The USMNT gets its strangest World Cup send-off ever

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 10: Grenada and the United States line up before a game between Grenada and USMNT at Q2 Stadium on June 10, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
The U.S. beat Grenada 5-0 on Friday night in its last stateside match before the 2022 World Cup. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In an alternate universe devoid of corruption, the 2022 World Cup began Thursday before 90,000 festive fans in Los Angeles. That’s how American soccer officials dreamed it, anyway, and this, the second week of June every four years, is when the planet’s most prestigious sporting event typically begins.

But in a universe disrupted by Qatar, the U.S. men’s national team instead strolled into a 20,000-seat stadium on Friday night. It beat a small Caribbean island ranked 170th in the world in a game not shown on English-language cable TV. Its two best players, having been given the night off, kicked their feet up and relaxed.

That’s how Austin, Texas, sent the USMNT off to a World Cup that feels eons away. This was the team's last match on American soil before the global showpiece, but it ended without drama or postgame ceremonies, a little before midnight ET with the sports world’s eyes on the NBA. The U.S. will fly to El Salvador this weekend, then break for summer vacations. It’ll reconvene in Europe in September, ever so briefly. And then, 24 hours after players duel for their clubs in November, they'll gather in Doha — with a World Cup opener seven days away.

So this, a three-week, four-city tour in May and June, is the closest thing the USMNT will get to a pre-World Cup training camp. There was a watered-down media day in Cincinnati, and a big promotional shoot in Austin. There was team bonding — video games and birthday dinners and golf — and an inescapable sense that World Cup roster spots were on the line.

Yet there were several players absent — some injured, some just resting. There were no film sessions on World Cup opponents. And “we didn't really have many training days,” head coach Gregg Berhalter admitted. “We're learning the most from these guys in the games” — and yet two of four games are against vastly inferior opponents that won't come close to replicating the challenges that await in Qatar.

It all adds up to the strangest, most contradictory World Cup send-off the USMNT has ever had.

A pre-World Cup camp without hype

The reason for all the oddities, lest it be forgotten, is that in 2010, a tiny peninsular emirate with summer temperatures regularly reaching triple digits won the right to host this World Cup. Qatar initially promised space-age cooling technology that would fend off deadly heat and enable the tournament in its traditional June-July window. But in 2015, FIFA, which had labeled the idea “high risk” even before choosing Qatar’s bid over an American one, moved its banner event to the winter.

In doing so, it spun the 2022 soccer universe into disarray.

Throughout the 21st century, the sport had developed a rhythm. Players had developed quadrennial habits. They’d conclude European club seasons in mid-May, then join up with their national teams and prepare for the biggest games of their lives. They’d train in seclusion, drilling opponent-specific tactics, and stating their cases for spots on rosters or in starting 11s. Throngs of patriotic supporters would then see them off to the World Cup. Cameras would follow every step of the way.

But here in Cincinnati, on the final Sunday of May, at a training session to which media were invited, there were no cameras, and just one reporter. When USMNT players arrived back at their downtown hotel the following day, there were just two autograph seekers. At a 26,000-capacity stadium two days later, for a friendly against Morocco, there were thousands of empty seats.

It felt nothing like a typical send-off series, players and coaches agreed. "I don't think we're there yet in terms of the buildup," Berhalter said that week. "I think that this is an important training camp for us as a group, but I don't think the world is saying, 'The World Cup's right around the corner.'"

The oddities of Qatar World Cup prep

Berhatler, though, had a different set of concerns. The hype, he hopes, will eventually “ramp up.” Whether or not it does, he’ll have to pick a World Cup squad with only one week and two games of first-hand evidence over the five months preceding the decision. The U.S. will play El Salvador on Tuesday. It’ll play two friendlies in Europe in September. And that will be it.

September is when group-stage gameplan implementation will likely begin, but it’ll end abruptly. MLS players will likely gather for a stateside minicamp in early November, but there might only be six or seven of them on the final roster. The rest of the USMNT will be battling, with tunnel vision as narrow as possible, for their European clubs until eight days before the World Cup begins.

So that, Berhalter has said, is where the majority of evaluation will take place.

As a detail-oriented soccer obsessive, Berhalter would’ve loved an intense, uninterrupted training block. He’d planned to gather his full group in Dubai ahead of Qatar, he said, until the U.S. drew a game on the World Cup’s opening day, which made the schedule too tight. He could’ve used these weeks in June, but his first team had played 23 consecutive games against North and Central American foes; and CONCACAF, the region’s soccer governing body, had thrown two more at him this month; the USMNT needed to jam in a third and fourth game against World Cup-caliber opponents.

“We'll never have enough time on the field, which is a shame,” Berhalter said in April. “But that is what it is.”

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 10: Head Coach of United States Gregg Berhalter gestures during CONCACAF Nations League match between Grenada and United States at Q2 Stadium on June 10, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will have limited time with his players ahead of the 2022 World Cup. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

“We're gonna have to be really effective in these weeks in June,” he continued. But many players arrived with weary bodies and minds after draining nine-month club seasons exacerbated by the World Cup qualifying grind. The coaching staff understood the need to relieve some stress. “We just need to be mindful of how we're pushing them, and how we're occupying their time,” Berhalter said. He left some — most notably Ricardo Pepi — off this June roster altogether.

For many of them, a critical piece of World Cup prep will be the upcoming European offseason. It’s “really important,” Tyler Adams said earlier this spring, “that you get fresh going in, you recover the body, the mind, have a good mental break, and you're able to start the [2022-23] season well.”

It’s also important, for Adams and an alarming number of USMNT regulars, to actually get on the field.

Adams, Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and Pepi were not regular starters for their clubs as the 2021-22 season wound down. Matt Turner is going to Arsenal as a likely backup. Brenden Aaronson is off to Leeds and will have to fight for his place. Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Gio Reyna and others have been injured, and don’t have guaranteed places in their respective teams when they return — wherever they return to.

Across the U.S. player pool, and even throughout the starting 11, club futures are uncertain. That uncertainty is an unavoidable feature of professional soccer, but it’s present at an unusually high rate within this USMNT — and it’s amplified by a midseason World Cup. Some players, like Adams, don’t have to be playing regularly to perform for the national team, Berhalter said, but it’s part of the transfer-market calculus.

“Things do change quickly in soccer,” Berhalter said this spring. The leading indicator of World Cup form will be club form. “Guys can really get in good form, and all of a sudden make their case to be [on the roster].”

Berhalter will travel to visit some of them throughout the fall, but he’ll spend chunks of the months leading into his first World Cup as a coach at home on the north side of Chicago. He’ll scrutinize their games, and data pulled from those games, via screens. He’ll get just 10 more days with them before 23- or 26-man rosters are due to FIFA on Nov. 14 — a week before the USMNT’s opener against Wales.

“When we get to Qatar, it's basically, prep for a game, and you go from there,” Berhalter said.

“It's less than ideal preparation, in terms of the time we'll have,” he admitted the morning after securing qualification. “But every team's gonna be doing the same thing. So we'll be able to deal with it, just like everybody else.”

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