It has been eight years since the United States men’s national team last appeared on soccer’s biggest stage, the World Cup. Eight years of waiting. Eight years of dreaming. Eight years of discovering and developing and then shaping a new generation of talents into just the right mix to contend for the sport’s biggest prize.
On Wednesday night in Brooklyn, Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. coach, laid his cards on the table by revealing the 26 players who will travel this month to Qatar for the Americans’ long-anticipated return to the World Cup.
The team’s hopes will be pinned to a core of young stalwarts led by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and a few others who have formed the foundation of the squad in recent years.
There were inevitably some surprising selections, including the veteran center back Tim Ream and the young forward Haji Wright, neither of whom had featured much in the team’s qualifying campaign over the past year. Zack Steffen, once seen as the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper, was not on the list, and neither was Ricardo Pepi, the promising teenage striker who scored three goals for the U.S. in the qualifying tournament.
And, of course, there were lingering questions: Who will start at striker? What sort of result would represent success for this group, which is talented but clearly inexperienced? What would be considered a failure?
These will begin to be addressed on Nov. 21, when the Americans face Wales in their opening match of the World Cup. They will play England next, on Nov. 25, before closing out the group stage against Iran on Nov. 29.
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“I think the best part of the last couple of days was seeing genuine smiles from the guys,” said Berhalter, who started video calling players who made the cut on Sunday. “That’s priceless. Every player, even guys who’d concluded they’d be there 100 percent, when I told them, there was real genuine happiness.”
The United States is expected to be the youngest team at the World Cup. The squad, in this way, represents a wholesale generational turnover, a group of promising prospects assembled and molded after the country’s spectacular failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Only a few players, most notably Pulisic, remain from that previous team. And only one player in this current group, right back DeAndre Yedlin, 29, has any previous World Cup experience.
“We all were pretty upset about 2018,” Yedlin said. “This is definitely a little revenge tour for that.”
At the same time, the tournament will offer some of the team’s youngest players a chance to announce themselves in front of a global audience. Gio Reyna, 19, the son of the former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, is seen by some as perhaps the most purely skilled player on the squad. Brenden Aaronson, 22, has become a fan favorite with Leeds United in his first season in the English Premier League for his turbocharged play on both sides of the ball.
Amid their other issues, the Americans have been fortunate to avoid the injury bug that is making life difficult for other nations. For example, France will be without two star midfielders, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté; Germany will not have forward Timo Werner; England will be short at least two defenders, Ben Chilwell and Reece James; and Mexico will miss the presence of Jesús Corona.
The conditions of several other star players are being closely monitored, including the South Korean forward Heung-min Son, who had surgery last week to repair a fractured bone in his face and the Senegalese forward Sadio Mané, who injured his right knee this week.
Rather than major injuries, then, one of the big questions for the U.S. team will be whether some of the players are, essentially, too well rested.
There are the team’s players from M.L.S., for example, which concluded its regular season a month ago and had its championship game Saturday. Striker Jesús Ferreira, who plays for F.C. Dallas, played his last competitive match on Oct. 23. Yedlin last played on Oct. 17, with Inter Miami. Center back Walker Zimmerman last played on Oct. 15, with Nashville S.C.
Berhalter convened a training camp for the M.L.S.-based players last month to maintain their conditioning. The group played three 90-minute scrimmages with the U.S. Under-20 team. It remains to be seen how sharp these players will look when called upon in Qatar.
“We feel real good about where are fitness is coming out of that camp,” Zimmerman said. It was just an important time for all of us to stay sharp.”
Some of the players based in Europe, meanwhile, have been struggling to procure regular minutes at their clubs. Matt Turner, the goalkeeper most likely to start for the Americans, has been a backup at Arsenal. Pulisic has been used mostly as a late-game substitute for Chelsea. Right back Sergiño Dest has been appearing inconsistently for A.C. Milan.
Most of the Europe-based players will have one last game with their clubs this weekend before heading to the World Cup. They will hope to avoid injury to make sure their longtime dreams come true next week.
“It’s a bit surreal to watch them reveal roster today,” said Adams, a 23-year-old defensive midfielder. “It’s a long time coming now, a long cycle since Gregg took over.”
The roster size for this year’s tournament was increased to 26 from 23. Coaches will be allowed to make five substitutes per game, up from three.
Along with Turner, the goalkeepers heading to Qatar will be Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson.
In defense, Berhalter selected Ream, Yedlin, Zimmerman, Dest, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Aaron Long, Shaq Moore, Antonee Robinson and Joe Scally.
The team’s midfielders are Aaronson, Adams, McKennie, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Yunus Musah and Cristian Roldan.
And the seven forwards are Ferreira, Pulisic, Reyna, Wright, Jordan Morris, Josh Sargent and Tim Weah.
Berhalter said it was “heartbreaking” telling certain players that they had not made the cut. But he declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind Steffen’s omission. As for Ream, 35, Berhalter said it was an easy decision to name him to the team — even if he had not played for the national team since the first game of the 14-game qualifying tournament — considering his sparkling form of late for Fulham, his club in the English Premier League.
“We hope these decisions are right,” Berhalter said. “They may not be. We’re making the best possible decisions with the information we have.”
The first group of players is set to depart on Wednesday for Doha. The rest will follow in the coming days after finishing up a final weekend of matches with their clubs.
The window for gearing up after that will be short. And all of the team’s preparations over the past few years, all of its hopes and expectations, will be quickly put to the test.