The oddities of preparing for Qatar 2022
Set in an alternate universe devoid of corruption, the 2022 World Cup kicked off Thursday in front of 90,000 celebratory fans in Los Angeles. At least that’s what American football officials dreamed of, and this, the second week of June every four years, is when the world’s most prestigious sporting event usually begins.
But in a universe shattered by Qatar, the US men’s national team strolled into a 20,000-seat stadium on Friday night instead. It beat a small Caribbean island ranked at No. 170 in the world in a game not shown on English-language cable television. The top two players who got the night off put their feet up and relaxed.
That’s how Austin, Texas sent the USMNT to a World Championship that feels eons away. This was the team’s last game on American soil before the global spectacle, but it ended with no drama or post-game ceremonies, just before midnight ET, with the eyes of the sports world on the NBA. The US will fly to El Salvador this weekend and then go on summer vacation. It will reconvene in Europe in September, very briefly. And then, 24 hours after the players dueled for their clubs in November, they will gather in Doha – with a World Cup opener in seven days.
So this three-week, four-city tour in May and June is the closest thing USMNT has to a pre-World Cup training camp. There was a watered down media day in Cincinnati and a big commercial shoot in Austin. There was team bonding — video games and birthday dinners and golf — and the inescapable sense that World Cup squad spots were at stake.
Still, several players were absent – some injured, some just recovered. There were no film sessions about World Cup opponents. And “we didn’t really have that many training days,” admitted head coach Gregg Berhalter. “We learn most from these guys in the games” – yet two out of four games are against vastly inferior opponents who are nowhere near the challenges that await us in Qatar.
It all adds up to the strangest and most contradictory World Cup farewell the USMNT has ever had.
A pre-WM camp without hype
The reason for all the oddities, lest it be forgotten, is that in 2010 a tiny peninsular emirate, with summer temperatures that regularly hit triple digits, won the right to host this World Cup. Qatar first pledged space-age cooling technology that would ward off deadly heat and allow the tournament to take place in its traditional June-July window. But in 2015, FIFA, which had already called the idea “high risk” even before it preferred Qatar’s bid to an American one, postponed its banner event to the winter.
In doing so, it messed up the soccer universe in 2022.
Over the course of the 21st century, the sport had developed a rhythm. The players had developed four-year habits. They would finish European club seasons in mid-May, then join their national teams and prepare for the biggest games of their lives. They trained in isolation, practicing opponent-specific tactics and explaining their arguments for roster spots or starting XI spots. Crowds of patriotic supporters would then bid them farewell to the World Cup. Cameras would follow every step of the way.
But here in Cincinnati, on the last Sunday in May, at a training session attended by the media, there were no cameras and only one reporter. When USMNT players arrived at their downtown hotel the next day, there were only two people looking for autographs. In a stadium with a capacity of 26,000 spectators, thousands of seats were empty for a friendly against Morocco two days later.
It didn’t feel like a typical farewell series, players and coaches agreed. “I don’t think we’re that far with the build-up,” said Berhalter this week. “I think this is an important training camp for us as a group, but I don’t think the world is saying, ‘The World Cup is just around the corner.'”
The curiosities of the World Cup preparations in Qatar
However, Berhatler had other concerns. The hype, he hopes, will “grow” at some point. Regardless, he’ll have to pick a World Cup squad with just a week and two games firsthand in the five months before the decision. On Tuesday the USA play against El Salvador. Two friendlies will be played in Europe in September. And it will be.
In September, the implementation of the game plan in the group stage will probably start, but it will end abruptly. MLS players are likely to gather for a minicamp across the US in early November, but there could only be six or seven of them on the final list. The rest of the USMNT will fight for their European clubs with as narrow a tunnel vision as possible until eight days before the start of the World Cup.
Berhalter said that’s where most of the evaluation will take place.
As a football fan with a passion for detail, Berhalter would have wished for an intensive, uninterrupted training block. He had planned to gather his entire group ahead of Qatar in Dubai, he said, until the USA played a tie on the opening day of the World Cup, making the schedule too tight. He could have used those weeks in June but his first team had played 23 straight games against North and Central American opponents; and CONCACAF, the region’s football governing body, had two more thrown at him this month; The USMNT had to jam against World Cup-caliber opponents in a third and fourth game.
“We’ll never have enough time on the pitch, that’s a shame,” said Berhalter in April. “But it is.”
“We have to be really effective in these weeks of June,” he continued. But many players arrived with tired bodies and spirits after a nine-month club season made worse by World Cup qualifiers. The coaching staff understood the need to relieve some stress. “We just have to be careful how we push them and how we use their time,” Berhalter said. He has left some – most notably Ricardo Pepi – off this June squad altogether.
For many of them, the upcoming European off-season will be a crucial part of World Cup preparation. It’s “really important,” Tyler Adams said earlier this spring, “that you come into training fresh, you’re recovering physically and mentally, you’ve got a good mental break and you’re ready to start training [2022-23] season good.”
For Adams and an alarming number of USMNT regulars, actually getting on the field is also important.
Adams, Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, Antonee Robinson, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and Pepi were not regulars for their clubs as the 2021/22 season drew to a close. Matt Turner will join Arsenal as a likely backup. Brenden Aaronson goes to Leeds and has to fight for his place. Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Gio Reyna and others have been injured and have no guaranteed spots on their respective teams upon their return — wherever they return.
Across the US player pool and even in the starting XI, the future of clubs is uncertain. That uncertainty is an inevitable trait of professional football, but it’s present at an unusually high rate in this USMNT — and it’s compounded by a mid-season World Cup. Some players, like Adams, don’t do this to have playing regularly for the national team, said Berhalter, but that’s part of the calculations of the transfer market.
“Things change quickly in football,” said Berhalter this spring. The early indicator for the World Cup form will be the form of the club. “Guys can get into really good shape and suddenly push for it [on the roster].”
Berhalter will be traveling throughout the fall to visit some of them, but he will spend much of the months leading up to his first World Cup as a coach at home in north Chicago. He will examine their games and the data drawn from those games via screens. He will have just 10 more days with them before the 23- or 26-man squads line up at FIFA on November 14 – a week before the USMNT’s opener against Wales.
“When we come to Qatar, we’re basically preparing for a game and it’s going from there,” Berhalter said.
“In terms of time, it’s not optimal preparation,” he admitted on the morning after qualifying. “But every team will do the same. So we will be able to handle it, just like everyone else.”