A Golden Generation? A Guide to the USMNT at the 2022 World Cup

A+Golden+Generation%3F+A+Guide+to+the+USMNT+at+the+2022+World+Cup

Nichol Weylman-Farwell, Managing Sports Editor

Wait, you’re telling me it’s November and the World Cup kicks off this month in Qatar? FIFA, what are you doing? I’ve been a USMNT fan since the stroller days, so the World Cup is almost always memorable for me. From Landon Donovan’s iconic game-winner against Algeria (“Go, Go! USA!”) to Tim Howard’s stint as the Secretary of Defense in 2014 against Belgium, the USMNT has produced its fair share of moments for casual and hardcore soccer fans alike. That’s part of why, I assume, you all will be watching the US games later this month. There’s nothing more American than not giving a single fuck about soccer until the World Cup rolls around, and then turning into a ride-or-die à la Drake with literally every professional sports franchise. It happens, and I can’t blame them. The World Cup has a “magic moments quotient” up there with March Madness and the World Series. Plus, the US is back after tragically failing to qualify in 2018 following a disastrous loss on a wet cricket pitch in Trinidad. And, while they’re not contenders to win it all by any means, they should be very competitive in a group rounded out by England, Wales, and Iran.

Here’s five things you need to know before the USMNT kicks off against Wales on November 21st:

  1. On paper, this is the most talented US squad ever. Not a hyperbole. Last year, 11 different Americans participated in the Union of European Football AssociationsChampions League, which was fourth-most among non-European nations. One of those guys is Christian Pulisic, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. He’s really good, and was instrumental in Chelsea’s Champions League title campaign in 2021. At just 24 years old, he’s on pace to break Landon Donovan’s goal scoring record for the Stars and Stripes. He’s not alone, though. Gio Reyna (Dortmund, Pulisic’s old club), Tim Weah (Lille, has Ballon d’Or winner in his DNA), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds), Tyler Adams (also Leeds), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Weston McKennie (Juventus) and Sergino Dest (Milan) all play roles on big European clubs. Player for player, the wingers and central midfield stack up really well against past US World Cup rosters and pretty decently against B-tier European nations (i.e. Denmark and Switzerland). While Pulisic is the promotional headliner, he may not even be the team’s most impactful player. Adams may not appear in a ton of highlights as a defensive midfielder, but his role of stomping out fires from that position is crucial to this team’s success. Likewise, look out for Musah, Reyna and Weah as the critical ball-progressors of this squad. They’ll be very influential in how this team does offensively.  
    1. Here’s a quick primer on some of the team’s critical players:
      1. Christian Pulisic (Chelsea FC)-Wing: The starboy. The LeBron James of soccer. The tricky attacker is more or less a role player for this befuddling Chelsea squad, though he’s got buckets of skill with pace to match. He hasn’t been in great form with the USMNT as of late and will need to temper his hero-ball tendencies ahead of the tournament.
      2. Tyler Adams (Leeds United)-Defensive midfield: The firefighter. Adams is always seemingly everywhere at once, making tackles, interceptions and closing off passing lanes. He’s the USMNT’s most important player with his fiery leadership and consistency. Adams is like 60% of N’Golo Kante talent and effort-wise, which is still a damn good player.
      3. Gio Reyna (Dortmund)-midfield/wing: The future. As the son of two American soccer players, Reyna might have the highest ceiling of anyone from the States at the moment. With a combination of strength, elegance and technical ability, the 19 year-old is on a superstar path. While injuries have hindered Reyna’s production for the past year, he’s healthy now and ready to show his class on the world’s biggest stage.
      4. Yunus Musah (Valencia)-midfield: The Mr. Reliable. At just 19, Musah is already the most press-resistant player on this team by a fair margin. He does not lose the ball. Using an arsenal of feints, turns and rollovers, Musah is unstoppable on the ball. He quite literally glides through the center of the pitch. My one qualm with him: his production in the final third could be better and his defensive workrate could improve. Right now, he’s basically a juiced-up Darlington Nagbe (or rather a poor man’s Mateo Kovacic), so his play will be crucial to this team’s success.
      5. Tim Weah (Lille)-wing: The heir of soccer royalty. That’s right, Tim is the son of 1994 Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, the-now president of Liberia. While Tim isn’t the player his father was, he’s the first in his family to appear in a World Cup and offers plenty of dynamism of his own. Weah’s a pacey, intelligent winger who combines incredibly well in the attack while stretching out the opposing defense. With his fluid on-and-off ball movement, attacking instincts, and verticality, Weah may be the most effective US attacker.
      6. Matt Turner (Arsenal)-goalkeeper: The brick wall. Eight years ago, the USMNT were carried into extra time against Belgium through a World Cup record 15 save performance from Tim Howard. Turner isn’t Howard, though his story is arguably more interesting. He didn’t start playing soccer until he was 16 years old and didn’t start for Fairfield University until his junior year. Afterwards, he went unselected in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, but eventually signed on with my hometown New England Revolution. Just six years later, he has: won MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, cemented himself as the USMNT #1 keeper, and earned himself a transfer to Arsenal. While he doesn’t start for the Gunners (England international Aaron Ramsdale does), Turner has the shot-stopping capabilities to keep the USMNT in games.
  2. It’ll also likely be the youngest squad in the tournament. At the time of writing, the full roster hasn’t been revealed, but I have a good idea of who will be there. With teenagers Reyna (19), Musah (19), and Joe Scally (19) and “veterans” Pulisic (24), Adams (23), and McKennie (24), all seemingly locks for the roster and likely the starting eleven too, this US team will have an average age of around 25 years old. Historically speaking, teams this young haven’t made much of a dent in the competition. Experience is important. On the flip side, for a team this young, the core group of Pulisic, Adams, and McKennie have a solid amount of experience playing with one another. Likewise, it’ll also mean that the US squad will peak ahead of the World Cup in 2026 on home soil.
  3. Results-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Youthfulness and inexperience is one thing, but over the past year the USMNT have looked really sloppy and out of sync at times. The US finished 3rd in regional qualifying, a campaign which included a delightful 2-0 win against Mexico at home and a 5-1 thrashing of Panama. On the other hand, the USMNT struggled mightily on the road against Central American opponents, including a horrendously sloppy 1-0 loss to Panama. This unit hasn’t had a ton of experience playing against top national teams (besides Mexico) and tend to wilt against more disciplined and organized opponents.
  4. From a tactical standpoint, this group looks difficult for the Stars and Stripes. While the US is more talented on paper than both Wales and Iran, they are worthy adversaries for the Red, White, and Blue. Both teams are stout defensively and like to sit back in their own halves. Iran executes a masterful low defensive block and are efficient in the counterattack. Wales are similar tactically, though they are much more prone to miscues than the Iranians. This style may prove cumbersome for the Americans, as head coach Gregg Berhalter has insisted on playing a possession-heavy style yet have struggled to create enough chances from open play. Berhalter’s system is centered around creating chances off turnovers from a high-pressing attack, which seems counterproductive against “bunker-and-counter” teams. Likewise, this system, which tends to have fullbacks Antonee Robinson and Dest high up the field as attacking outlets, may leave us vulnerable to counterattacks. Breaking down a bunkered defense, as Wales and Iran employ, is not in this team’s DNA. Interestingly enough, though, the USMNT match up pretty well with England. Obviously, the Three Lions have much, much more talent than the US, though they too are in a bit of a rough patch form-wise. Berhalter’s team is capable of going toe-to-toe against opponents who play on the front foot, as they did against a possession-happy Mexico squad in qualifying. England will be looking for their chances, and I expect them to dominate possession. The key, then, will be the backline and midfield. The midfield of Adams, McKennie, and Musah is the engine that drives this team, they are capable of winning the ball and advancing the ball upfield to a streaking attacker or fullback. If they can turn the midfield battle against Jude Bellingham and co. into a dogfight (no easy task), then the US has a shot at stemming England’s tide and generating quality looks of their own. On the other hand, they’re gonna need the defense to perform a lot better if they want to quiet England’s talented attack. Likewise, goalkeeper Matt Turner was one of the best shot-stoppers in Major League Soccer last year, but hasn’t played a ton since transferring to Arsenal over the summer.
  5. Getting out of the group isn’t a given, but I think they will succeed. The top two teams advance, which means the US almost certainly needs a result against Wales if they want to keep their dreams of the knockout stage adrift. If we win the opener (which I think is the easiest match), then the US likely only needs one additional point from the England and Iran games to go through. Four points total *should* do it. I think that’s a reasonable prediction for this youthful USMNT side. From there, a matchup with either the first-place or second-place team from Group A (Netherlands, Qatar, Ecuador, and Senegal). My overly-optimistic and super unrealistic take: the US top the group after beating Wales and England and advance to the quarter-finals after beating Senegal in the Round of 16. My more grounded take? I don’t know. There’s a chance we completely shit the bed and finish last in the group, but I don’t have the room for that kind of negativity. It may very well turn out that way, but I’m gonna stay positive. After all, it has been eight long years since our last appearance, and I want to savor every last moment of it.