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USMNT World Cup preview: 22 questions about the U.S. at Qatar 2022, answered

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On Nov. 21, after 3,065 days of heartbreak, hope and angst, the U.S. men’s national team will return to the Word cup on a mission. “We’re not going there just to be participants,” head coach Gregg Berhalter told two dozen players in May. He’d been pacing back and forth at their first full-team meeting since qualifying for qatar when he paused, and clicked a slideshow to a picture of the World Cup trophy. And he asked the dimly lit room: “Why can’t we compete for this?”

That, as captain Christian Pulisic said, is their goal. They will travel to Qatar in mid-November, and parade onto a field to fulfill dreams and chase loftier ones. They’ll do so dogged by external doubts about their readiness their age, and, perhaps most of all, their coach.

With kickoff in just 28 days, here are 22 questions and answers about the USMNT’s adventure back to soccer’s biggest stage.

Who are the team’s new stars?

The “veteran stars,” in a way, are a trio of 23- to 24-year-olds who’ve been playing together on youth and senior national teams for a decade: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams.

The up-and-comers are Gio Reyna, a 19-year-old attacking midfielder at Borussia Dortmund; Brenden Aaronson, a relentless 22 years old midfielder on a meteoric rise; Sergiño Dest, a 21-year-old Dutch-born fullback who chose to play for the U.S. instead of the Netherlands; and Yunus Musah, a brilliant 19-year-old midfielder who could be the breakout star of this World Cup.

How well have they played together?

They actually haven’t played together, period, all that much, because they’ve all, at various points and to varying degrees, struggled with injuries.

But their generation came of age in 2021. In June, the USMNT’s youngest group to ever start a championship match beat mexico in a whirlwind continental final.A separate group of youngsters repeated the feat a month later. The Americans marched into World Cup qualifying with chests puffed and confidence brimming.

Did they qualify easily?

The 14-game qualifying gauntlet, though, was a roller coaster in every possible way. The U.S. looked shaky in September, then comfortable by November after another Dos a Cero Vanquishing of mexico, By March, they were statistically very secure but surrounded by fan base panic

They finished with the best underlying numbers in the region, and 1.8 points per game compared to 1.2 last cycle — but they qualified only automatically, without having to go through a playoff, on goal differential.

What are the USMNT’s flaws?

We could delve deep into things like buildup structure or speculate about intangibles like experience, but let’s start simple with personnel: The USMNT doesn’t have a reliable striker, nor a second center back.

I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about strikers. What’s the deal?

Ever since Jozy Altidore’s sharp decline, Berhalter has cycled through Gyasi Zardes and Josh Sargent and Jesús Ferreira. He tried Nicholas Gioacchini and Chris Mueller. He turned to Jordan Pefok and Daryl Dike. Then he stumbled upon Ricardo pepi, a then 18 years old phenom who scored in multiple qualifiers and became the go-to No.9.

But then pepi score for 11 months — in fact, the USMNT has failed to score in six of its last seven games against 2022 World Cup participants — and the search for solutions continued. On the doorstep of Qatar, it remains ongoing. In 180 September minutes with Ferreira, Pepi and Sargent leading the line, the U.S. managed just two shots on target.

Ferreira, at 21, was Major League Soccer’s Young Player of the Year, and has been Berhalter’s preferred option. But international soccer is a step above MLS, and Ferreira has scored only once in his past 12 USMNT appearances against opponents not named Grenada.

Who should start at striker?

The case for Ferreira is twofold: 1. Sure, he hasn’t been finishing chances, but he’s been getting chances and getting off shots, and that’s a better predictor of future goals. 2. He does much more than score. Berhalter often reminds him — and us, the media — that “we don’t judge him just based on goals.” Ferreira defends from the front better than any other U.S. forward. He also has the pace to stretch an opponent, and the technical ability to drop into midfield and link an attack rather than finish it.

He is inadequate, though, with a defender on his back, and that’s why he shouldn’t start at the World Cup. Against teams like Uruguay and japan-and at 5-foot -9,150 pounds — he struggles mightily when facing his own goal. And without a target striker as a viable route past a press, the USMNT can look incoherent or, even worse, it canself-destruct.

Pefok, who starts for the German Bundesliga leaders, is the USMNT’s best finisher. But Sargent should start because, unlike Pefok, he can do most of what Ferreira can do; and unlike Ferreira, he can win aerial duels and withstand physical battles with hulking center backs. He gives the U.S. a built-in Plan B — an in-game tactical versatility — that no other striker on the roster does. And he’s once again found his goalscoring touch

What’s wrong at center back?

The U.S. defense has actually been quite good, even against World Cup-caliber foes — in part because it has Adams in front of it and 29-year-old MLS veteran Walker Zimmerman anchoring it. Zimmerman came out of virtually nowhere to become an on- and off field leader, and one of a few automatic picks for the starting 11.

But next to him in  the center of defense? Well, Miles Robinson established himself as Zimmerman’s partner, then  tore his Achilles. Chris Richards, the presumed next man up, was injured in June and again in September; he’s started only one first-team game of any kind since April, and hasn’t played since August.

The remaining options appear to be Cameron Carter-Vickers, who has never started for the national team under Berhalter; or Aaron Long, a thoroughly unremarkable MLS veteran who, in Berhalter’s eyes, is a better system fit than the beloved and in-form captain of an English Premier League club, Tim Ream.

In one sentence, what is the story of this USMNT?

The roster is deeper, younger and more talented than ever before, but has scarce World Cup experience, no clear on-field identity and a couple glaring weaknesses that could prove costly in Qatar.

Many of the new guard are already starring at top European clubs, and will form the core of the youngest of the 32 teams at this World Cup.

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