(CNN) — When the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) walks onto the pitch in Qatar on Monday, it will be appearing at a men’s World Cup for the first time since 2014.
In the eight-and-a-half years since then, soccer has overtaken ice hockey to become the country’s fourth most watched sport with 13% of respondents marking it their favorite sport, according to a survey conducted by Statista in 2022, increasing from 4% in 2013, according to a Gallup poll.
So far, the US has been unable to translate this newfound popularity at home onto the world stage, though the core of its ‘golden generation’ has shown its potential to outdo its predecessors and has received the presidential vote of confidence ahead of its opening match against Wales.
“I know you’re the underdog, but you’ve got some of the best players in the world on your team and you’re representing this country and I know you’re going to play your hearts out, so let’s go shock them all,” President Joe Biden told the players on a call.
The USMNT was one of the last teams to book its ticket to Qatar, stuttering its way through the qualifying stages, perhaps haunted by its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup with a loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017.
Hired as manager in 2018 after that disappointment, Gregg Berhalter’s reign will be defined by how his squad performs in Qatar — and whether it can equal its round-of-16 performances at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, or even its 2002 showing when it reached the quarterfinals.
His side sealed its place in the tournament following a 5-1 victory against Panama, with a hat-trick from its talisman, top scorer in qualifying and star player Christian Pulisic, who will be central to the USMNT’s hopes at the World Cup
In 2021, he won the Champions League with his club Chelsea, becoming the first American to play in a Champions League final and the second to win it.
The 26-year-old’s time at Chelsea, however, has been hampered by a series of injuries and he has struggled for game time of late.
Injuries have hindered the USMNT’s cohesion. Pulisic and other key members of the team — forward Gio Reyna, midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, as well as defender Sergiño Dest — have played together in the same match just once, according to ESPN.
It is indicative of the team’s relatively untested nature, compounded by its youth which is, in many ways, its defining feature.
The 26-player squad will have an average age of 25 years and 175 days when it plays Wales, while the team that qualified for the tournament was even younger with an average age of 23 across the starting lineups of its qualifying matches.
Just one player, defender DeAndre Yedlin, has prior World Cup experience.
Although it is a team lacking in World Cup experience, it has frequently shown its talent, utilizing a high-tempo, transition game that showcases its dynamism and athletic midfield.
Many of its players ply their trade in some of the world’s most competitive leagues – 14 play for teams in the world’s top five leagues in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France, and five are competing in this year’s Champions League.
Competing in the biggest leagues, however, means that game-time is limited. Starting goalkeeper Matt Turner, for example, plays for Arsenal but has been on the bench for much of this season.
Such a young team is more likely to peak at the next World Cup, jointly held in the US, Canada and Mexico, but it can still has a 48% chance of reaching the knockout stages in Qatar, according to Nielsen’s Gracenote statistical modeling.
Who will USMNT face?
The composition of the USMNT’s group is both deceptively difficult and offers an opportunity to progress to the knockout stages, as it will face England, Iran and Wales, with the teams who finish first and second qualifying for the round of 16.
England — who reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup — is heavily favored to finish top but with all four teams ranked inside the top-20 of FIFA’s world rankings, any outcome is possible.
The USMNT is ranked above Wales and Iran, though both those teams contain generational talents, with Gareth Bale spearheading the Welsh attack and an unprecedented number of Iranian players competing in Europe.
“I was excited,” McKennie said after the draw, according to The Athletic. “You want to play the best of the best. You want to challenge yourself. I can’t think of any time better to do than now.
“As a team that’s still building and growing together, these are games that we’re going to have to learn how to win, so it’s an exciting group. The boys are going to be just as excited as I am — I’ll take that back, I’ll say ‘men’, they’re men now — but we’re definitely excited.”
The USMNT will face Wales first, playing in its first World Cup since 1958.
“I think that, at least to the American media, I think Wales is underrated,” Berhalter told reporters. “When I look at their squad, it’s basically a Premier League squad.”
As well as Bale, the Welsh squad boasts former Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, alongside promising youngsters Neco Williams and Brennan Johnson, presenting a possible stumbling block for the USMNT.
Four days later, the USMNT will play England, who reached the World Cup semifinal and European Championship final in the last four years but finished bottom of its group in this year’s Nations League.
Still, England has a tried and tested method in major tournaments under Gareth Southgate and will be difficult opponents.
Finally, the USMNT will face Iran, its geopolitical rival with whom it has had no formal diplomatic relationship since April 1980.
The two countries last played each other at a World Cup in 1998, when the Iranian players carried white roses — a symbol of peace — onto the pitch, and defeated the USMNT 2-1.
Iran has never reached the knock-out stages of a World Cup, and is playing amid domestic turmoil following mass protests and a violent response from the Iranian security forces.
If the USMNT can advance out of its group, it will meet a team from Group A — either Qatar, Ecuador, the Netherlands or Senegal — in the round of 16.
How to watch
The USMNT’s first game at the World Cup is against Wales on November 21 at 2pm ET, before it plays England on November 25 at 2pm ET and Iran on November 29 at 2pm ET.
All of its matches will be broadcast live on FOX Sports in the US.
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