In a corruption-free alternate universe, the 2022 World Cup kicked off Thursday in front of 90,000 cheering fans in Los Angeles. This is how American football officials dreamed of it, anyway, and this, the second week of June every four years, is the time when the most prestigious sporting event on the planet begins.
But in a universe upset by Qatar, the United States men’s national team instead entered a 20,000-seat stadium on Friday night. He beat a small Caribbean island ranked 170th in the world in a game not shown on English-language cable TV. His two best players, after having had the evening off, put their feet up and relaxed.
This is how Austin, Texas sent the USMNT to a World Cup that seems centuries away. This was the team’s last game on American soil before the world show, but it ended with no drama or post-game ceremonies, just before midnight ET with the sports world’s eyes on the NBA. The United States will fly to El Salvador this weekend, so they will stop for the summer holidays. It will meet again in Europe in September, very briefly. And then, 24 hours after the players duel for their clubs in November, they will reunite in Doha, with a World Cup opening seven days away.
So this, a three-week tour of four cities in May and June, is the closest thing the USMNT will get to a training camp before the World Cup. There was a watered-down media day in Cincinnati and a big promotional shoot in Austin. There was a team bond – video games, birthday dinners and golf – and the inevitable feeling that World Cup roster seats were at stake.
Yet there were several players absent, some injured, others simply at rest. There were no film sessions on World Cup opponents. And “we haven’t had many days of training,” admitted coach Gregg Berhalter. “We are learning more from these guys in the games” – yet two of the four games are against far fewer opponents who come close to replicating the challenges that await in Qatar.
It all adds up to the strangest and most contradictory World Cup dismissal the USMNT has ever had.
A pre-world camp without fanfare
The reason for all the oddities, not to forget, 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 repel the deadly heat and allow the tournament in its traditional June-July window. But in 2015 FIFA, which had labeled the idea “high risk” even before choosing the Qatar offer over the American one, moved its banner event to winter.
In doing so, the 2022 football universe was upset.
Over the course of the 21st century, sport developed a pace. The players had developed four-year habits. They concluded their European club seasons in mid-May, then joined their national teams and prepared for the most important matches of their lives. They trained in isolation, practicing opponent-specific tactics and stating their cases for rosters or starting 11 spots. Hordes of patriotic supporters would later greet them for the World Cup. The cameras would follow every step of the way.
But here in Cincinnati, on the last Sunday in May, in a training session to which the media had been invited, there were no cameras and only one reporter. When the USMNT players returned to their downtown hotel the next day, there were only two looking for autographs. In a 26,000-seat stadium two days later, for a friendly against Morocco, there were thousands of empty seats.
It didn’t seem like a typical farewell series, players and coaches agreed. “I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of accumulation,” Berhalter said that week. “I think this is an important retreat for us as a group, but I don’t think the world is saying ‘The World Cup is around the corner'”.
The oddities of preparing for the World Cup in Qatar
Berhatler, however, had a different set of concerns. The hype, he hopes, will eventually “increase”. Regardless of whether he does it or not, he will have to pick a squad for the World Cup with only one week and two first-hand practice matches in the five months leading up to the decision. The United States will play in El Salvador on Tuesday. In September he will play two friendlies in Europe. And it will be so.
September is the time when the rollout of the group stage gameplan will likely begin, but it will end abruptly. MLS players will likely reunite for a minicamp in the US in early November, but there may only be six or seven of them on the final roster. The rest of the USMNT will fight, with as narrow a tunnel vision as possible, for their European clubs up to eight days before the start of the World Cup.
So, Berhalter said, that’s where most of the evaluation will take place.
As a detail-oriented football obsessive, Berhalter would have adored an intense, uninterrupted training block. He had planned to reunite his full group in Dubai before Qatar, he said, until the United States drew a match on the opening day of the World Cup, which made the schedule too tight. He could have used these weeks in June, but his first team had played 23 consecutive games against opponents from North and Central America; and CONCACAF, the governing body of regional football, this month launched two more; the USMNT needed to jam in a third and fourth game against World Cup caliber opponents.
“We will never have enough time on the pitch, which is a shame,” Berhalter said in April. “But it is so.”
“We have to be really effective these weeks in June,” he continued. But many players have arrived with body and mind tired after draining the nine-month club seasons exacerbated by World Cup qualifiers. The coaching staff understood the need to relieve some stress. “We just need to be aware of how we are pushing them and how we are occupying their time,” Berhalter said. He left a few, most notably Ricardo Pepi, from the June roster altogether.
For many of them, a key piece of preparation for the World Cup will be the upcoming European offseason. It’s “really important,” Tyler Adams said earlier this spring, “that you come back fresh, recover your body, your mind, take a good mental break and be able to start the [2022-23] season well “.
It is also important for Adams and an alarming number of USMNT regulars to actually step into the field.
Adams, Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and Pepi weren’t regular starters for their clubs due to the end of the 2021-22 season. Matt Turner will go to Arsenal as a probable reserve. Brenden Aaronson leaves for Leeds and will have to fight for his place. Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Gio Reyna and others have been injured and do not have a guaranteed spot in their respective teams when they return, wherever they return.
Across the US player pool, and even the starting 11, the clubs’ futures are uncertain. This uncertainty is an inevitable feature of professional football, but it is present at an unusually high pace within this USMNT and is amplified by a midseason World Cup. Some players, like Adams, don’t to have playing regularly to perform for the national team, Berhalter said, but it’s part of the market’s calculation.
“Things change rapidly in football,” Berhalter said this spring. The main indicator of form in the World Cup will be the form of the club. “Guys can really get in good shape and all of a sudden they make their case be [on the roster]. “
Berhalter will be visiting some of them during the fall, but will spend most of the months before his first World Cup as a home manager on the north side of Chicago. He will examine their games and the data extracted from those games, via the screens. He will only have 10 more days with them before the 23 or 26-man rosters arrive at FIFA on 14 November, a week before the USMNT debut against Wales.
“When we get to Qatar, it’s basically preparation for a match, and that’s where it starts,” said Berhalter.
“It’s not ideal preparation, in terms of time we will have,” he admitted the morning after securing qualification. “But each team will do the same thing. So we will be able to deal with it, just like everyone else. “