After disaster four years ago, U.S. men’s soccer team aims to be World Cup spoiler
“It is an utter embarrassment!” Twellman, a former national team player, screamed at a camera moments after the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago, missing the World Cup for the first time in nearly three decades. “That should have never happened. And it did. And every single person should look themselves in the mirror.
“What are we doing?”
Twellman’s point was the United States couldn’t consider itself a soccer country, one that could compete with Argentina and Belgium, if it couldn’t beat Trinidad and Tobago. How could it be a world power if it couldn’t qualify for a World Cup?
U.S. Soccer needed to start over — so it did.
In the wake of the loss, Bruce Arena resigned as coach. Federation president Sunil Gulati decided not to run for reelection. And Dave Sarachan was named interim manager and told to ... well, he really wasn’t told anything.
“There wasn’t a lot of input,” he says now. “Everybody was sort of just disassociated with the men’s team. But I didn’t mind because it allowed me a lot of autonomy in terms of using what I felt was good judgment to begin the process of identifying these next generational guys.”
The wisdom of that judgment will be on display in Qatar on Monday when the United States returns to World Cup play after an eight-year absence. In Sarachan’s 12 months as the caretaker coach, he gave a record 23 players their international debuts, including nine — Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Shaq Moore, Luca de la Torre, Josh Sargent, Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Aaron Long — who are on the World Cup roster.
The U.S. team, with an average age of 25, is the youngest in Qatar and the second-youngest World Cup team in U.S. history. It might also be one of the best because after Sarachan was replaced by Gregg Berhalter, the team he helped build climbed into the top 11 in the FIFA world rankings for the first time in 16 years.
And it might never have happened had the United States squeaked by Trinidad and qualified for the tournament in Russia.
The U.S. men’s national team is hoping to use its participation in the World Cup to raise awareness about many of the social issues that exist in Qatar.
“It’s hard to go back in time to say ‘what if’ and predict or say if we had qualified would certain guys not have gotten an opportunity? Would certain veterans still be a part of it?” said Sarachan, now coach of Puerto Rico’s national team program. “The answer could be yes. Could be no.”
“I can sit up here and tell you advantage, disadvantage. It doesn’t matter, though,” he said. “Because it is what it is. That’s just the nature of what we’re working with.
“We’re pleased with how this group has been rebuilt. We’re pleased with the core of this team. The core of this team has a ton of potential. We’re just excited to get the tournament started.”
DeAndre Yedlin, one of three holdovers from the 2017 team and the only player on the roster to have taken part in a World Cup, said the first step toward Qatar started when he walked out of that locker room in Trinidad.
“It was extremely disappointing,” he said. “To every negative there’s a positive, and I think that kind of built this team, this young team, and rebranded the federation a little bit. The players are really excited about the group that we have and think we have a great chance to be successful.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. Germany went through a similar transformation, laying out a 10-year rebuilding plan after getting bounced, winless, from the 2004 Euros. Two years later, 13 players made their World Cup debuts for the country, and in 2014, Germany won its fourth championship.
“Whenever there’s failure, people tend to do a deeper dive into why it failed, which is understandable and should happen. And then how do we get it better? How do we build it back?” Sarachan said of the U.S. program.
“When there’s a failure, sometimes a reset needs to happen, and I think it did.”
No one is predicting a World Cup title for the United States. But the core Berhalter was talking about — Christian Pulisic, Sergiño Dest, Gio Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Robinson and Sargent — features players between 20 and 25. They played with one another on youth national teams and could be together for another two World Cup cycles.
There’s no telling what they could do. If Trinidad marked the end of something, Qatar marks a new beginning.
“It’s a little bit underrated how this young group has developed, how this program has developed,” Berhalter said. “We virtually started with a new player pool in 2018, and now we’re back in the World Cup [and] the final determination on this group will be at the World Cup. That’s how generations are measured.”
Measuring up in Qatar could be tough because the United States, ranked 16th in the world, was drawn into the deepest group in the 32-team tournament, one in which it will open against Gareth Bale and 19th-ranked Wales on Monday before facing No. 5 England and No. 20 Iran. No other group has four teams in the top 20 in the world rankings, and the United States must finish in the top two to advance to the knockout rounds.
As a result, Berhalter said he is viewing the World Cup as two tournaments.
“There’s the group-stage tournament, and we have to finish second to earn the right to play in the other tournament, which is the knockout tournament,” he said. “From there, anything can happen. For us, it’s about how do we play the best possible game that we can in the knockout stages to keep advancing.”
For the first time, women officials will work the men’s World Cup. Karen Díaz Medina of Mexico and Kathryn Nesbitt of the U.S. are two of the six women chosen.
Keep advancing. That’s the mandate Sarachan accepted five years ago, and it’s one Berhalter accelerated when he took over a year later.
And it’s a big step forward from where the United States was when Twellman stepped into an ESPN studio and was asked what he thought of the team’s performance on a forgettable night in Trinidad.
“I’m not telling you they need to win the World Cup. But they can’t lose all three games,” he said of the team in Qatar. “The rest of the world, when they have generations like these, they see positive, tangible results that they’re moving in the right direction.
“They’re ready. They’re a little naïve, which I think is healthy because they’ve never been there. [But] the core group of players, this is 100% the building of their foundation of whether or not they’re going to [do] anything of real serious magnitude.”