AL RAYYAN, Qatar – This is the moment they’ve dreamed of, worked towards and waited for so long.
More than five years – 3,065 days – after the lowest point in the modern history of the United States men’s national team, when the Americans failed to make it to the World Cup for the first time in over three decades, a newer, younger, incredibly talented team but totally The unproven USMNT is set to return to the global stage in Monday’s opener against Wales, Qatar 2022 (2pm ET, FOX and the FOX Sports App).
“When I got into the picture of the national team, we were just about on the verge of not qualifying,” said newly-minted 23-year-old captain Tyler Adams, who made his international debut a month after the devastating defeat in Trinidad that sealed that fate of the last generation – said on the eve of the Americans’ first World Cup game since 2014.
“We had no identity, no game plan. It was almost like going to national team camp for fun. And while we enjoy the ride and have fun here, the last three years have been a lot of hard work. Building our identity.”
This identity should be put to the test. For all their heritage and promising and youthful exuberance – with an average age of just over 25, USA are the second-youngest roster in the 32-nation field – Gregg Berhalter’s side have never faced a competition that comes close is how she will get through the next nine days (and possibly beyond). USA meet England, one of the tournament favorites, in their second game and then conclude the group game against dangerous, unpredictable Iran.
First up is Wales, a team that has waited longer – much longer – to reclaim the pinnacle of the sport. Their only World Cup participation was in 1958. However, they made an impression, reached the quarter-finals and probably feel the same as the Americans about their chances of reaching the knockout rounds of this tournament. They’re a gritty, lunch-bucket-carrying squad dotted with some elite members, including Aaron Ramsey and superstar captain Gareth Bale.
“We know Wales will be tough opponents,” said Berhalter at Sunday’s pre-game press conference. “We want to be an aggressive team in this game. We want to be able to hurt them, but we also know that they have strengths and threats and we want to be able to take them away.”
As much as the USMNT must be aware of the dangers that Wales pose, the main focus is on itself. Although no one doubts the potential of a US side that are taking part in a World Cup for the first time with a squad full of players from some of Europe’s most prominent clubs participates, she has also – understandably given her youth – shown an alarming sometimes naive. The opening window of World Cup qualifying last September is a good example. After two games, the Americans only had two points. That was a 14-match marathon, though. And even with plenty of time to recover, it took Americans until the final competition to book their ticket to Qatar.
Here, they only have three games to earn enough points to advance through the group stage. A slow start would probably be fatal.
However, Berhalter claims he’s not overly concerned.
“I’ve seen the maturity of this group grow over the last three and a half years,” he said. “I see a tremendous concentration within the team. And I think that focus will help us to be successful. And time will tell if we’re able to play with the best teams in the world.
“It’s a talented group, a young group, but also a group full of good characters,” he added. “I watch training. I watch it off the field. I watch how the guys interact with each other. And I have to say I’m confident that this group is ready to play. And a lot has come along their way of thinking and their ability to support each other.”
With the two sides barely separated, Monday’s result could hinge on some of those intangibles. It will likely be decided by both will and ability. Bale said on Sunday he’s fit enough to start but he’s not the only player USA needs to know. You also need to keep an eye on 6-foot-5 forward Kieffer Moore.
“Obviously he’s great in the air but he’s probably underestimated a lot in terms of his technical ability and finishing work around goal,” said Adams, who faced Moore in the English Premier League earlier this season. “We already talked about it at our scouting meeting. You know you must always have a body with them. He’s a problem.”
Meanwhile, the USMNT could be without two high-profile starters in central midfielder Weston McKennie and right-back Sergiño Dest. Both are healthy enough to contribute after shaking off minor muscle injuries, Berhalter said, but probably not for the full 90 minutes.
If you play, you have to act as if your World Cup life depended on it. This game has been a long time coming for the USA. Here they have longed. In the Main Event there are no moral wins, no room for error. Will this young USMNT take the pressure or collapse under its weight? Millions of fans at home will soon find out.
“Pressure is a privilege,” Adams said. “When you play under pressure it means you really care and it’s really meaningful.
“You play for something much bigger than yourself,” Adams continued. “You play for all the people in America who are watching and supporting you.”
They wanted that. For better or worse, her big moment is finally here.
Can not Hardly Wait.
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @By DougMcIntyre.
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