After eight years, four months, and ten days, the United States men’s soccer team will once again be a part of the FIFA World Cup. Since crashing out of the Round of 16 in 2014, USMNT fans have seen legendary players retire, an incredibly disappointing failure to qualify in 2018, and three much-maligned head coaches. Despite these setbacks, the team enters the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with incredible optimism — and facing daunting expectations.
This year’s edition of the USMNT is unlike any other team before it. They are younger than ever, with an average age of 24 and being the second youngest of the teams in Qatar and the youngest in U.S. history. They are more outspoken; like their counterparts on the women’s team, the USMNT has been vocal about social issues and promise to continue to do so at the World Cup. Most importantly, they are incredibly talented. Unlike USMNT squads in the past, this team has players who play regularly for world-class clubs (e.g. Chelsea, Juventus, Dortmund, AC Milan). While competition in North America is incomparable to the level of the World Cup, this new-generation United States team is competitive. So far, the USMNT is undefeated in four straight matches, tallying three wins and a draw, against a powerful Mexico team.
The USMNT’s biggest strength is in their attacking quality. Coach Gregg Berhalter will facilitate his attack through Christian Pulisic, whose skill on the ball makes him a dangerous chance creator when running at defenders. The Chelsea left winger will be complemented on the right side by Timothy Weah or Brenden Aaronson, two players who are skillful on the ball and can press opponents high. In central midfield, Yunus Musah and Giovanni Reyna are both excellent dribblers who can beat defenders and advance possession. Weston McKennie, if cleared to start, is one of the world’s best at scoring on set pieces.
The striker is the weakest position for the U.S. in attack, but Josh Sargent (9 goals in 19 appearances for Norwich City) and Jesus Ferreira (18 goals in MLS this year) present a pressing threat in front of goal. Haji Wright has scored 9 goals in 12 for Antalyaspor leading up to the tournament and will hope to stay hot coming off the bench.
Despite their attacking strength, the USMNT is comparatively weak defensively. One bright spot is midfielder Tyler Adams, who, according to PFF FC, has the best challenge grade in the Premier League this season playing for Leeds United. Behind him are center backs Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream, who will be expected to play a high line. This may create problems for the U.S., as Ream’s 35-year-old legs will not be able to keep up with the pacy wingers of their opponents. Antonee Robinson is a solid defender on the left, but both he and fellow fullback Sergiño Dest are offensive-minded players who are liable to be caught out of position.
The goalkeeper position has also been controversial. Coach Berhalter chose not to select presumed starter Zack Steffen and instead named Arsenal backup Matt Turner to the starting role. Turner is a good shot-stopper and competent with his feet but simply has not played enough club soccer this season to inspire much confidence in USMNT fans.
The USMNT’s first Group B test will be against Wales, led by star man and recent MLS Cup winner Gareth Bale. The Welsh side has done well in tournament competitions before, reaching the semifinals of the European Championships in 2016. However, the USMNT’s newfound skill should be enough to see them through if they can find some goals from their strikers. Prediction: 1-0 USMNT.
England will pose the biggest test for the Americans in the group. Players like Harry Kane, Phil Foden, and Jude Bellingham have the ability to wreak havoc on opposing defenders, and the USMNT’s midfield will have trouble keeping possession. However, England has a history of disappointing at the World Cup, and there may be a slim chance for the U.S. to take a point from this one. Prediction: 3-1 England.
The final and most crucial game of Group B will be against Iran led by Mehdi Taremi, who has been a goal machine for Porto this season. He’s been impressive in the Champions League this season, scoring 5 goals in 5 matches. Iran’s hopes to advance in the group will rest on his shoulders, but he is supported by a complement of good attacking options. This is not a matchup USMNT fans should underestimate. Prediction: 2-1 USMNT (barely).
Americans will expect the USMNT to get out of the group, but it is very uncertain if they will do so. For all of their youth and quality, only one player of the 26 has played in a World Cup before. This team may surprise and be the Cinderella story of Qatar, but they may just as easily finish last in the group. Either way, the potential of this U.S. side certainly guarantees an exciting 2022 World Cup for U.S. fans.
Art Courtesy of Allen Chen