Soccer  

USA recruit Qatar club team for challenging World Cup prep

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — Four days before its opening World Cup game against Wales, the United States men’s national team scheduled a closed-door training session with Qatari Stars League side Al-Gharafa SC.

Details about how the training session was structured were not available — only that it was not deemed a scrimmage — but the need to involve an outside team into preparation is reflective of the challenges with beginning the tournament in November.

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With only about a week together before the first game, coach Gregg Berhalter opted against lining up a more formal friendly, as other teams that start deeper in the tournament have done.

Al-Gharafa sits in fourth place in Qatar’s 12-team domestic league and its home ground, Thani bin Jassim Stadium, will serve as the U.S.’ training site for the duration of its tournament run.

For DeAndre Yedlin, the only holdover from the team’s last World Cup appearance in 2014, it’s has been a different process than the lead up to Brazil. Before that World Cup, the team trained together for about a month in the United States and played three friendlies before departing for the tournament.

Yedlin has been peppered with questions from teammates about how Qatar compares to what he experienced eight years ago.

“The answer I’ve given is you’re really playing all the games in one city,” Yedlin said.

“In Brazil, you’re flying three or fours hours so you can’t really have a base. We had base hotel but it didn’t feel like a base. Whereas here the first thing Gregg told us was ‘Unpack your things, put your books in the bookshelf, put your clothes in drawers, get comfortable.’ Psychologically, that has a big positive effect on people.”

Having Yedlin around to lean on for World Cup experience is something midfielder Tyler Adams said has been valuable.

“DeAndre’s perspective and the role that he plays within his team, he’s such an important person to have around,” Adams said.

“Obviously, whenever he’s had an opportunity to play, he’s always put in a good performance, but the way that he trains every day brings the mentality. He’s an amazing professional. So for us, we lean on him for advice and for answers coming into a completely new experience for 25 guys on the roster.”

While Yedlin has the experience, it is Adams that has emerged as the team’s vocal leader and someone who will likely wear the captain’s armband at some point during the tournament.

Berhalter has rotated captains throughout his tenure, and it’s unclear if that will remain the case in Qatar. Adams said Berhalter has not informed the team how those responsibilities will be handled.

“We all lead in various ways,” Adams said. “Of course, I’ve worn it at times and feel very comfortable wearing it, but I have total belief in my teammates as well.”

Christian Pulisic and Walker Zimmerman are two other players likely in consideration to serve as captain, with both having done so during qualifying.

Although it’s unlikely to happen, if Zimmerman were to wear the armband against Wales, it would make for a unique moment for Major League Soccer, which could claim both captains in the match. LAFC’s Gareth Bale is Wales’ longtime captain.

The former Real Madrid star’s summer move to Los Angeles has created more awareness for the league in his home country, according to Wales forward Mark Harris.

“I think over the past few years the perception of [MLS] has gone up, especially now that Gareth is over there,” Harris said. “Obviously, there’s gonna be a lot more eyes because a lot more Welsh people wanna watch games and see how Gareth is doing. … He hasn’t done too bad, I guess.”

Both Harris and teammate Ethan Ampadu, a former teammate of Adams at RB Leipzig, were complimentary of the U.S. on Thursday.

“They’ve got some really good individual players,” Harris said. “Obviously, got Pulisic. Obviously, a great player. Can excite anyone at any moment. Great players, great team and looking forward to the game.”