- The Washington Times
Sunday, November 20, 2022

Eight long years.

The United States returns to the World Cup Monday for the first time since 2014 after missing out on the quadrennial tournament four years ago. The young squad enters its opening match against Wales without weighty expectations.

The U.S. is narrowly favored by oddsmakers to be one of two teams to make it out of Group B against competitors Iran, England and Wales, but few envision it advancing further. The group isn’t an easy one either, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the squad can’t even make it to the Round of 16. 

“On our best day, we can beat anyone in the world,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told ESPN on Saturday. “That’s the mentality that we want to have as a group. Does that mean we’re going to win the World Cup? No, not necessarily. The first step is getting out of the group, finishing in the top two. And the second step is in knockout games playing our best possible game and seeing how far we can go.”

No matter the result in Qatar, though, there is optimism for the future of American soccer — something that didn’t exist four years ago when the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. 

This team, though, is the youngest U.S. team in history to qualify. The roster is the second-youngest at the 2022 World Cup at 25.2 years old — only older than Ghana, which has an average age of 24.7. 

Berhalter had the choice to put more veterans on the team, but he largely stuck with the best young talent American soccer had to offer throughout the qualifying campaign. 

Only one player on the 26-man roster has any experience playing in a World Cup: defender DeAndre Yedlin, who came off the bench during the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Aside from Yedlin, only two players — Kellyn Acosta and superstar Christian Pulisic — have more than 50 caps. 

More than one-third of the roster is under the age of 24, the most for the American men at a World Cup since 1990. Five of the players — midfielders Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah, defender Sergino Dest and forwards Tim Weah and Jesus Ferreira — are expected to be starters. Defender Joe Scally, the youngest player on the team, was 11 years old the last time the U.S. played in a World Cup. 

“They’ve all played in big football matches,” Berhalter told reporters in Qatar on Sunday. “At the end of the day this is just another football match. I hope that calms them.”

It’s not a coincidence as to why the team is so young. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was arguably the worst moment in U.S. soccer history. The U.S., needing just a tie against Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the country’s eighth straight World Cup, lost 2-1. The loss to the tiny, dual-island nation was a cataclysmic event in the U.S. soccer community. 

“This is an utter embarrassment,” screamed soccer analyst Taylor Twellman during an infamous rant on ESPN after the loss. “With the amount of money that is in Major League Soccer and in this sport, you can’t get a draw, a tie against Trinidad? You don’t deserve to go to the World Cup, plain and simple.”

But four years and one pandemic later, the Americans are ready to move on.

“I use that as a lot of motivation for sure,” Pulisic said about the loss to Trinidad and Tobago during a video posted by U.S. Soccer on YouTube. “I took a lot of that weight on my shoulders at that time.”

If the U.S. makes an unlikely run past the Round of 16, Pulisic will likely have an outsized reason why. The team’s best player and most feared attacker, Pulisic will be competing in his first World Cup at 24 years old. The Hershey, Pennsylvania, native led the team in scoring during qualifying, and with a lack of attacking threats being the team’s main weakness, much of the hopes for the squad are on Pulisic’s shoulders. 

“There was a little chip on my shoulder throughout the whole qualifying process [this year],” Pulisic said. “I felt like I really had to perform and be the main man at times when there came a point where I realized I didn’t need to be that with this team.”

He is, after all, nicknamed “Captain America” — a moniker that doesn’t require the actual captain label, which Berhalter officially gave to Adams on Sunday after the team voted for the 23-year-old to hold the title. 

“We think he is a very capable leader and is good with his words,” Berhalter said about Adams. “We are proud to have him as captain.”

While eight years may seem like an eternity for American soccer fans, Wales has waited far longer. The small country in southwest Britain will be competing in only its second World Cup, and first since 1958. 

The match is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m., or 10 p.m. local time in Doha, Qatar. The game can be viewed on Fox or via streaming on fuboTV, Fox Sports and Peacock.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.