USMNT hopes youth will be served in this World Cup

If you happen to be a supporter of the Jets in the NFL, rooting for the U.S. men’s national team in soccer must feel familiar in that they both have a nasty habit of teasing before eventually letting you down.

This has been taking place for more years than you care to count. And yet hope — however scant or unrealistic it may be — never disappears despite disappointment looming.

Such is the plight of U.S. men’s soccer as it embarks on World Cup 2022 in Qatar, beginning with its opening group-stage match against Wales on Monday.

It’s been eight long years without a World Cup match for the U.S. side, which stunningly and inexplicably failed to qualify in 2018. And yet, there’s much hope for this group, which is the youngest of all the teams in this World Cup, with an average age of 25 years and 175 days.

This U.S. team has the advantage of not carrying a lot of baggage from past failures. Only one player, 29-year-old right back DeAndre Yedlin, was on the last U.S. team to play in the World Cup, coming off the bench in 2014 in Brazil. And only four current players — Christian Pulisic, Tim Ream, Kellyn Acosta and Yedlin — were on the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the ’18 World Cup.

“We all were pretty upset about 2018,” Yedlin told reporters recently. “This is definitely a little revenge tour for that.”

Christian Pusilic (left) Is just one of four players who were on the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Christian Pusilic (left) Is just one of four players who were on the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
AP

That leads to this question: What defines a successful World Cup for the Americans?

The first part of the answer is quite simple: The U.S. positively must advance out of the group stage or this World Cup will be considered a colossal failure, simple as that.

Merely qualifying — just because the U.S. failed to do so in ’18 — cannot be considered progress. At least, not enough progress. This team needs to advance to the knockout stage. Advancing past the Round of 16 (or dare we say past the quarterfinals) would make for a highly successful run.

“This generation hasn’t yet defined themselves, and we have the opportunity to begin to define ourselves at this World Cup,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said recently on the “Men in Blazers’’ podcast.

A critical first step in the U.S. quest to “define’’ itself must begin with a positive result against Wales in its Group B opener. It’s likely going to take at least four points to advance out of the group and into the knockout stage, and Wales is the weakest of the Americans’ three opponents.

Even four points guarantees nothing. In the 2018 World Cup, of the eight groups, only two teams advanced with four points, while all other groups featured a second-place finisher with five or six points.

In 2014, when the U.S. advanced to the Round of 16, it finished with four points in the group stage, second to eventual-champion Germany and even with Portugal. It advanced on goal differential, which can be a dicey game to play.

In 2010, when the U.S. advanced through the group stage, it finished at the top of the group with five points, finishing ahead of England on goal differential thanks to a 91st-minute goal by Landon Donovan against Algeria in the final group-stage match.

If this U.S. team is going to earn four points, it will need at least one win (three points). England is the fifth-ranked team in the 32-team tournament, which means the Americans, ranked 16th, will be significant underdogs in that match on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

Wales is ranked 19th in the world, and Iran, the Americans’ third and final opponent in group play on Nov. 29, is ranked 20th.

The U.S., which played to a 0-0 draw with Wales in 2020, will need at worst a draw (one point) against Wales on Monday or it will be setting itself up for difficult road to advance with England up next. The last thing the U.S. wants to do is go into that Iran match having to win and get three points to advance.

The U.S. has faced Iran only twice, and that includes a huge loss in the 1998 World Cup that was part of holding it back from advancing to the knockout stage.

Wins against both Wales and Iran would clinch one of the top two spots in Group B regardless of the result against England. That would be a dream scenario for the Americans, who will be counting on youth to carry it through.

Forward Giovanni Reyna, 19, the son of the former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, is considered by many as the most purely skilled player on the team. Midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 22, is one of several USMNT players on English Premier League teams, playing for Leeds United. Other key youngsters include Weston McKennie, who plays in Italy with Juventus, Pulisic (Chelsea), Tyler Adams (Leeds United) and defender Antonee Robinson (Fulham). Each is under 25 years old.

“Looking at us as a young team, people see positives and negatives,” Robinson said recently. “But this group, a good part of us have been together for four years now. I look at this team and see young talent playing so well, so many different levels, so many different leagues. The only thing I see is hunger, determination, intensity, energy.

“When you step on that pitch, it doesn’t matter how old you are. I don’t feel like anyone feels like they’re young and inexperienced. People are just fired up and ready to go.”


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