Soccer  

Weah isn’t concerned by youthful USMNT’s lack of experience

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — United States men’s national team winger Tim Weah says that the side’s relative youth isn’t a reason to count the Americans out at the 2022 World Cup.

“Even though we’re young, we’re not young-minded,” he said following Tuesday’s training session. “It’s not an immature group at all.”

When the U.S. faces Wales on Monday, the 26-player roster will hold an average age of 25 years and 175 days, making it the second-youngest USMNT squad at a World Cup after the 1990 team (24 years, 24 days).

But Weah pointed out that the U.S. has players with experience in dealing with pressure-filled environments. Christian Pulisic is a Champions League winner with Chelsea. Weston McKennie has been a steady presence for Juventus. Tyler Adams is off to a strong start in the Premier League with Leeds United after getting Champions League experience with RB Leipzig. Then there’s Weah himself, who at age 22 has already been part of league-winning sides with three different clubs, the latest of which came in with Lille in 2020-21.

“I feel like right now, the way football is, age is just number at this point,” he said. “Some of the best players in the world are not even 24 yet. I feel like, individually, we all have our own experiences and we’re all bringing our own maturities to the team.”

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Weah’s confidence comes from having recovered from a foot injury, logging two consecutive 90-minute stints for Lille as a right wing-back. While he cut it close to a degree in terms of recovering in time, he said, there was “never any fear” that he wouldn’t make it back in time for Qatar 2022.

“I’m a person that just lives in the moment,” he said. “Destiny is huge for me. I feel like if I wasn’t destined to be here, that’s just the direction my life was going to take, and I’m just blessed to be here, blessed to be healthy and living in the moment.”

Weah is now poised to grace the sport’s biggest international stage, one that eluded his father, George, the 1995 Ballon d’Or winner, who while representing Liberia fell just one point short of qualifying for the 2002 edition of the tournament.

“My dad wanted to do it with his country,” Weah said. “He didn’t have the opportunity to do it and now he’s kind of living it through me. I think it’s a blessing. It’s just amazing to be able to represent my family on this stage and represent the whole country.”

With the team settled into its environment in Doha, Weah is ready for what lies ahead.

“It’s a group of guys who know what we want,” he said. “We have our goal set and we’re all just ready to get started, coming in and putting in the work.”

The USMNT gives back

Pulisic’s penalty slammed against the post, but in this case the miss elicited laughter and good-natured banter among those involved, rather than angst.

The occasion was an event called Team 360, and it involved eight members of the U.S. men’s national team taking part in a training session with around 20 migrant workers who have worked on projects related to the World Cup. The workers had previously taken part in — and won — a Workers Cup organized by the Worker Welfare department of the Supreme Committee.

“After working, we get time for football, because I like football,” said Makanaga Joseph, 26, who hails from Kampala, Uganda, and for the past year has worked as security guard at the Al-Bayt Stadium. “Back in my country, I used to play football, but I had to work so that I support my family.”

The session involved some drills, small-sided games and the aforementioned penalty shootout with the U.S. players taking some turns in goal.

To be clear, the event felt like an opportunity for the Qatari authorities to burnish their image amid intense criticism of the country’s treatment of migrant workers. The U.S. players also appeared keen to provide an opportunity for the workers to rub shoulders with World Cup players, and also interact with and thank some workers for the job they’ve done. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter took part as did players Pulisic, McKennie, Ream, Adams, Kellyn Acosta, Aaron Long, Jordan Morris and Yunus Musah.

“I thought it was amazing,” Adams said. “I mean, to come out and be able to talk with some of the people that have built the stadiums, the hard work that has obviously gone into this, and just to have a little bit of feedback, conversation with them, know who they are, where they’re from, it’s a unique opportunity, so I was happy to do it.”

The USMNT has engaged in community-service-type events in past World Cups. In 2010, the team held an open session attended by children who took part in in various aid programs run by the U.S. Embassy, USAID or the Peace Corps. On this occasion, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) was presented with a suite of options by the Supreme Committee, and opted for this event.

Like past efforts, this event was appreciated by the participants involved.

“I’ve learned a lot of things here with the U.S. team,” Joseph said. “First of all, playing as a team, because when you play as a team, you achieve more. You cannot score when you’re alone.”

All present and accounted for

Wednesday’s training session featured some important guests. Personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Doha, as well as military personnel from Camp As Sayliyah and Al Udeid Air Base were able to attend. Berhalter regaled the attendees with the story of how in 2006, the U.S. squad visited Ramstein Air Base where a kid with “chubby cheeks” who was “so happy to meet the players” made an impression. That was none other than McKennie, whose father, John, was a U.S. serviceman, and the story drew applause from those in the crowd.

The sight of McKennie in full training was a welcome sign given he suffered a quad injury two weeks ago. The same was true about the full participation of Fulham teammates Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson, who trained off to the side on Tuesday. Sergino Dest trained apart from the group at the start of Wednesday’s session. A USSF spokesperson said that Dest doing an individualized program “related to load management,” although he was expected to join his teammates for the latter part of the session.

Meanwhile, the team has also gotten settled into to its new surroundings, be it the training site at Al-Gharafa SC, or the team’s hotel on The Pearl.

“I think it makes us feel at home,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said about the team’s setup. “It makes us feel comfortable and I think that’s a big thing coming up.”

The players even found time to watch the FIFA documentary on Netflix in the players’ lounge in the team hotel.

“We were all just laying down with blankets and it’s cool just to be with everyone and hang out,” Weah said. “It was fun.”