SShortly after the silence that enveloped this sleepy neighborhood on the outskirts of Doha was broken by the late-night call to prayer echoing off the minarets, the USA men’s national team arrived at Al Gharrafa Stadium on Saturday night for their penultimate training session a tournament like no other.
The modest 21,000-seat bowl at Al Rayyan — the training ground for Americans while in Qatar — is eight miles from the soaring glass-and-steel skyscrapers and sprawling, air-conditioned malls of Doha’s Corniche. But not nearly far enough, it turns out, to escape the swirling controversy surrounding the first World Cup to be played in an Arab country, which only came to a head-splitting level ahead of Sunday’s opening match between the host nation and Ecuador.
Among the most alarming concerns were the country’s dismal human rights record in relation to migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community, the environmental cost of hosting the tournament in the region, and ongoing allegations of bribery between Qatar’s bid committee and Fifa executives. Of late, the unfinished fan villages, where traveling fans have booked accommodation, have evoked grim comparisons to Fyre Festival and only compounded criticism of Qatar’s suitability to host, a mountain that has mounted since the oil-rich Gulf country controversially won the bid for the tournament received 2010.
Hours earlier, Fifa President Gianni Infantino hit back at criticism surrounding the tournament in a sensational diatribe, in which he accused the tournament’s Western critics of hypocrisy – dutifully hitting the talking points of the Qatari government – while defending the country’s migrant workers policy and most recently – Minute decision to ban the sale of beer in World Cup stadiums (those in the luxury executive boxes can continue to drink whatever they want).
But even as the global reaction to Infantino’s extraordinary hour-long sweep lingered, the Americans went about their final preparations for Monday’s opener against Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium with a businesslike focus.
“We know we’re a strong team and inside our bubble we try not to let anything in,” said US center-back Aaron Long. “So we limit outside distractions as much as possible and focus on ourselves and on that first game against Wales.”
Americans have not ignored the human rights issues at play. On Tuesday, the team welcomed 20 migrant workers to the camp for a kickabout, a gesture that could draw attention to the more than 6,500 South Asian workers who are estimated to have died in the 12 years since Qatar won host rights. Additionally, US Soccer has introduced a rainbow crest as a show of solidarity in a country where homosexuality is a criminal offense. The US team will use the logo at locations under its control, such as the Al-Gharafa training center, team hotel, media areas and fan parties on the night before the games – but especially not during the games themselves.
With the end of America’s eight-year World Cup absence just 48 hours away, attention on Saturday night turned to the task at hand.
The United States, the second youngest team at the tournament after Ghana, are led by what is seen as the golden generation of rising talent. More than half of the 26-man squad plays in the top five leagues in the world, including feature players Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Sergino Dest (Milan) and Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund).
But a closer look reveals more questions than answers. The defense have been plagued by injuries in recent months – established regulars Miles Robinson (achilles) and Chris Richards (hamstring) have both been left at home – and left Walker Zimmerman without an apparent partner at centre-back. Left-back Antonee Robinson has said he is “still trying to get used to playing on an ankle” after suffering an injury at Fulham in September. Dest, the planned starter on the right, was frozen after a promising start at Barcelona and is far from his top form after struggling for consistent minutes in Milan.
There’s also the glaring lack of goals from the No. 9 position. In the end, Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright ousted Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi, but neither of them managed to establish themselves as reliable centre-forwards during Berhalter’s tenure. Ferreira, who is likely to start against Wales, scores plentifully for FC Dallas but far fewer for the national side: he scored four of his seven international goals in a Concacaf Nations League win against Grenada this summer.
That goal angst is compounded by the team’s lack of hitting form lately, especially against stronger opponents. They have failed to score in six of their last seven games against countries that have qualified for the World Cup, including two uninspired friendlies against Saudi Arabia and Japan in their last prelims. They’ve had their biggest struggles against well-organized defensive teams, who sit back and challenge the Americans to break them while they look for transition opportunities – a bill Wales fit uncomfortably well.
But Berhalter, who had named defensive midfielder Tyler Adams as the team’s captain on Sunday afternoon, continues to exude a firm faith in his young guns, all but one of whom are poised to make their World Cup debuts.
“What I believe is that on our best day we can beat anyone in the world. Everyone,” he said this week. “It’s a great honor to play at the World Cup, but we don’t just want to be a participant. We want to perform. We think the first step is to leave the group. And the second step is to play our best game in the knockout games and see how far we can go.”