Shortly after the silence enveloping this sleepy neighborhood on the outskirts of Doha was broken by the late evening call to prayer echoing from the minarets, the United States men’s national team arrived at the Al-Gharrafa Stadium on Saturday night for their penultimate training session ahead of a tournament unlike any other.
The modest 21,000-seat bowl in Al Rayyan – the Americans’ training headquarters for the length of their stay in Qatar – is eight miles from the soaring glass-and-steel skyscrapers and sprawling air-conditioned malls of the Doha corniche. But not nearly far enough, it turns out, to escape the swirling controversies about the first World Cup to be staged in an Arab country, which were only amplified to a deafening pitch in the run-up to Sunday’s opening match between the host country and Ecuador.
Among the most alarming concerns have been the country’s dismal human rights record with respect to migrant laborers, women and the LGBTQ community, the environmental costs of hosting the tournament in the region as well as the persistent allegations of bribery between the Qatar bid committee and Fifa executives. Lately, the unfinished fan villages where traveling supporters have booked accommodation have evoked grim comparisons to Fyre Festival and only added to the criticisms over Qatar’s suitability as a host, a mountain that has accumulated since the oil-rich Gulf country was controversially awarded the tournament in 2010.
A few hours earlier, Fifa president Gianni Infantino hit back on the criticism surrounding the tournament in a sensational diatribe in which he accused the tournament’s Western detractors of hypocrisy – dutifully hitting the Qatari government’s talking points – while defending the country’s migrant workers policy and a last-minute decision to ban the sale of beer at World Cup stadiums (those in luxury executive boxes will still be able to drink whatever they want).
But even as the global reaction to Infantino’s extraordinary hour-long broadside reverberated, the Americans went about their final preparations for Monday’s opener against Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium with a business-like focus.
“We know that we’re a strong team and inside of our bubble, we try not to let anything inside,” US center-back Aaron Long said. “So just limiting distractions from the outside as much as we can and focusing on ourselves and focusing on this first game against Wales.”
The Americans have not turned a blind eye to the human rights issues at play. On Tuesday, the team welcomed 20 migrant workers into the camp for a kickabout, a gesture that may bring attention to the more than 6,500 laborers from south Asia estimated to have died in the dozen years since Qatar won hosting rights. Additionally, US Soccer has introduced a rainbow-themed crest as a show of solidarity in a country where homosexuality is criminalized. The US team will use the logo in venues it controls, such as its Al-Gharafa training hub, the team hotel, media areas and fan parties the night before matches – though notably not during the matches themselves.
But with the end of the US’s eight-year World Cup absence only 48 hours away, the attention on Saturday night was turned to the task at hand.
The United States, the second-youngest team in the tournament after Ghana, are led by what’s been touted as a golden generation of rising talent. More than half of the 26-man squad compete in the world’s top five leagues, including feature players Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Sergino Dest (Milan) and Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund).
But a closer inspection brings about more questions than answers. The backline has been ravaged by injury in recent months – established regulars Miles Robinson (achilles tendon) and Chris Richards (hamstring) both were left home – leaving Walker Zimmerman without an obvious partner at center-back. Left-back Antonee Robinson has said he is “still trying to get used to playing on one ankle” after a September injury with Fulham. Dest, the projected starter at right-back, was frozen out after a promising start at Barcelona and is far from his top form after struggling to get consistent minutes at Milan.
There’s also the glaring lack of goals from the No 9 position. In the end Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright edged out Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi, but none of them has managed to establish himself as a reliable central striker during Berhalter’s tenure. Ferreira, the likely starter against Wales, scores in bunches for FC Dallas but far less so for country: four of his seven international goals came in a Concacaf Nations League rout of Grenada this summer.
That goal-scoring anxiety is only compounded by the team’s punchless form of late, particularly against stiffer opposition. They have failed to score in six of their most recent seven games against countries who qualified for the World Cup, including an uninspired pair of friendlies against Saudi Arabia and Japan in their final tune-ups. Their biggest struggles have come against well-organized defensive teams who sit back and dare the Americans to break them down while looking for opportunities in transition – a bill that Wales fits uncomfortably well.
But Berhalter, who appointed defensive midfielder Tyler Adams as the team’s captain on Sunday afternoon, has continued to exude a firm confidence around his young guns, all but one who are poised to make their World Cup debuts.
“What I do believe is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Anyone,” he said this week. “It is a great honor to play in the World Cup, but we don’t want to just be participants. We want to perform. We think the first step is getting out of the group. And the second step is, in the knockout games, playing our best possible game and seeing how far we can go.”