22 questions about the U.S. at Qatar 2022, answered
On Nov. 21, after 3,065 days of heartbreak, hope and angst, the U.S. men’s national team will return to the World Cup on a mission. “We’re not going there just to be participants,” head coach Gregg Berhalter told two dozen players in May. He’d been pacing back and forth at their first full-team meeting since qualifying for Qatar when he paused, and clicked a slideshow to a picture of the World Cup trophy. And he asked the dimly lit room: “Why can’t we compete for this?”
That, as captain Christian Pulisic said, is their goal. They will travel to Qatar in mid-November, and parade onto a field to fulfill dreams and chase loftier ones. They’ll do so dogged by external doubts about their readiness, their age, and, perhaps most of all, their coach.
With kickoff in just 28 days, here are 22 questions and answers about the USMNT’s adventure back to soccer’s biggest stage.
In one sentence, what is the story of this USMNT?
The roster is deeper, younger and more talented than ever before, but has scarce World Cup experience, no clear on-field identity and a couple glaring weaknesses that could prove costly in Qatar.
When and how can I watch the U.S. World Cup games?
The U.S. plays its three Group B games in a span of nine November days, and all at 2 p.m. ET on Fox and Telemundo:
Monday, Nov. 21 vs. Wales
Friday, Nov. 25 vs. England
Tuesday, Nov. 29 vs. Iran
Will the U.S. get out of Group B? What are reasonable expectations?
It should — and if it does, there’s a greater-than-50% chance that it’ll get an extremely beatable foe in the Round of 16 from Group A. So a quarterfinal run is the reasonable ceiling, with the semis a stretch but not entirely unrealistic.
The floor, however, is an early flameout. The U.S. is essentially an even-money bet to exit after three games. England is the class of the group and should win it. Wales and Iran will be tricky. A loss to either would likely doom the USMNT.
So a middle-ground expectation is four-plus points, second place in the group, a third consecutive Round-of-16 ouster, but a promising showing that fuels optimism for 2026.
What’s changed since the U.S. failed to qualify in 2018?
The U.S. infamously failed to qualify for the last men’s World Cup under one coach who “neglected” tactics and another who believed that “coaches get too much credit and too much blame — the game is really the players.”
In response to that failure, U.S. Soccer hired the quintessential antidote, Berhalter, a former USMNT player and respected club coach who came with grand plans of possession-based dominance, and of “disorganizing the opponent” with nuanced, systematic movements.
That style evolved as the player pool did. When Berhalter took charge, it was still relatively barren. Over the past three years, a potentially golden generation blossomed. All but a few of the players who were in Trinidad on Oct. 10, 2017, have been ushered out and replaced. Many of the new guard are already starring at top European clubs, and will form the core of the youngest of the 32 teams at this World Cup.
Who are the team’s new stars?
The “veteran stars,” in a way, are a trio of 23- to 24-year-olds who’ve been playing together on youth and senior national teams for a decade: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams.
The up-and-comers are Gio Reyna, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder at Borussia Dortmund; Brenden Aaronson, a relentless 22-year-old midfielder on a meteoric rise; Sergiño Dest, a 21-year-old Dutch-born fullback who chose to play for the U.S. instead of the Netherlands; and Yunus Musah, a brilliant 19-year-old midfielder who could be the breakout star of this World Cup.
How well have they played together?
They actually haven’t played together, period, all that much, because they’ve all, at various points and to varying degrees, struggled with injuries.
But their generation came of age in 2021. In June, the USMNT’s youngest group to ever start a championship match beat Mexico in a whirlwind continental final. A separate group of youngsters repeated the feat a month later. The Americans marched into World Cup qualifying with chests puffed and confidence brimming.
Did they qualify easily?
The 14-game qualifying gauntlet, though, was a roller coaster in every possible way. The U.S. looked shaky in September, then comfortable by November after another Dos a Cero vanquishing of Mexico. By March, they were statistically very secure but surrounded by fan-base panic. They finished with the best underlying numbers in the region, and 1.8 points per game compared to 1.2 last cycle — but they qualified only automatically, without having to go through a playoff, on goal differential.
What are the USMNT’s flaws?
We could delve deep into things like buildup structure or speculate about intangibles like experience, but let’s start simple with personnel: The USMNT doesn’t have a reliable striker, nor a second center back.
I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about strikers. What’s the deal?
Ever since Jozy Altidore’s sharp decline, Berhalter has cycled through Gyasi Zardes and Josh Sargent and Jesús Ferreira. He tried Nicholas Gioacchini and Chris Mueller. He turned to Jordan Pefok and Daryl Dike. Then he stumbled upon Ricardo Pepi, a then-18-year-old phenom who scored in multiple qualifiers and became the go-to No. 9.
But then Pepi didn’t score for 11 months — in fact, the USMNT has failed to score in six of its last seven games against 2022 World Cup participants — and the search for solutions continued. On the doorstep of Qatar, it remains ongoing. In 180 September minutes with Ferreira, Pepi and Sargent leading the line, the U.S. managed just two shots on target.
Ferreira, at 21, was Major League Soccer’s Young Player of the Year, and has been Berhalter’s preferred option. But international soccer is a step above MLS, and Ferreira has scored only once in his past 12 USMNT appearances against opponents not named Grenada.
Who should start at striker?
The case for Ferreira is twofold: 1. Sure, he hasn’t been finishing chances, but he’s been getting chances and getting off shots, and that’s a better predictor of future goals. 2. He does much more than score. Berhalter often reminds him — and us, the media — that “we don’t judge him just based on goals.” Ferreira defends from the front better than any other U.S. forward. He also has the pace to stretch an opponent, and the technical ability to drop into midfield and link an attack rather than finish it.
He is inadequate, though, with a defender on his back, and that’s why he shouldn’t start at the World Cup. Against teams like Uruguay and Japan — and at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds — he struggles mightily when facing his own goal. And without a target striker as a viable route past a press, the USMNT can look incoherent or, even worse, it can self-destruct.
Pefok, who starts for the German Bundesliga leaders, is the USMNT’s best finisher. But Sargent should start because, unlike Pefok, he can do most of what Ferreira can do; and unlike Ferreira, he can win aerial duels and withstand physical battles with hulking center backs. He gives the U.S. a built-in Plan B — an in-game tactical versatility — that no other striker on the roster does. And he’s once again found his goalscoring touch.
What’s wrong at center back?
The U.S. defense has actually been quite good, even against World Cup-caliber foes — in part because it has Adams in front of it and 29-year-old MLS veteran Walker Zimmerman anchoring it. Zimmerman came out of virtually nowhere to become an on- and off-field leader, and one of a few automatic picks for the starting 11.
But next to him in the center of defense? Well, Miles Robinson established himself as Zimmerman’s partner, then tore his Achilles. Chris Richards, the presumed next man up, was injured in June and again in September; he’s started only one first-team game of any kind since April, and hasn’t played since August.
The remaining options appear to be Cameron Carter-Vickers, who has never started for the national team under Berhalter; or Aaron Long, a thoroughly unremarkable MLS veteran who, in Berhalter’s eyes, is a better system fit than the beloved and in-form captain of an English Premier League club, Tim Ream.
Wait, so who is this Berhalter guy?
After an 18-year playing career that took him to Holland, England and Germany, and to two World Cups, Berhalter ventured into coaching, got his first head job in Sweden, then came home to MLS. U.S. Soccer hired him away from the Columbus Crew, where he went to four playoffs and one MLS Cup in five seasons. His résumé was perhaps a bit underwhelming, but his reputation was strong and his ideas fresh.
Why do so many fans hate Berhalter?
Berhalter’s biggest problem, in a nutshell, is that he tried to run a national team like a club team. He is notoriously detail-oriented, and at his best (and happiest) when instilling ideas and habits daily. He is a system coach, so he tried to implement his system, but never really had the opportunity to implement it.
Clubs spend 40 weeks per year together, and can sign players who fit a system. National teams get only a dozen weeks, and often only a dozen days at a time. They are, by necessity, less refined and usually player-driven — a coach must adapt to the skills that his nation spits out, not vice versa.
The central criticism of Berhalter is that, far too often, he has either tried to mold American player skills into the ones his system needs, or he has overlooked talented players who are un-moldable.
The criticism is somewhat unfair, because to some extent, on some occasions, he has adapted to maximize the players. The USMNT has moved away from methodical possession and toward a high press, which better suits the generation that emerged over the latter half of this World Cup cycle.
But it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the entire premise of the Berhalter hire has failed. After almost four years, there is no coherent system. And barring some tactical masterplans for specific games in Qatar, the best hope seems to be that he essentially gets out of the players’ way.
What’s the case for Berhalter?
Look, if he gets out of his players’ way, and inspires them, and makes a few good micro decisions, and manages the camp environment well, he would be an above-average World Cup coach. Most players seem to genuinely like him; they want to fight for him. And his obsessive preparation — which includes a hefty institutional and cultural investment in analytics — should benefit the USMNT on the margins.
In the end, Arena is right: soccer, especially at the international level, is a players’ sport. A surprisingly small percentage of coaches actually make a meaningful impact on whether their teams win or lose at scale. Berhalter, at least on the international side of the game, is certainly not among the top tier that do, and probably isn’t among the bottom tier either.
So what is his starting lineup going to be?
The USMNT will play a 4-3-3 that, if everyone is healthy, should look like this (from left to right):
Goalkeeper: Matt Turner/Zack Steffen
Defenders: Antonee Robinson, [see CB discussion above], Walker Zimmerman, Sergiño Dest
Midfielders: Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie
Forwards: Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent/Jesús Ferreira, Timothy Weah
Weah offers necessary verticality and purposeful directness. Reyna will be the primary option off the bench. Aaronson, although a top-five American player in the world right now, will also be a utility player in reserve.
Of those players, who’s the most important?
Musah. In the 17 months since he committed his international future to the USMNT, he has become the team’s most pivotal player — figuratively and literally. He’s an explosive ball-progressing midfielder unlike any this country has ever known. When he was injured in September, the U.S. was dreadful. When he’s healthy, he can single-handedly solve problems — like he (No. 6) did in this June friendly versus Uruguay:
Who should start in goal?
Turner is the far better shot-stopper. Steffen is better with his feet, which Berhalter likes. The former is far more important, of course, and if Steffen is the No. 1 on Nov. 21, a sizable faction of fans might riot.
Who else is on the roster?
We’ll find out on Nov. 9 — a little after 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Here is our roster projection.
Have any of these players ever been to a World Cup before?
Only DeAndre Yedlin, a 29-year-old reserve fullback who was a 20-year-old reserve fullback in 2014.
But as several of the younger players have pointed out, they already have more experience than prior U.S. teams in the world’s biggest club competition, the UEFA Champions League.
Where can I watch all these players between now and the World Cup?
Pulisic (Chelsea), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Adams and Aaronson (both Leeds) all play in the Premier League. McKennie (Juventus) and Dest (AC Milan) are in Italy. Musah is at Valencia in Spain. Weah is at Lille in France. They play on weekends in their domestic league, and some play midweek in the Champions League. And they’ll continue playing through Nov. 13, the weekend before the World Cup.
Here’s a comprehensive list of USMNT players in Europe, and how to watch them. (A couple MLS-based players, meanwhile, remain alive in the playoffs. Others are out, and will be at a makeshift USMNT training camp in Texas until a few days before the roster is named.)
Seems like there are more U.S. players at top clubs than ever before, yeah?
There are indeed. Pulisic became something of a trailblazer for young Americans when he went to and succeeded at Dortmund as a teen. And American youth academies are churning out more talent than ever before.
We’ll have in-depth features on both of those trends in mid-November in the weeks before World Cup kickoff.
What else should I know about this World Cup?
We have an extensive primer on 2022 World Cup basics, and a group-by-group preview.