Soccer  

How the USMNT is preparing for the World Cup

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — The preparations involved in getting a team ready for the World Cup are always complicated. In some cases, they can make or break a tournament. Germany’s hideaway in Brazil in 2014 was widely hailed as being key to their eventual title. Conversely, the United States men’s national team’s decision to sequester themselves in a remote chalet in 1998 has often been cited as one of several factors that led to the team’s miserable time in France.

The reality is that every tournament has its own peculiarities, be it the host nation, venues, training base or opponents. The U.S. staff, led by USSF director of administration Tom King, is well aware of this truth. The 2022 World Cup, however, will be like no other, and not just because it will be the first to be held in the Middle East.

The tournament’s November start means it will fall smack in the middle of the European club season. That has created all manner of obstacles and wrinkles in terms of preparation, and that is especially true for the U.S.

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Typically, the U.S. would have an extended training camp with around three friendly matches to prepare and fine-tune things. Then there was a relatively early arrival in the host country to get acclimated. Not so this time. Players with European clubs played up until this past weekend. Most MLS players with the national team had to contend with the fact that their seasons had been over for a month or more.

For U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter, it made for a tricky run-up in terms of the form and fitness of his players. Every week he was taking a microscope to his players’ performances and praying that they made it through unscathed. He also held a camp specifically for MLS players in a bid to maintain their fitness, from which seven of the final 26-man roster emerged, although game sharpness — or lack thereof — will be an issue.

Now that the roster has been named and the team is in Qatar, the short run-up is compounded. The U.S. plays Wales on Monday, the second day of the tournament, giving Berhalter’s side a little more than a week to get settled and make final preparations. Compare that to the extended camp and 14 days in-country Berhalter had when he played in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. But the U.S. manager likes the idea of this short runway.

“Everyone’s going to want to just get it going,” Berhalter said to ESPN in an exclusive interview. “We’ve been waiting for this for a while, and with a younger team, we just want to get to our business. In World Cup qualifiers, we were used to quick turnarounds. This will have a little bit more lead-in, and we’ll be ready to go.”

There is the question of how much the short run-up will affect the team’s tactical preparation. When the group convened for the September international window, Berhalter remarked how there was too much of a focus on granular details — such as the team’s shape when opponents break pressure and switch fields — instead of focusing on the basics.

“What we missed was the guys had been away for three and a half months,” Berhalter said. “They just did a whole preseason with their clubs where they’re learning different things, and our basic pressure wasn’t even right. The second part was guys were also coming into the camp with different starting points with the buildup part of the game.”

Berhalter added that he doesn’t think the six weeks between camps — at least for the European contingent — will be a problem in Qatar.

“They were just with us [in September], so I think that’s a really good thing,” he said in terms of the team’s tactical preparation. “But I think we’re in a really good spot in terms of understanding what we’re going to need to get this group ready to play against Wales.”

There has been some discussion regarding why the U.S. didn’t line up a friendly between getting players into camp and playing the first game against Wales. Berhalter said that there basically wasn’t enough time for a friendly given that some players wouldn’t arrive until this past Sunday night. The coach said the most sensible time to play a game would be on Thursday, but that would leave only three recovery days until the Wales game. There is also the risk of injury, something that has plagued the U.S. to varying degrees during the run-up.

“I’m just not sure of the teams that are playing on the [second] day of the World Cup, that that makes sense,” he said.

One area that is helped by the short lead time is scouting. In World Cups past that were chock full of pre-tournament friendlies, there was almost an adrenaline rush of scouting. Not so this time.

“This gives you a bigger lead time,” Berhalter said. “The work is done basically with scouting. This is actually, I think, beneficial.”

Much has been made of the weather in Qatar. The intense summer heat was the reason the tournament was moved to the fall. With the U.S.’s games kicking off at 10 p.m. local time, temperatures should be in the 70s. Getting the players’ bodies adjusted to playing at that time of day will be a trickier issue.

“We’re going to have to get these guys’ schedule shifted, and we have a plan for that,” Berhalter said. “We’ve been talking to experts in that field and how to do that. We’re going to be living a different waking day throughout the tournament, and that’s just part of it.”

The U.S. can have no excuses in terms of its base camp and training facility. The U.S. Soccer Federation visited Qatar nine times, scouting every location that was available, before lining up the opulent, five-star Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel at The Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island off the coast of Doha, to be its home base. The USSF left nothing to chance, having submitted its application within seconds of the portal opening in October 2019. The hotel has a private beach and 10 restaurants.

“The hotel, right when we walked in the doors, all the staff are there waving flags, our rooms are great,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “Our chefs have done an exceptional job. We have a players’ lounge, we have everything we need. It’s been great. We have TVs, ping pong tables, PS5s, putting green, whole nine yards, pretty much.”

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USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter says he and his team will continue to push the team’s “Be the Change” message while in Qatar.

Privacy also figured in the U.S. team’s choice of training base, with the U.S. poised to use the facility of Qatari club Al-Gharafa. The site has the usual amenities such as locker rooms, coaches’ offices and a cafeteria.

“We didn’t want to share a training ground with another [team],” Berhalter said. “There will be a number of teams that have to share a training ground. We think the stadium location that we have is good for isolated trainings, for filming.”

Not all of the team’s preparations have been centered on soccer. The run-up to the tournament has witnessed a focus on worker and human rights, given the at-times-brutal working conditions in the country, as well as including the LGBTQIA+ community in the festivities. To that end, the USSF has gone about educating the players on the issues while also engaging in programs on the ground. These include inviting migrant workers for their own training session where they will receive coaching from U.S. players and staff at the training site. The USSF plans to display rainbow flags and messages of inclusion at its night-before parties in Qatar.

The USSF has worked extensively with the U.S. embassy in Qatar, the Supreme Committee, FIFA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various Qatar government agencies to ensure there’s a commitment by everyone to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all U.S. citizens planning to attend the World Cup. The USSF is also supporting the creation of a compensation fund that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UEFA Working Group have proposed to provide for migrant workers and their families who need such a safety net for unpaid wages, injury or other harm.

“We’ve been prepping [the players] for a year and a half on it now,” Berhalter said. “We’ve had presentations from people that have lived over there. We have a weekly newsletter that we’re sending across about that. So I think it’s very important for them to be informed on it, and because of that we’ve been prepping them.”

For the U.S., the hope is that all of these preparations will pay off with a tournament performance to remember.