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The USMNT Is Back in the World Cup. Is the Mission Accomplished?

It has been a long journey back to the game’s greatest event for American men’s soccer

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the eve of its first World Cup in eight years, you might think of this reincarnated United States men’s national team like Schrödinger’s cat. In this thought experiment, the poor, hypothetical kitty is locked in a box with a vial of poison that may or may not have shattered and killed it. Philosophically speaking, the cat is both alive and dead—its actual status is unknowable so long as the box stays closed. There are, likewise, two distinct and mutually exclusive ways of thinking about the USMNT’s chances in Qatar until it plays its opening game against Wales on Monday.

You either feel bullish about the most talented team the U.S. has ever sent to the World Cup. Or you are worried that it is no mere blip that this inexperienced group has won just one of its past five games—a slump deepened by the joyless display in its final tune-up games, against Japan (a 2-0 loss) and Saudi Arabia (a 0-0 tie), in September. There isn’t much of a delta between these two interpretations of the same set of facts, which has introduced a kind of confirmation bias in all matters concerning Gregg Berhalter’s team.

Take the announcement of the final roster last week. To the glass-half-full crowd, some of Berhalter’s unexpected decisions—Tim Ream’s inclusion; the omissions of erstwhile starters Zack Steffen and Ricardo Pepi—were yet more evidence of the squad’s depth. To the glass-half-empty crowd, the roster was another bleak omen of the team’s thin prospects. After all, Ream, a veteran defender in the Premier League, hasn’t appeared for the national team in more than a year; Steffen, a goalkeeper, and Pepi, a striker in scorching form, were both regulars in qualifying for Qatar. Five players who did make the team never appeared in qualifying at all. A well-planned team, the naysayers would point out, does not swap out personnel at the eleventh hour.

There wasn’t even agreement on whether or not the roster surprises were surprises at all. Berhalter, whose coaching philosophy rests on plans and vibes, said at a press conference that he didn’t think he had made any shocking choices. Greg Velasquez, the knowledgeable cohost of the Scuffed podcast, one of the many spaces in which fans have obsessed over potential roster permutations for months, declared himself “shocked” by the final squad. Same facts; two interpretations—we are a nation divided.

The cat is alive. The young talent in this USMNT squad reflects a golden generation primed for a breakout. These players—the late-arriving product of a nation that has finally figured out how to harness its potential to compete on the global stage—are considerably more gifted than their predecessors at previous World Cups. They have more pedigree, too, playing in Europe’s biggest leagues and for some of its most prestigious clubs. They have smashed age records and then broken them again. They proved themselves in the soaring summer of 2021, winning both the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup finals over a stacked Mexico team. All of the USMNT’s key players are finally available after several frustrating years when Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, and Gio Reyna experienced lengthy injury absences. An irregular World Cup, with its compressed schedule and awkward timing, will benefit a team that presses aggressively and likes to run at its opponents. The USMNT is a team of piss and vinegar that can match up with anybody when it shows up like a pack of “fucking dogs”—Berhalter’s words. Squint, and it all looks faintly like the miraculous 2002 World Cup team, which came within inches of the semifinal in the slipstream of the unchained 20-year-old forwards Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.

The cat is dead. This team is riddled with problems. Goalkeeper Matt Turner, midfielder McKennie, and left back Antonee Robinson, all likely starters, aren’t fully fit—Turner and McKennie just came back from injuries and Robinson has been playing through one. First-choice central defenders Miles Robinson and Chris Richards are both out of the World Cup altogether—more injuries. Winger Pulisic and right back Sergiño Dest, on whom the team relies heavily for their attacking whimsy, have been underutilized by their clubs Chelsea and AC Milan for months. Consequently, the back line is shaky and incapable of executing the passing combinations that Berhalter’s system commands. Meanwhile, the team has no consistent striker, just one player who has been to a World Cup before (DeAndre Yedlin), and a head coach whose commitment to his tactics borders on the dogmatic. The Americans’ opponents in Group B are a well-drilled Wales, mighty England, and an unpredictable Iran. By average FIFA ranking—15—this is, in fact, the toughest group in the tournament. Taken together, the task facing the young Yanks towers over them—a bit like the equally young 1990 World Cup team, which was too raw to really compete.

We’ll finally learn the fate of the cat when its box opens against Wales. All three games tend to be crucial in a four-team group, which will send two teams to the round of 16 following a round robin. But the stakes of that first game will be supercharged. The Americans had better avoid going into their second match, against England, in a hole they need to dig out of with three points. And a bad performance in their opener will worsen the negativity that followed the spirit-sapping September camp.

This Wales team is wily. Although the Dragons, so nicknamed, also find themselves in a rut—just one win in their past eight games—they are the survivors of Europe’s grueling qualifying process. They made it through two winner-take-all playoffs, reaching Qatar by knocking out a talented Austria and a Ukraine that seemed favored by destiny. And while the Welsh haven’t been to a World Cup since 1958, they stunned the continent with a semifinal run at Euro 2016 and made the knockout stage again last summer. In Gareth Bale, Wales features one of his generation’s preeminent players, who recently has relocated his mojo with LAFC, after misplacing it during several sad seasons with Real Madrid. “He’s super pivotal for the Wales team,” said U.S. midfielder and LAFC teammate Kellyn Acosta. “He’s the captain, the catalyst. He’s a special player, so it’s just about kicking him around a little bit.” Acosta smirked after saying that last bit.

Beat Wales and the Americans will have a proof of concept and lay down a marker of competence. Lose, as they very conceivably could, and things will get bleak just two days into the tournament. “The value of picking up points in the first game is it sets you up for success […] giving the group confidence,” said Adams, the U.S.’s presumptive captain. “The first game is going to be an important one, a decisive one.”

After all, this American team expects to make it out of the group stage. “There’s two tournaments,” Berhalter said. “There’s the group stage tournament and we have to finish second to earn the right to play in this other tournament, which is the knockout tournament. And from there, anything can happen.”

If the U.S. does advance past the first round, which would be the sixth time it’s done so in 11 trips to the tournament, it will do so with its youngest team since the 1990 World Cup—back when there was barely any professional infrastructure in the country and Bob Gansler brought a glorified college team to Italy. Berhalter has fielded 91 different players in his four-year tenure and handed debuts to 56. At 23.8 years, the USMNT’s average age in qualifying was almost four years younger than the average of the other 30 teams and two years younger than the second-youngest team (Ghana, 25.7). When the final World Cup roster was announced, it featured no fewer than three American teenagers. And while the inclusion of Ream and Sean Johnson, with their knee-creaking ages of 35 and 33, respectively, lifted the roster’s average to 25 years and 175 days for the World Cup opener, the U.S. should still have the youngest team in Qatar.

Defender Walker Zimmerman recoiled when a reporter recently asked him about his senior status. “It’s funny because there’s the whole narrative because of how young this team is, ‘Oh, you’re 29, you’re a veteran,’” he said. “But 29, as a center back, I’m trying to make more than one World Cup. I don’t feel anywhere near being done.”

Robinson, all of 25 years old, has also begun to feel conscious about his age. “I feel like I’m still one of the young boys, but when we played Costa Rica I was the third-oldest to start,” he said. “I’m kind of past that now, unfortunately.”

But Acosta, 27, points out that the team’s youth belies the number of times it has faced high stakes. “Maybe at the World Cup stage we’re a little bit inexperienced, but our group has played in big games and we’ve had big moments,” he said. “The guys have really shown up. The World Cup is another opportunity to do just that.”

And all of that time spent together since interim head coach Dave Sarachan tore down the veteran team that failed to reach the 2018 World Cup and began rebuilding with a raft of teenagers, has yielded an uncommonly close team. There are plenty of national teams whose players don’t much enjoy coming to camp and do so only out of a sense of duty to their nations and their childhood dreams. This was true for long periods under Jürgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach from mid-2011 through late 2016. These U.S. players, however, mostly active in far-flung European cities, see it as a homecoming of sorts. “We’ll have meals and they’ll sit over an hour together just talking,” Berhalter said of his players. “Or they’ll play video games all together for hours. Or go golfing on an off day, 12 of them. You name it, they’re always doing things together—group chats, fantasy football. There’s a ton of stuff that these guys do and there’s a deep bond that they have together.”

Berhalter and his staff cultivate all of this pleasantness carefully, making sure to keep things light outside of the games and practices. The team, many of whose members struggle to get a satisfactory haircut in Europe, travels with an American barber and a barista. Anything to make them comfortable; anything to keep them happy. There’s a competitive payoff. “The chemistry that we have off the field is beneficial,” said McKennie. “I don’t think we need such a long time to jell together because a lot of us have been playing with each other over the past four years and many of us have been playing with or against each other since we were 9 or 10 years old. When we link back up, it just flows. We know each other so well that we can talk to each other openly. If I’m doing something wrong, Tyler [Adams] has no problem holding me accountable for it. At the end of the day, we all have that role where there is not one specific leader that we look to.”

It’s easy to lose sight now of how long the USMNT’s journey has been since it was eliminated from its last World Cup in the round of 16 by Belgium in Salvador, Brazil, on July 1, 2014. “We virtually started with a new player pool in 2018 and now we’re back in the World Cup,” said Berhalter. “I think the final determination on this group will be at the World Cup. That’s how generations are measured.”

When the Americans play Wales in Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, it will have been 3,066 days since their last World Cup match. Desperate for a win, the game will feel like life or death.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is covering the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, his third, for The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.