It took a long, agonizing time for the shock of not qualifying for 2018 to wear off, which has made the joy of seeing the USMNT get the job done in 2022 even sweeter.
Living in Germany and having a day-to-day existence on Central European time sometimes means getting good or bad news from stateside early the next morning, while lying in bed, looking at my phone while I try to avoid moving into a vertical position to start preparing coffee.
It’s something that European-based expats learn to live with those mornings after important USMNT games or an election night, at least those of us who have the tendency to hit the snooze button one too many times.
I’ll never forget that morning of October 11, 2017, waking up and realizing I had slept through my alarm set five minutes before kickoff in Couva, and immediately seeing an email on my phone screen from one of my closest soccer-watching friends (a German mind you, but one who considers the US his second team) with the simple title:
“Excited for the World Cup?”
I immediately swiped over to my app for checking on games, confidently expecting to see that the USMNT had obviously hung onto third place and was set for a trip to Russia, but instead saw….well…I don’t have to tell you what I saw since it’s haunted all of us for a long four and a half years by now.
The friendship recovered – large volumes of cold beers in Bavarian Beer festivals can cure all ails and betrayals – but it’s taken a long time to lose this feeling that somehow, in some way, it’s going to go horribly wrong for the USMNT in the end.
For the record, I’ve powered through several long nights to catch games during this qualification cycle, but my record is far from perfect, and this morning was one of those times when my alarm lost the battle. I won’t even go into the dreams I had while unconsciously hitting my snooze button, they were simply brutal (a 17-2 loss was only the beginning of what fortunately only turned out to be a tediously horrifying nightmare).
Beyond the personal anecdotes, the point is clear:
The USMNT qualified for Qatar. It’s done.
Page after page of half-baked analysis has been written by me, my Yanks Abroad colleagues, and the myriad of other amateur and professional analysts throughout the seven months of this qualification process. The coach has been questioned, the USSF has been questioned, individual players have been lionized and torn down, and every single argument about this being the golden generation, or a flawed collection of talent has been made…and it doesn’t change the fact that they booked a spot for the first-ever Winter World Cup in Qatar.
To be clear, this isn’t meant to be some deep analysis of the team, tactics, coach or chances for success in Qatar. At this moment, we are in this short, calm period of time between having qualified, and finding out who our first three opponents (I emphasize, first three opponents…we want a fourth, fifth, sixth and…let’s dream….a seventh opponent) will be.
Any attempts to analyze the current state of the team, the potential of the team, the tactics and competence of the coaching staff, or even the upcoming & forgotten players (*cough* John Brooks *cough*) who could stake their claim in the next eight months will be moot sometime shortly after 7pm local time in Qatar on Friday.
The flood of half-baked analysis from every keyboard warrior will then become more specific, but no less speculative:
- Will the ability of John Brooks to control the ball and pass out of the back be an advantage against XXXX?
- Will Matt Turner’s shot-stopping or Zack Steffen’s distribution be the better choice against YYYY?
- Will ZZZZ‘s world-class pair of wingers exploit Berhalter’s preference to have Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest take an active role in pushing up on the attack?
What we do know is that the USMNT, being in Pot 2, will probably have one tough team in their group. Brazil, Belgium, France Argentina, England, Spain and Portugal are the tough cookies in Pot 1. Yes, the hosts Qatar are also in Pot 1, but let’s not forget that Qatar were only a comically bad VAR-confirmed penalty shank against the USMNT short of having a strong chance to play Mexico in the final of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
However, the rest of the draw is surprisingly tame. Pot 2 has the other down-on-their-luck heavyweights such as Germany, Netherlands, Uruguay, Switzerland and 2018 finalists Croatia. We won’t be drawn against any of those.
Pot 3 is surprisingly bland. They are all quality teams, don’t make any mistake, but the only factor amongst the eight teams (Senegal, Iran, Japan, Morocco, Serbia, Poland, South Korea, Tunisia) that will have any team quaking in their boots is one Robert Lewandowski. One player, not even a full team.
Pot 4 is interesting, but mostly because of the uncertainty. Due to disruptions in scheduling, three of the teams are not yet decided. Cameroon, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia and Ghana are so far the only confirmed possible opponents.
Hello Ghana, my old friend.
New Zealand, Peru, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Wales, Ukraine and Scotland still have to complete their paths in June games.
In short, for the USMNT, there is no group of death. That old excuse of the unlucky draw going against our favor is not a crutch this time around. Regardless of what happens on Friday, Gregg Berhalter and his team will be favored to advance past the group stage.
Expectations are allowed to be high this time. Not astronomical, but high.
Beyond that, any other analysis is folly until the surely-ostentatious and annoyingly drawn-out FIFA ceremony eventually tells the world the groups, and the possible paths through the knockout round to the final on December 18 in Lusail.
As a side-note, I almost wrote “Doha” as the location of the final out of complete obviousness. Doha is the capital and most important city of Qatar after all…but nothing about this World Cup has been obvious, except FIFA’s arrogant greed overruling any sense of human decency in the face of rampant, ongoing human rights abuses by the hosts…for the second time in a row. But I digress.
In the end, right now the collective US soccer fanbase is experiencing the figurative relief of releasing the massive volume of flatulence that has built up after four and half years of clenched cheeks, much like after the first dinner with the future in-laws. The failure of 2017 is no longer a scar, but a lesson learned.
So now, a seeming lifetime later, I can finally mutter the careless whisper:
“Alex, yes you a#&hole, I am Excited for the World Cup.”