Former US men’s national team midfielder and current Fox Sports analyst Stu Holden shares his thoughts with Boardroom ahead of the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
The current state of the United States men’s national soccer team is about as complicated and polarizing as the state of the actual nation with both the midterm elections and the 2022 FIFA World Cup taking place this month.
Many fans are excited to see America’s next generation on soccer’s grandest stage — the majority for the first time. Meanwhile, others remain cautiously optimistic as the USMNT will have the youngest squad in Qatar with an average age of 24.5 years.
It certainly won’t be a cakewalk in Group B against England, which finished fourth at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and were runners-up at the 2020 European Championships, 2016 Euro semifinalists Wales, and Iran, the highest-ranked nation out of the Asian Football Confederation.
“I think we’re feeling a little uneasy about how this is going to go,” former USMNT midfielder and current Fox Sports analyst Stu Holden told Boardroom. “The important part is that we’re back at a World Cup for the first time in eight years. The main goal for this team coming into this cycle was to get in a position to be back at a World Cup, which as American soccer fans and as an American soccer nation, that’s the baseline expectation.
“The last round of matches wasn’t good — they lost to Japan and tied Saudi Arabia. They picked up injuries. I don’t think we know who our starting keeper is, our starting center back and our starting forward. Outside of that, everything’s great.”
Following the failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, US Soccer underwent significant changes from the top down, both on and off the field. Three days after losing 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017, head coach Bruce Arena resigned. Two months later, US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Fingers were pointed. Questions were raised. Debates were had.
Five years later, the wounds remain painful for some.
“I can’t even talk about it still,” former USMNT defender DaMarcus Beasley recently told The Athletic. “It’s tough for me to speak about. We failed. Simple. We failed.”
Growing pains ensued as US Soccer and the USMNT tried to move on from arguably the darkest days in their history.
Gulati’s successor, Carlos Cordeiro, resigned after two years in charge due to criticisms he faced following court filings over the legal pay lawsuit by the US women’s national team. He was replaced by Cindy Parlow Cone in March 2020. USMNT interim head coach Dave Sarachan, meanwhile, was succeeded by Gregg Berhalter in December 2018.
With the next chapter ready to be written by a wide-eyed youthful group of players that includes Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Sergiño Dest, US Soccer set its sights on avenging the previous disappointment in the hopes of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Despite a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, the USMNT earned enough points during Concacaf qualifying to finish third and earn a trip back to the World Cup.
“I was skeptical at the beginning because (Berhalter) never coached a national team and he’s never coached at a World Cup,” Holden says. “But what I will say about Gregg and what he’s done well is that he came in with an idea as a coach, and a couple of the things he was trying to do weren’t working and a couple of things were working. But he was willing and able to adapt to that and change some of his baseline principles.
“I think he’s related to a young group of players really well. He’s also committed to and given a lot of confidence to a group where you could still have some old guys from the last cycle, like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, but he said early in the cycle, ‘These are the guys we’re going with. I don’t care if they’re 19, 20, 21. Let’s grow as a group together and be in a place come the World Cup in ’22 and also in 2026 where we feel we’re going to have a really, really good team.’”
Berhalter’s boys have certainly shown promise. The USMNT defeated rivals Mexico 3-2 in extra time to win the inaugural Concacaf Nations League in 2020. It then bested El Tri again 1-0 in extra time to hoist the 2021 Gold Cup. The USMNT also set a program record for wins in a calendar year by going 17-2-3 in 2021.
Yet, injuries and attempts to find the optimal lineup for Qatar have resulted in a mixed bag of results of late. The USMNT comes into the tournament winless in its past three matches following a 1-1 draw to El Salvador in the Concacaf Nations League, a 2-0 loss to Japan, and a scoreless draw with Saudi Arabia in friendlies.
Berhalter, whose contract expires following the 2022 World Cup, will announce his 23-man squad for the World Cup on Nov. 9.
“My biggest question marks besides the injuries and all that is the defense,” says Holden, who recently partnered with Lotto to further grow The Beautiful Game, especially at the youth level, in the US. “I think that we’re going to score goals because we have talented attacking players. I think we have a powerhouse midfield, but I wonder defensively with our center back partnership — that I couldn’t even tell you who that’s going to be today — what that looks like in the first game and what type of understanding and relationship those guys have to help get a result.”
Despite the question marks surrounding the team’s starting center back pairing, goalkeeper, and who will actually be fit enough to take the field to kick off the USMNT’s World Cup campaign against Wales on Nov. 21, Holden believes expectations should be high to advance out of the group stage.
Getting off to a good start against Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, and Wales will set the tone.
“The Wales game, I maintain, is the most important out of all of them because that’s the one that starts your tournament and is against a team I think we should beat,” Holden said. “Wales have had a couple of good runs in big tournaments going back to the Euros in 2016. They have some household names who have been at big clubs as well, but I still feel that on paper the United States are a more talented team, a more complete team, a more dynamic team and it’s also a team we should beat in the first game.
“If you win that game and get three points, you’re rolling into England on Black Friday, Nov. 25, which we expect to be the highest-watched men’s soccer game of all time (in the US).”
Expectations aren’t only high for the United States.
The pressure is on nations like Argentina and Portugal to help Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo discard the albatross and end their international careers by finally hoisting the World Cup, which may also help fans and pundits finally settle the GOAT debate. Five-time champion Brazil hasn’t finished better than sixth in the past three World Cup tournaments after winning two of the prior three with a second-place finish sandwiched between victories in 1994 and 2002.
England is coming off impressive showings at the past two major tournaments. Belgium spent the better part of the past four years as the top-ranked country in the FIFA men’s rankings. Germany, which went through its own growing pains and metamorphosis that led to winning in 2014, failed to advance from the group stage during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Defending champion France have been ravaged by injuries but boast arguably the world’s best young player in Kylian Mbappe as well as the recently crowned Ballon d’Or winner in Karim Benzema.
With storylines aplenty — let alone the off-field controversies of bribery surrounding the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East, the treatment of migrant workers, and human rights issues — Holden, unsurprisingly, is looking forward to the USMNT’s triumphant return to the World Cup.
“By the time they step on the field, it will have been over eight years since we were last in a World Cup in Brazil,” he says. “I hate to talk and think about that, but I’m also excited about that first game on Nov. 21 when they’re standing with their hands over their hearts when the national anthem is playing and we’re about to kick off against Wales to start our World Cup campaign and show the world that American soccer is something to be bullish about and we have some really exciting young players.
“I think that’s going to be the moment where American soccer fans think, ‘Yeah, it’s nice to be back with the big boys. But we’re not just happy to be back, let’s put on a show and get out of the group and see what happens after that.’”
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