Everything You Need to Know About the USMNT Ahead of the 2022 World Cup

| Staff Writer

Phot by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Every four years, the World Cup manages to do something magical. For two months, it transforms ordinary people across the globe into avid fanatics, obsessed with 11 people donning their nation’s colors and kicking a black-and-white sphere around a field for 90 minutes. Although this year’s celebration of the world’s biggest game is shrouded in controversy, the world will still be enthralled by the sport for the next two months. From the first kick of the ball on Nov. 20 to the final whistle on Dec. 18, a record five billion people are expected to watch the competition. 

While soccer is the world’s game, it hasn’t had the same wide-reaching cultural significance in the United States. However, come Nov. 21, there is no doubt many Americans will have their eyes glued to a screen when the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) kicks off its campaign in Qatar. 

The History

To understand what to expect from the Americans this winter, it’s important to have a good perception of this team’s past. The US has never won the World Cup and its best finish was a semifinal bid in 1930. In recent history, the US has had its fair share of ups and downs. In the 2014 World Cup, the US emerged second place in the “Group of Death,” beating out Portugal and Ghana to advance to the knockout rounds. Though they lost to Belgium in the round of 16, they put up a good fight, including a heroic performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard. Following the relatively strong showing in Brazil, the US suffered one of the worst periods in its history.  After a devastating loss to Trinidad and Tobago, the US failed to even qualify for the World Cup in 2018. The Americans had to watch the tournament from the outside for the first time since 1986. 

Since then, however, a new crop of American talent has emerged. Many American stars have begun competing at the highest stages in Europe, and the MLS has grown both in terms of quality on the pitch and popularity off of it. This new generation of American soccer stars won the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Nations League and Gold Cup in 2021, beating out rival Mexico to both titles. In addition, the squad avenged the tragedy of 2018, qualifying for this year’s World Cup with relative ease. The USMNT will look to build off these past few years of growing momentum heading into Qatar.

The Roster

Who will be representing the red, white, and blue in Qatar? Manager Gregg Berhalter, who was hired shortly after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, is on the hot seat going into the competition. Berhalter’s squad is among the youngest in the tournament and features only one player —DeAndre Yedlin — who was on the roster in 2014. However, despite the lack of experience, this new generation appears to be one of the most talented and deepest USMNT rosters in recent history.

Although Tim Howard is long gone, the US boasts a strong new #1 between the sticks. Matt Turner, who didn’t start playing the sport until high school, is the clear starter, especially after Zack Steffen was controversially left off of the roster. Turner is currently the backup at Arsenal, who sit top of the table in the English Premier League. Prior to his move across the pond, he was one of the best shot-stoppers in the MLS. Ethan Horvath of Luton Town and Sean Johnson of NYCFC are the two backups, but don’t expect to see either of them on the pitch in Qatar barring injury to Turner.

In the heart of the defense, questions remain about who will get the starting nod. 29-year-old Walker Zimmerman has been one of the best center backs in the MLS during his time at Nashville SC and looks set to be a key centerpiece in the defense. Although Berhalter has often chosen to go with the inconsistent Aaron Long of the New York Red Bulls, many fans want to see Tim Ream starting alongside Zimmerman. Ream, a 35-year-old St. Louis native who has captained Fulham to a spot in the top half of the EPL table, brings experience and strong chemistry with Antonee “Jedi” Robinson. Robinson, who has started alongside Ream at Fulham, looks set to be the USMNT’s starting left back. Cameron Carter-Vickers, a 24-year-old who was born in England, is another option at center-back and has been performing well for Celtic, who are first place in the Scottish Premiership. 

While Robinson is likely to start at left back, Sergiño Dest, who was born in the Netherlands but chooses to play for the US internationally, should be the starting right back. Dest has struggled to find consistent form since he moved to FC Barcelona, and is currently on loan at AC Milan, the defending Italian champions. Berhalter has other options at full back, including Yedlin, who is past his prime but brings international pedigree, and Joe Scally, a versatile 19-year-old who starts for German side Borussia Monchengladbach. Whichever fullbacks Berhalter selects will need to be both reliable at the back and threatening going forward, as the manager’s tactics often rely on the ability of his fullbacks to perform up and down the wing.

The midfield is the biggest strength for the Americans. Tyler Adams, who has been a star in defensive midfield since moving to Leeds United in the summer, is set to start as Berhalter’s holding midfielder. Ahead of him, Weston McKennie of Juventus will probably start in a box-to-box role assuming he is fully recovered from a hamstring injury he suffered in late October. Berhalter is spoiled for choice in attacking midfield and it will be interesting to see which promising young star he chooses. The likely selection is Yunus Musah, who chose to represent the US over Ghana, Italy, and England. Musah, who will turn 20 during the tournament, has been a star for elite Spanish side Valencia. 

Berhalter’s top two alternatives are Gio Reyna and Brendan Aronson, both of whom can also play on the wing in a front three. Gio Reyna, whose father Claudio played at the 2006 World Cup and whose mother Danielle Egan represented the USWNT, is arguably the most promising talent in the squad. Although his young career has been marred by injury issues, the 20-year-old’s potential has been on full display for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga. Aronson, who has formed a dynamic duo with Adams under the management of American Jesse Marsch at Leeds, has been playing well throughout his first season in the English Premier League. In addition, Berhalter has plenty of other options to bring off the bench. Luca de la Torre of Spanish side Celta Vigo appears to be fit following a recent injury, Kellyn Acosta just won the MLS Cup with LAFC, and Cristian Roldan is an experienced MLS veteran.

Up front, the USMNT will look to rely on left-winger Christian Pulisic as a talisman of the team. Pulisic, whose nicknames include “Captain America” and “The Lebron James of Soccer,” has been inconsistent since making a $60+ million transfer to Chelsea in 2019, but is undoubtedly the face of the team. At 24, he already has the eighth most career goals for the USMNT and his performance up front will be a key to the success of the Americans. On the other side, Berhalter will probably go for Reyna, but Aronson or Timothy Weah could also get the nod. Weah, whose father George is a former Ballon d’Or winner and the current President of Liberia, plays for French team Lille.  

Berhalter will have a tough decision to make regarding the central forward position. Ricardo Pepi, who was the US’s second leading scorer in qualifying behind Pulisic, was left off of the 26-man roster, as was Jordan Pefok of Bundesliga side Union Berlin. The three strikers who Berhalter will choose from are Josh Sargent, who has scored nine goals in England’s second tier for Norwich, Haji Wright, who has been on fire for Turkish side Antalyaspor, and Jesus Ferreira, one of the MLS’s leading scorers from this past season. Berhalter said the three strikers on the plane to Qatar were in better form than Pepi and Pefok, but many fans were disappointed by their exclusion. Whichever striker starts will be under immense pressure to put the ball in the back of the net, something that the US struggled to do throughout qualifying.

The Opponents

The US was placed into Group B, alongside England, Wales, and Iran. Featuring four teams in the top 20 of the FIFA World Rankings, Group B is considered one of the tightest and most competitive in the competition. Although the group is wide open, the Americans are optimistic about their ability to qualify.

Wales (11/21, 1 PM CST): The USMNT’s opening match will come against Wales and will be an early indicator of the chances of qualification for both teams. The two teams are considered the two most likely second place finishers, and a good result from this match will be crucial for either side. The obvious star for Wales is Gareth Bale, who was one of the best players in the world in his prime at Real Madrid and just won the MLS Cup with LAFC. In addition to Bale, Nottingham Forest forward Brennan Johnson and Fulham wingers Daniel James and Harry Wilson will bring speed and skill to a potent attack. Wales will likely utilize a formation with five defenders, including center backs Ben Davies (Tottenham), Joe Rodon (Rennes), and Ethan Ampadu (Spezia), which will be tough to beat behind a midfield including former Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey (Nice). Wales will likely sit back and attempt to win games on the counterattack. The pace of their wingers and consistency of their defenders make them a tough opponent to beat. 

England (11/25, 1 PM CST): England are the overwhelming favorite to win the group. After losing in the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and finals of the European Championships, they are one of the top picks to make a deep run in Qatar. Their squad boasts incredible depth. Alongside captain Harry Kane (Tottenham), one of the best strikers in the world, their attack includes young and talented wingers Bukayo Saka (Arsenal) and Phil Foden (Manchester City). At the heart of their midfield will be Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund) and Declan Rice (West Ham), two of the best under-23 players in the tournament. The US will hope to exploit the weaknesses of their inconsistent center backs, including Harry Maguire (Manchester United), who has fallen out of form at Manchester United but is a regular for England manager Gareth Southgate. However, England will call upon undoubtedly the most talented, experienced, and deepest roster in Group B. The Three Lions are clear favorites to take top spot in the group.

Iran (11/29, 1 PM CST): The final opponents for the US appear to be the weakest in the group, but they still have the potential to run the table in Qatar. Amidst anti-government protests back home, the political storylines surrounding the Iranian team will have an impact both on and off the pitch. In terms of its roster, Iran lacks the level of European pedigree of their opponents in the group, but has a number of star players. Forwards Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen) and Mehdi Taremi (Porto) will be goalscoring threats ahead of a midfield including Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Feyenoord) and Saman Ghoddos (Brentford). Though the US, Wales, and England will see their matchups against Iran as must-win games, Iran is in good form, having beaten Uruguay and tied Senegal in September friendlies. The Iranian side is not the favorites but will challenge for a spot in the knockout stages. 

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