. About 20 federation staffers have made trips to Qatar—King has been nine times.

“There’s all these projects that are basically going and it’s managing through it,” Berhalter says. “It’s a measure of control. The chef is inspecting everything that comes in for quality. At this stage, you don’t want to take any possible chances, any risks. How the food is prepared, the cleanliness of the cooks, all these things we’re taking into consideration.”

There’s a reason Berhalter lingers on the food. Berhalter wants to avoid a repeat of an incident in Mexico City in March, when much of the team and staff was stricken by food poisoning during the first of three crucial qualifiers in seven days.

The federation has also educated its players on the cultural and geopolitical implications of playing the tournament in Qatar. FIFA has been criticized for awarding Qatar the tournament because of the Gulf state’s abysmal human rights record and its treatment of migrant workers who have worked on World Cup construction projects. The bid process itself was corrupt, according to a U.S. Department of Justice indictment, which said that FIFA officials received bribes in exchange for awarding Qatar’s bid. Then there are the conditions inside the country, particularly its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community. A 2021 Guardian report found that 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since it won its World Cup bid and many have worked in conditions likened to indentured servitude. Qatari law criminalizes same-sex relations with punishments of up to seven years in prison. FIFA, for its part, claims the World Cup has given migrant workers “dignity and pride” and urged LGBTQ fans to travel to Qatar.

“The social issues that Qatar is dealing with, we’ve been educating our players for a year and a half on this now,” says Berhalter. “I think it’s just important to understand what you’re getting into. I think it’s an important education piece to say, ‘OK, we’re going here to play soccer but there’s some other stuff that you should know about because it’s relevant to the world today.’ Like everything we’re doing, we want these guys to be well-rounded and we want to make it about more than just soccer. I think they were happy that they got information.”

Back in May 2021, U.S. Soccer hired a Middle East expert to brief the team on Qatar’s history, its treatment of migrant workers, and its policies toward the LGBT community, among other topics. The team was briefed again in September. The presentations were not intended to instill a particular worldview in the players, but to provide them with reliable information. “It’s always nice to be briefed and to have a sense of what’s going on and what you’re walking into,” says defender Walker Zimmerman. “None of us are going to know exactly what that’s like until we get there but it’s certainly helpful to get a bigger picture, a lens on what’s going on.”

Players are updated on the efforts the federation has made to make sure the workers at its hotel are treated fairly and to show support for the LGBTQ community—U.S. Soccer will fly rainbow flags at its official night-before fan parties in Qatar, and officials have been liaising with the local organizing committee and FIFA to seek assurances for the safety of its gay fans.

U.S. Soccer has hired Lisa Saad, the former executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, as a compliance officer to supervise the team’s hotel and the labor conditions of its workers. Saad has visited the hotel workers’ housing and attends the weekly meetings between their workers and the management. Saad’s role was considered necessary partly after Liverpool opted against staying at the same Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel when it visited Doha for the FIFA Club World Cup in 2019, reportedly because club officials were unhappy with what they deemed to be “ethical concerns” at the hotel.

The flow of information from the national team staff to the players has continued even after players have returned to their clubs. The players asked for and have received a weekly newsletter informing them on issues in Qatar and media coverage of the team.

In Qatar, the USMNT will play three games in nine days. (Wales, England, and Iran are in Group B with the U.S.) FIFA increased roster sizes from 23 to 26 players and teams will be allowed five substitutions rather than three to help lighten the workload, but this compromise introduces more strategic wrinkles for coaches. “That will impact squad selection,” Berhalter says. “That will impact how we manage the games. That will impact how we feel about guys who haven’t been playing 90 minutes every game [for their clubs], because you can get them off and make subs. All of that is going to come into play.” More planning, in other words.

Players will have to be prepared the moment their club teams release them. “With the way the World Cup is, you’re not going to have that few weeks of time to get together and bond and connect and assimilate new personalities and faces into the group,” says goalkeeper Matt Turner. “You show up, train for a few days, and you’re on the world’s biggest stage.”

But that’s not true for all players. The substantial contingent active in Major League Soccer—eight players during the September national team camp—which plays a spring-fall schedule rather than the fall-spring calendar used in most of the world, could be in their offseasons as early as October 9 when the MLS regular season ends. That’s a full six weeks before the World Cup opener—plenty of time to lose fitness. For those players, and the ones who will be idle just as soon as their teams are eliminated, the federation will hold a training camp in Dallas from October 25 until November 6. Yet there likely won’t be enough MLS players there to practice properly, and Berhalter doesn’t want to give players with no real chance of making the World Cup a false sense of hope just to make up the numbers. So instead, those players will be blended into an under-20 men’s national team camp and play scrimmages against nearby teams.

While he has been to two World Cups, Berhalter has never had to plan one. And whatever institutional knowledge the federation might retain from 2014 has been rendered irrelevant by the sport’s warp-speed progress.

Yet this absence of muscle memory might offer an edge, Berhalter argues. Most of the camps during his coaching tenure have been short, forcing quick turnarounds between games. Because of COVID-19-related postponements, World Cup qualifying ran as a seven-month sprint, rather than lumber on for a year and a half. Recent tournaments like the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League Finals, both of which the USA won in summer 2021, were also played on disrupted schedules.

“The way we’ve been working with the team is right in line with what’s going to happen here at the World Cup,” says Berhalter. “We haven’t had huge preparation periods to do things. We’ve had to be adaptable. We’ve had to work in a short period of time with training sessions and multiple games. So I think that teams that haven’t had the experience of playing in a World Cup are going to be fine. Because it’s all they know. I think the teams that had three [World Cup] cycles and understand that you had this month-long preparation period where you could schedule friendly games and build fitness, I think those are the teams that could be in trouble. But for us, it’s business as usual. We’ve been doing this all in qualifying, we’ve been doing it every time we get together.”

Much of Berhalter’s tenure has coincided with COVID, a time of unceasing uncertainty that has made his program more nimble. “If you think about the national team as being the extreme of working on the fly, that last qualifying window that we had, that Saturday and Sunday we lost five players [to injury] who never came, that were on the roster,” he says. “You have to be able to adapt. COVID helped with that. Qualifying helped with that. I just know as a national team coach you’ve gotta be ready to adapt. If you’re not, it’s going to mean trouble.”

Maybe, then, it doesn’t matter that the only player likely to make the team who has played at a World Cup is second-string right back DeAndre Yedlin, the lone holdover from 2014. Because if this World Cup will be nothing like the one in Russia in 2018 or in Brazil four years earlier, the experience doesn’t count for much either.

So long as you have a plan.

Contingencies are in place for the absence of every key player, because there won’t be any time to get a look at alternatives. Christian Pulisic is scheduled to play for Chelsea on November 12, as are Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson for Leeds. Weston McKennie plays for Juventus on Nov. 13, the same day that Berhalter’s roster must be finalized, and just a week before the opener against Wales.

“I’m gonna be a nervous wreck,” Berhalter says. “I will be watching it holding my breath, but it’s something we can’t control. I want them to go out and play hard because I know when you play hard you’re less likely to have something happen. I expect there to be injuries. That just happens. Every camp we come into, people can’t come. That’s something that we’re thinking about. That’s why the depth chart is robust.”

There is only one issue Berhalter hasn’t addressed yet. The sneakers, his signature touch for every gameday look—a fresh set for each game. “I haven’t thought about that yet,” he admits. “That’s one thing I haven’t planned. I don’t know what shoes I’m going to be wearing. I don’t know how many I’m bringing. But if you go by, I wear a new pair every game, hopefully I’m bringing a lot of shoes.”

Some things you have to leave to chance.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a longtime national soccer writer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.