The Plan | The US head coach, Gregg Berhalter, has ditched the fading veterans who flopped during the last qualifying cycle, swum through a large pool of promising youngsters and installed a dynamic pressing style that retains the US’s hallmark spirit and energy but is more sophisticated and possession-orientated than the direct approach of previous generations. Theory, meet reality: Berhalter conceded that players were lacking confidence and were “below our normal levels” in the final two World Cup warm-ups, a 2-0 loss to Japan and a goalless draw with Saudi Arabia in September. At least the struggles were educational. “Things became pretty clear,” he said, without elaborating.
The zestless efforts weren’t aberrations. The US generally struggle to score away from home and often look ordinary against opponents outside the mediocre CONCACAF region. There’s an abundance of wingers and the midfield is busy and bright, but the centre-back and centre-forward positions are problematic and frequent injuries have prevented Berhalter from playing his best eleven. Nor is it clear that the US are good enough on the ball to outplay World Cup-level teams, and there’s little evidence they can adjust if exuberance does not carry the day. So wedded to youth and athleticism is Berhalter that there is a real lack of World Cup experience in the squad, although that is partly down to the fact that the US missed out in 2018.
With so many untested players – not to mention the coach – it is hard to predict whether they will rise to the occasion, be cowed by it, or perform more or less in line with their talent level – which would mean that with a good start against Wales they could qualify from the group, probably in second place, then be outclassed by the first major nation they face in the knockout round.
The Manager | Following a nearly 14-month search for a successor to Bruce Arena, Gregg Berhalter was appointed in December 2018 after spells in charge of Hammarby and the Columbus Crew. This worried fans who wanted a head coach with a more distinguished pedigree and many are still to be convinced of his merits – but the thoughtful and thorough 49-year-old New Jersey native has won 36 and lost only 10 of his 56 games in charge. Berhalter’s playing career as a defender included a season at Crystal Palace and 44 international caps. He made two appearances at the 2002 World Cup and was an unused substitute in 2006.
Star Player | Christian Pulisic will cut in from the left wing and much responsibility rests on the captain’s shoulders, especially since the US don’t have a top-quality central striker. At 24 the Chelsea forward is not the same fearless, rampaging kid who emerged during the failed 2018 qualifying campaign. For his country he now tends to drop into midfield in search of the ball. That’s the weight of expectations (and injuries) for you. There’s even a car ad about the pressure in which he reclines on a therapist’s couch and runs into a wardrobe to escape the media.
Unsung Hero | In 2021 Yunus Musah chose to represent the US rather than England, Italy or Ghana, and the calibre of his suitors is evidence of his ability. Blossoming at Valencia, he’s an energetic midfield disruptor who is calm under pressure with the ball at his feet. If he can add goals and assists the 19-year-old is a potential superstar, though that may not be obvious if he plays in a deeper-lying role to liberate Weston McKennie and act as a bulwark against superior opponents.
Probable Line-up | (4-3-3) Turner – Dest, Zimmerman, Long, Robinson – Adams, Musah, McKennie – Aaronson, Ferreira, Pulisic
Qatar Stance | US Soccer has briefed the players on the issues arising from staging the tournament in Qatar. Given the squad’s adoption of the slogan “Be The Change” after the murder of George Floyd and previous outspoken positions on stronger gun laws and social justice – each player wore a jacket with a personal message before a game against Wales in 2020 – it would not be surprising if some players speak out and/or make symbolic gestures in support of LGBT+ and migrant workers’ rights.
National Anthem | There’s a bit of previous here to add spice to the US-England group game. Sung to the tune of an 18th-century English drinking ditty, The Star-Spangled Banner became the national anthem in 1931. The words of this stirring ode to freedom were written by Francis Scott Key, a slaveholding 35-year-old lawyer, following an American victory over the invading Royal Navy in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814, soon after the British had torched the White House.
Cult Hero | A US national team stalwart, bearded musician and export to Europe turned TV pundit who’s not Alexi Lalas? That would be Clint Dempsey, aka Deuce, who released a rap song, Don’t Tread, ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Was it a banger? Sort of. “Best to give way for the USA / Now we’re hot / You might think we’re a sun ray.” The artful Texan forward and inducer of Robert Green’s nightmares scored in three World Cups, thrived in England with Fulham and Tottenham then signed for Seattle in 2013, declaring: “I just want to score goals and go fishing”. He retired in 2018 with a joint-USMNT record 57 goals from 141 caps and, like Lalas, will work Qatar 2022 for American TV.