United States men's national soccer team starts road to World Cup: Everything you need to know as qualifying starts

·5 min read

This isn’t the same U.S. men’s team that crashed and burned four years ago, failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And this group, loaded with youth, talent and energy, has no intention of following in its predecessor’s footsteps.

The American men begin the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Thursday night in El Salvador, and the attitude of this team is different than any in recent years. Despite most of the team never having gone through qualifying before, they possess a swagger that comes from playing at some of the biggest clubs in Europe and beating archrival Mexico in not one, but two tournaments this summer.

“We're not really trying to focus on what happened in the past,” said midfielder Weston McKennie, who plays for Juventus in Italy’s Serie A. “Obviously it's going to be in the back of my head somewhere, but that's not our main focus.

“We're just trying to create a legacy of our own,” he added. “Create a new cycle, a new way of approaching things.”

What time does the USMNT play El Salvador?

Kickoff is at 10:05 p.m. ET on Thursday at Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador, El Salvador.

How can I watch on TV?

The game will be shown on CBS Sports Network and Universo.

How can I stream the game?

It’s available on Paramount+ and Universo Now.

Weston McKennie is one of  16 players on the U.S. roster who is also playing in Europe.
Weston McKennie is one of 16 players on the U.S. roster who is also playing in Europe.

What’s at stake?

In this game? Technically nothing. But after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT would like to set a different tone right away.

COVID-19 compressed the qualifying process, so instead of the traditional “hex” in the final round, it’s now an octagon: eight teams playing 14 matches over the next seven months.

The top three teams will qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place team will go to a playoff against a team from either South America, Oceania or Asia. The traditional approach has been to concentrate on winning home games and try to steal at least one on the road. But given that the Americans didn’t win a road game in qualifying four years ago – and we all know how that turned out – the U.S. men want to start strong.

In addition to El Salvador, they face Canada in Nashville on Sunday and play at Honduras on Wednesday.

“Right off the bat we have two opportunities to win two games away,” Tyler Adams said earlier this week, when the team was training in Nashville. “We’re looking for a nine-point week, bottom line.”

What’s changed since 2018 qualifying?

Everything. The Americans have a new coach in Gregg Berhalter, and largely a new roster. Only six of the 25 players have World Cup qualifying experience, and 13 players were 23 or younger at the start of training camp.

The average age of the roster as of Monday was 24 years and 43 days.

“This is what we’ve been preparing for the last few years,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “Getting a group together that has been training under this staff, been training in this system, learning what it means to be a U.S. men’s national team player – these are all very important steps that we’ve taken, and now it’s here.”

So where does the USMNT's confidence come from?

The field. Of the 25 players on the roster, 16 play in Europe. And unlike in years past, they’re getting playing time, if not starting, and they’re doing it at some of the best clubs in the game.

Christian Pulisic plays for Chelsea, which won the Champions League last season. Sergino Dest has worked his way into the starting lineup at Barcelona. Big goals by Brenden Aaronson got Red Bull Salzburg into the Champions League group stage. Gio Reyna is one of the best players in the German Bundesliga.

And that’s just to name a few.

Despite their youth and inexperience in World Cup qualifiers, these Americans have been tested. They had to battle back to tie Mexico twice before Pulisic scored on a penalty kick in the second half of overtime to give the USMNT the title in the Concacaf Nations League.

In the Gold Cup, Miles Robinson’s header in the 117th minute gave the U.S. the 1-0 victory over Mexico.

“The tournaments that we've been playing in … we definitely value, because it's only going to make us get better and be better prepared for World Cup qualifying,” McKennie said.

Will Christian Pulisic play?

Not against El Salvador.

Pulisic, the first American man to play in a Champions League final, joined the U.S. men at their training camp in Nashville on Sunday, a day after he was released from COVID-19 quarantine. Pulisic had announced Aug. 20 that he had tested positive, adding that he was fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.

Berhalter said last week that Pulisic’s fitness would be assessed after he arrived in the United States.

What’s next for the USMNT?

After games against Canada and Honduras, qualifying continues next month, when the USMNT hosts Jamaica (Oct. 7) and Costa Rica (Oct. 13) and plays at Panama (Oct. 10). The last two games this year are against Mexico, Nov. 12 in Cincinnati, and at Jamaica on Nov. 16.

“One of our goals is to prove also that we're the best in Concacaf. I think the only way to do that is to dominate it. And to dominate you’ve got to win your games,” McKennie said. “And that's what we're here to do.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT road to World Cup: What you need to know as qualifying starts