Expectations for the USMNT at the World Cup


David Nagy, Reporter

The 2022 Qatar World Cup is upon us. Teams have released their 26-man squads, players are arriving in Doha, and fans are crazed with excitement as they wait for the first match to kick off on November 20th. The tournament has its usual powerhouses favored to make the final rounds, but where does the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) fit into the mix?

As an American, unless you follow the sport year round, it can be hard to know what to expect from the team. Many ad campaigns featuring the team, including Captain Christian Pulisic in particular, give the impression that they are among the world’s best, and are considered to be a serious contender to win it all. Jon Hamm’s Santa Claus from the FOX ads seems to think so, so it must be true, right? The Tower gives its thoughts on that valuation and what can reasonably be expected from the USMNT in Qatar.

To understand the USMNT, some context is required. The United States has never won a World Cup, making their most successful run at the trophy almost a century ago when they knocked out of the Semi-finals in a loss to Argentina. Since then, the team has had its moments in the tournament, such as a massive upset win against England in the 1950 edition, and a close 3-2 result vs. Portugal in 2002, but have remained largely unsuccessful when faced with the highest level of competition. 

Four years ago, the United States missed out on the World Cup in Russia after an ignominious defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in the final match of a disastrous qualifying campaign. Since then, the USMNT has undergone a substantial rebuild. Many young players have broken into the team in a period which has seen them win the CONCACAF Nations League and the 2021 Gold Cup. 

The squad that will be playing  in Qatar is entirely different from any of the lineups that the US has put into the World Cup before. The USMNT has the youngest average age of all 32 teams this year, and there is only one player with previous World Cup experience. That would be 29 year old right back Deandre Yedlin, who plays for MLS side Inter Miami, and is one of nine players from MLS to be called up to the 26 man roster. MLS is often regarded as the 10th best league in the world, falling well behind the competition in Europe. Besides Yedlin, the squad will feature a few key names that play for more prestigious clubs in the top european leagues. 

Six players have been called up from the English Premier League, including Captain Christian Pulisic from Chelsea, Leeds United teammates Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, Fulham’s defensive duo of Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson, and the man expected to start in goal at the World Cup, Matt Turner of Arsenal. 

While he has thrived playing for the national team, Pulisic has not yet blossomed into a star at Chelsea like many imagined he would. Getting most of his minutes as a substitute for Chelsea, the 24-year-old forward has only contributed one goal and one assist in all competitions this season. In simple terms the captain and face of the USMNT isn’t a regular starter for his club, and is often forced to play out of his favored left wing position. He has at times been the star for Chelsea, but seems to be cooling off as time goes on, and has not surpassed his goal or assist tally from his first season with the club. 

Matt Turner too is quite familiar with the bench. He plays behind Aaron Ramsdale at Arsenal, who has been called up to the English Men’s National Team. Turner has yet to see the field in the Premier League since joining the club over the summer. He has played his only games  as the club’s goalie in the Europa League, where he has conceded one goal in four matches. 

Aaronson and Adams are regulars for Leeds after joining The Whites over the summer from Red Bull clubs Salzburg and Leipzig respectively. Aaronson has impressed with his ability to create goal scoring opportunities, and both players have showcased an exceptional ability to press with aggression and stamina, a trait prevalent in the Red Bull system. At ages 22 and 23, both players have shown promise and will be crucial to any success for the USMNT at the world cup. 

At Fulham, Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and Tim Ream are mainstays of the defense. The club has wildly overperformed since being promoted to the top flight of English football currently sitting in ninth out of twenty. At 25 Robinson has been a regular for the USMNT at left back, and can be counted on to play a vital role against tough competition. In central defense, Ream is a workhorse with ample experience. At age 35, he is the oldest player on the US roster, but remains near the top of the depth chart. 

Outside of the Premier League, the likes of Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Sergiño Dest (AC Milan), Yunas Musah (Valencia), Timothy Weah (LOSC Lille), and Weston McKennie (Juventus) are expected to play important roles in Qatar. 

While only recording two goals so far this season for Dortmund, Giovanni Reyna has played far beyond his years, making a name for himself in the Bundesliga. He has not been one to light up the scoresheet, but Reyna puts in hard work elsewhere on the pitch, and is considered by many to have star potential. 

Sergiño Dest finds himself in a similar situation to Pulisic and Turner, a player that provides depth for his club, AC Milan, but is likely to start for the USMNT at right back. For a player as young as 22, Dest, who formerly played for Ajax and Barcelona before his move to Milan, has an impressive resume. However, his future is in question as Dest has only played in 9 of 22 matches in Serie A and the Champions League this season. There are rumors that Barcelona will not welcome him back at the end of his loan. Having played for big clubs, Dest is used to the spotlight and certain to be in the starting lineup. 

Add Yunas Musah to the list of USMNT players who have the potential to make an impact on the scoreboard. Musah has played an important role for a Valencia side that sits at tenth in La Liga with the fourth most goals scored (22), behind only Barcelona (33), Real Madrid (33), and Athletic Club (24). Musah has provided 2 assists so far this season, exceeding his expected assists of 0.81, but only by a little. Musah is eligible to play for England, Italy, and Ghana, but has chosen the United States which seems to be the best fit for his current abilities and future aspirations. 

Sidelined for much of the current season with injury, Timothy Weah’s return has been a moderately successful one. In the six games he has played for Lille, he has served up 2 assists and created 4 chances. Weah has played the entirety of his senior career in France, getting his start at Paris Saint-Germain before making a move to LOSC Lille in 2019. The son of a Ballon D’or winner, the annual award given to the best player in the world each season, Weah has a legacy to live up to, and the World Cup would be a great place for him to make his mark.

Weston McKennie is second only to Christian Pulisic in importance to the team. The main man in the midfield, McKennie has cemented his place on the USMNT while playing well for Juventus. A dangerous player with the ball, McKennie ranks first in the Serie A for expected threat from carries among defensive midfielders. Without a doubt, McKennie will be central to the team’s success in Qatar.

The USMNT has been drawn into group B, alongside England, Iran, and Wales, in what has been deemed the “Group of Death”. Group B has the highest average global ranking, making it the hardest group to play in. None of the matches will be easy, but what do we know about the competition?

England is the clear favorite to win the group after making it to the finals of the Euro 2020 tournament. The past year has been underwhelming for the team, which was relegated from league A of the UEFA Nations League, and has not won a match since a 3-0 win against Côte D’Ivoire in March in its longest winless streak in nearly three decades. Despite this, England is putting forward the highest valued squad at the world cup, including big names like Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and rising stars Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham. The past is the past, and England is hungry for a strong outing in Qatar. 

Wales will appear in their second ever World Cup, after a 64 year hiatus from the competition. The Dragons made their way to the tournament via a tight qualification playoff win vs. Ukraine, featuring an impressive Gareth Bale free kick which resulted in the only goal of the match. While nearing the end of his illustrious career, Bale is by far the most important player on the team, supported by players including Tottenham’s Ben Davies and Daniel James from Fulham.  They are the weakest team in the group , but will put up a fight against any competition. If the United States can avoid giving up any dangerous set pieces and find creativity in the attack, they have a good chance of beating the Welsh.

Finally Iran, the dark horse of the group. The US vs. Iran match will be a tight competition, with the result likely deciding who will qualify for later rounds. Iran has made it to the last two World Cups, but haven’t made it past the group stage. This time around, Iran may be the most underrated team in the tournament, with impressive players in Sardar Azmoun from Bayer Leverkusen and Mehdi Taremi from FC Porto. Many of the players come from eastern leagues and have not had much exposure to a wider global audience. With the vulnerabilities of the USMNT’s lineup, Iran could see the knockout stages if they rise to the occasion. Overcoming Iran is crucial if the USMNT hopes to advance.

There are several worrying themes throughout the USMNT. First, many of the big names for the Stars and Stripes are only that, playing second best at their clubs to players who are featuring for other national teams. Secondly, there is a lot of potential, but few players who are really blossoming. The countries with the best chance at the World Cup are feilding squads filled with players at the height of their powers, this USMNT has to settle for many players who are still breaking onto the scene. The talent and potential could be a recipe for great success, but it is yet to be seen whether it is ready yet. Finally, the USMNT has to figure out how to score goals. In their most recent matches, the Americans have struggled to threaten their opposition, a flaw displayed in a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia and 0-2 loss to Japan. In their match against Saudi Arabia, the US men had only two shots on target, against Japan they had none. Those stats are unacceptable for a team which hopes to make it out of their group. 

Caught between the powerhouse of England and the formidable competition of Wales and Iran, supporters of the USMNT should brace themselves for trouble in the group stage. In the event that they are able to overcome the group of death, a close loss in the round of 16 would be a best case scenario. As it stands the team lacks the experience and quality of management to truly make a run at the final stages. Unless a number of players break out at an unprecedented level, the USMNT should see the tournament as an opportunity to gain valuable experience. 

The United States, Canada, and Mexico are jointly hosting the tournament in 2026. The three countries are guaranteed qualification as hosts, so the USMNT will be able to use the games leading up to the tournament to build chemistry and tinker with the starting lineup. If the potential of the young American players is maximized, USMNT fans can expect far better chances of making it further in the tournament as hosts in 2026.