Soccer newsletter: U.S. team gained valuable experience for the 2026 World Cup
DOHA, Qatar — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, coming to you again from the World Cup in Qatar, where more than half of the teams are gone and those that remain are playing for history. Today we’ll look at the France-England quarterfinal, which probably should be the final, the highlights and lowlights of the group stage and what leagues and teams were best represented here.
But we start with the U.S. team’s exit in the round of 16, what that experience means going forward and what it means for a veteran player who never thought he’d be here.
DeAndre Yedlin was the only member of the U.S. roster who came to Qatar having played in a World Cup. He also was one of just two who started in the loss to Trinidad and Tobago that kept the U.S. out of the tournament four years ago. So Yedlin, perhaps more than anyone else, was best positioned to talk about the progress the team has made in the last four years.
And his conclusion is this U.S. squad is a special group.
“This team has given a lot of people hope. People see the talent on this team, and they get excited,” he said. “As a group, we built a culture. We built a foundation. It’s very cohesive, it’s a brotherhood.”
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Yedlin credited coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff for much of that.
“The hardest thing as a coach is to get everybody going in the same direction. I think he’s done that very well,” Yedlin said. “Everybody bought into the culture and that’s the most important thing. You hear a lot of talk about vibes with this team and people like to joke about it. But at the end of the day, I think that could be the team’s biggest quality.
“We are always positive. We’re always looking forward. Even when there’s bad moments, the perspective [is] wanting to move forward.”
Despite that this team, the youngest U.S. World Cup team in a generation, didn’t get any farther than the last two, going out in the round of 16. But Yedlin said that’s part of the journey, just as the failure to qualify in 2018 was.
“The biggest thing is the group learned what it feels like to lose in a World Cup. And that goes a long way,” he said. “You look at a lot of these guys — well, everybody besides myself — and nobody had played in the World Cup before. You go into the next one and pretty much everybody in that group probably will have played in the World Cup. So now it’s a whole different story. Now they know that feeling of what it’s like to lose after putting so much into it. That can only fuel success.
“You look at 2018 and we didn’t qualify and people ask why,” he continued. “Well, I think if you qualify in 2018, this group that we have right now is not together. And then this happens [in Qatar], and people are asking why. And I don’t know why it happened like this or what will come in the future. But I’m sure at some point, it will make sense.”
While Yedlin, 29, was looking forward, defender Tim Ream, 35, was looking back.
For Ream, the experience in Qatar was career defining. The oldest player on the U.S. team hadn’t been called up for 14 months and had given up on the World Cup before injuries opened a spot on the roster. He wound up playing every minute in the tournament.
“I’ve tried to convey to the guys [that] you’re never guaranteed anything in this game,” he said. “I was in the program for 12 years and never guaranteed anything. Obviously, a lot of these guys are guaranteed another World Cup. For me, that’s not going to happen.
“So trying to convey to treat each and every training session as if it was their last, each and every game as if it was their last. If tomorrow, if it all finished and their career was done, would they be happy with it? And I can honestly say if that was the case for me, yes, I’ve given it everything. And hope these guys take that advice.
“Because I think it’s something that’s important, not taking anything for granted.”
As for what comes next, the U.S. opens its first training camp of the new World Cup cycle in six weeks, ahead of friendlies with Serbia at Banc of California Stadium and Colombia at Dignity Health Sports Park. Who will be in charge of that camp and those games is unknown. Berhalter’s contract expires this month and neither the coach nor U.S. Soccer has tipped its hand as to how negotiations are going — or if they’re even happening.
“For the last month, month and a half, I just focused only on the World Cup and focused on achieving things with this group. The next couple of weeks, I’ll clear my head, I’ll sit down and think about what’s next,” Berhalter said.
But asked whether he thinks the team has made progress over the last four years — and over the last three weeks in Qatar — and the coach was unequivocal.
“I do feel like we’ve made progress. I feel like when you look at our team, it’s a very clear identity of what we’re trying to do. You have a group that’s extremely committed to each other to what they’re trying to accomplish on the field. And you have a good group of individuals,” he said.
“The guys should feel they gained confidence about the fact that they can play with anyone in the world the way we want to play. That’s the important thing. And now it’s about how do we keep that up and take it to another level where you can win a knockout game in the World Cup and you can keep that going.”
A classic World Cup matchup that’s coming too early
England made it to the semifinals of the last World Cup and France won it all. Both teams are ranked among the top five in the world by FIFA. So it seems a little unfair that they meet in a quarterfinal here.
But that’s the way the bracket shook out and it could make Saturday’s final-eight game the best of the tournament.
England cruised through its group unbeaten but untested in routing Iran, playing the U.S. to a scoreless draw then beating Wales. In the round of 16, it eliminated Senegal 3-0 with Jordan Pickford running his shutout streak to three games and 270 minutes. England’s nine goals scored, meanwhile, is tied with Spain and France for the tournament lead.
France rested many of its starters in the final group-play game, which it lost to Tunisia to end its World Cup unbeaten streak at nine games. Kylian Mbappe has five goals and Olivier Giroud three, giving France the most potent one-two punch in the tournament and making Saturday’s game the most anticipated in this World Cup.
Former England defender Glen Johnson, who played in the 2014 World Cup, said the two teams’ path to this game started more than six years ago in the run-up to the 2016 Euros, where France made the final. England made the final of that event four years later. In between France won a World Cup and England made the semifinals.
Johnson, who now works with onlinecasino.com after retirement, said England’s easy run through the first four games sets it up well for what’s to come.
“It’s a very good side. The group was relatively kind,” he said. “But you’ve still got to beat the teams in front of you and I think they did it quite well.”
As for whether this team, under coach Gareth Southgate, constitutes a “golden generation” for England, Johnson said the team still might may be building.
“They’ve been competing for the last sort of, what, six years in terms of the last World Cup and the Euros,” he said. “They’re going to build on experience and they’re all the right age. So I don’t think this is a one-off. I think the team is improving, building a good team and doing a good job. I suppose it’s going to be competing for a while.”
As for his own World Cup experience, England didn’t win a game in 2014, only the second time the Three Lions were shut out in the tournament and the first time since 1958 they were winless. But Johnson did have the assist on Wayne Rooney’s only World Cup goal.
“It’s definitely out there as one of the best moments of my career,” he said. “You’re just doing your job. And we had a very tough group. We could have easily won that group as come in where we came. [But] it’s just another assist for me.
“It’s nice that you did it on the biggest stage. But you know, I didn’t really think about it like that.”
Mbappe is of a similar mindset when it comes to individual World Cup accomplishments. After Mbappe’s second brace of this World Cup — and his tournament-leading fourth and fifth goals in four games — beat Poland 3-1 in the round of 16, the Paris Saint-Germain star, already a World Cup winner at 23, was asked what it would mean to win the Golden Ball or Golden Boot in Qatar.
“To be honest, the only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” he said. “Now to win the next game, the quarterfinal, is the most important thing and that’s what I dream of.
“I came here to win this World Cup. I didn’t come here to win the Golden Boot or Golden Ball. If I win [either], of course, I’m going to be happy. But I’m here to win. I’m here to help the French national team.”
Leading lights of the World Cup
Although the World Cup’s first round is receding in the rear-view mirror and the quarterfinals, which begin Friday, loom, this still is a good time to take a look back on the lowlights and highlights of the 48-game group stage.
Qatar, which had 12 years to prepare for its World Cup debut, became the first host nation eliminated after two games. Its fans began leaving the stadium at halftime of Qatar’s first game, which also was the tournament opener. Qatar scored just one goal, never led and was the first host nation since the U.S. in 1994 to be held without a shot on goal at home. Overall, it was the worst performance by a host nation in World Cup history. Maybe Qatar needed 13 years?
Mexico, meanwhile, had its worst World Cup in 44 years, going out in the group stage for the first time since 1978 when it lost all three games and was outscored 12-2. El Tri went 431 World Cup minutes, dating to the second game of group play in 2018, before scoring in this tournament — then almost advanced before eventually finishing third in its group behind Poland on goal differential.
No country has lost more World Cup games than Mexico’s 28.
Uruguay, with five players participating in its fourth World Cup, certainly was expected to get out of the group — and to score a goal — but it didn’t do either until the final game of group play. That proved too little too late and brought an anticlimactic end to the country’s greatest generation since the late 1960s.
Germany ended group play by beating Costa Rica for its second World Cup victory since the 2014 title game. But that wasn’t enough to save it from exiting in the first round for just the second time in the modern era. The first time? Four years ago in Russia.
But Germany did leave a mark on this tournament with its protest of FIFA policies before its opening game. When FIFA ruled team captains wearing the OneLove armband, which represents inclusion and gender equality, would be sanctioned, the Germans pushed back on what they considered censorship by wearing rainbow-colored items on their boots and putting their hands over the mouths in a pregame photo. Germany then lost the game to Japan 2-1.
Speaking of politics and sports, before the U.S. beat Iran last week to advance to the final 16 its social media team precipitated an international incident when it removed the emblem of the Islamic Republic from the Iranian flag. The altered flag appeared briefly in social media posts hyping the U.S.-Iran game, but the Iranians were not amused and likened the U.S. action to removing God from the flag and demanded FIFA kick the Americans out of the tournament. In the end, it was the U.S. that eliminated Iran, but the game really didn’t need the additional tension.
And finally Canada, returning to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years, didn’t stay long. Like the Green Bay Packers’ offense this season, Canada went three and out. Just as it did in 1986, it didn’t win or get a draw, but it did get two goals — only one of which it scored on its own.
For the first time, a team of female officials worked a men’s World Cup game last Thursday when Stéphanie Frappart of France took charge of Germany’s group-play finale with Costa Rica. The assistant referees were Neuza Back of Brazil and Mexico’s Karen Díaz while American Kathryn Nesbitt served as the offside specialist on the video review team. Nesbitt later ran the lines as an assistant referee in the England-Senegal round-of-16 game
Morocco used two goalkeepers to shut out Belgium and Croatia — both top three finishers in the last World Cup — en route to the second round for the first time since 1986. The only goal Morocco gave up in the first round was an own goal against Canada.
Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, one of the great scorers in club soccer with seven Bundesliga scoring titles and two European Golden Shoes, finally got his first goal in his fifth World Cup game as he helped Poland advance for the first time since the end of the Warsaw Pact.
Lewandowski’s goal accounted for half of Poland’s offense in a group stage in which it was shut out twice in three games. He then added another on a penalty kick on the final touch of Poland’s round-of-16 loss to France. But goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was Poland’s player of the tournament while making 24 saves, including two on penalty kicks.
Spain set a World Cup record in maintaining possession for more than 81% of the game in its 7-0 win over Costa Rica, a match in which it became the second team in tournament history to attempt more than 1,000 passes.
In Portugal’s opener, Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player in World Cup history to score in five tournaments.
Senegal, which got to the World Cup for the first time in 2002 behind the performance of captain Aliou Cisse, got out of the group stage for the first time since then under the direction of coach Aliou Cisse. And it did that without Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane, the two-time African player of the year, who was injured in his penultimate game before the World Cup break.
Then it ran into England in the first knockout round.
Statwatch: World Cup edition
Leagues that have the most players on 2022 World Cup rosters
English Premier League: 136
La Liga: 83
Serie A: 68
Ligue 1: 54
Saudi Pro League, Qatari Stars League: 33
English Championship: 26
Liga MX: 23
Clubs with the most players on 2022 World Cup rosters
Bayern Munich, Manchester City: 16
Al-Sadd (Qatari Stars League): 15
Manchester United: 14
Real Madrid, Al-Hilal (Saudi Pro League): 12
Tottenham, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Atletico Madrid: 11
Source: Sporting News
Statwatch, L.A. County edition: youth sports participation, 2016-22
1. Soccer/futsal (28.8% to 20.7%), -8.7%
2. Softball (fast/slow) (12.9% to 6.7%), -6.2%
3. Swimming (27.1% to 22.0%), -5.1%
4. Basketball (26.5% to 21.6%), -4.9%
5. Baseball (17.6% to 13.2%), -4.4%
Source: LA84 Foundation
And finally there’s this …
Jill Ellis, the first coach since World War II and just the second in history to lead a team to consecutive World Cup championships, was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Ellis, 56, led the U.S. women’s national team to back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2019, going unbeaten in 14 games. Her 106 victories are the most by a U.S. national team coach regardless of gender, and the San Diego Wave, the NWSL expansion team for which she serves as president, this year became the only first-year team in league history to make the playoffs. Ellis, who coached UCLA to 229 wins and eight College Cups appearances in 12 seasons, was enshrined in that school’s Hall of Fame in 2019 … Julianne Sitch became the first woman to coach a men’s soccer team to an NCAA championship Saturday when the University of Chicago beat Williams 2-0 in the NCAA Division III final.
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In case you missed it
“We had a common goal four years ago, a mission that we set out on, which was to change the way the world views American soccer. I think this tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect. I think we’ve shown that, you know, we can be giants. We may not be there yet, but I think we definitely are on our way.”
USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie on what the team accomplished in the World Cup