Friday Newsletter: Which Players' Lives Are About to Change at the World Cup?
The sense of possibility before a World Cup is one of the best parts about it. Which players have the best chance to break out when the tournament starts in 30 days?
I love this photograph.
It captures the sense of possibility in the month before a World Cup. The image was taken by Renzo Gostoli of Diego Maradona in the Argentine training camp at Mexico’s Club América on May 13, 1986, 18 days before the start of the World Cup that transformed the sport of soccer itself.
Was Maradona, then 25, globally famous at the time? Of course. He had just finished his second season at Napoli and was the most expensive player in the world. But truth be told, at this point he had been something of a disappointment compared to the enormous expectations placed on him.
Maradona’s first World Cup, in 1982, had been a disaster, with defeats to Belgium, Italy and Brazil, the last of which saw Maradona sent off for a kick to the groin of Brazil’s João Batista. Nor had Maradona’s tenure at Barcelona (1982-84) gone well, which led to him being sold to Napoli.
By the time Argentina arrived in Mexico for the World Cup, expectations for the national team were so low that Maradona made sure to point out the negative things that had been said when their fortunes changed. We all know what happened in that tournament: Maradona dominated a World Cup like no other player in history and cemented his legacy, becoming a mythical figure in the game.
But this photograph catches something special: The player at the moment when he is on the verge of something magical, something that will change his life forever and alter how the world perceives him. When limitless talent meets a global launchpad possibility: That is an intoxicating moment. That is the power of the World Cup. We are in those last days before a World Cup again.
It is possible that no player ever again will lord over a World Cup in the way that Maradona did in 1986. But there are a few players out there who could break out in a big way: Either to help win the tournament or to take their careers to the next level in front of billions watching on TV. Here are some possibilities from my perspective:
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TEAMS THAT COULD WIN THE WORLD CUP
England: Phil Foden (22), Bukayo Saka (21). Foden has become one of the most potent attacking threats for perhaps the world’s best club team (Man City) and a reliable choice for England boss Gareth Southgate. Saka is heating up at the right time and could become the same for the Three Lions.
Germany: Jamal Musiala (19). Hansi Flick already trusts the Bayern Munich attacking midfielder, and why shouldn’t he? He’s ready to become a global household name.
Netherlands: Jurrien Timber (21), Cody Gakpo (23). Louis van Gaal has no problem going with youngsters, and he’s already choosing Timber to start on his back line ahead of Matthijs de Ligt. Meanwhile, PSV’s Gakpo, an attacking central mid, is on the purchase list of all the top clubs and will get the chance to shine in Qatar.
Portugal: Rafael Leão (23). He’s already the best player on reigning Italian champion AC Milan. The question is how much he gets to show as long as Cristiano Ronaldo is on the field.
Spain: Pedri (19). Wise and talented beyond his years, Pedri made a significant impact on Euro 2020 and should again at the World Cup.
Argentina: Julián Álvarez (22). There’s a reason the Man City player didn’t get loaned out by Pep Guardiola—and a reason he’s getting starts for Argentina as Lionel Messi prepares for one last ride at a World Cup.
Brazil: Vinícius Júnior (22). We’ve been watching Vini Jr. for so long at Real Madrid that it’s easy to forget he’s still just 22. But he could be the difference-maker as Brazil tries to win its first World Cup since 2002.
PLAYERS WHO COULD BREAK OUT WITHOUT WINNING THE WORLD CUP
Ecuador: Moisés Caicedo (20). The Brighton midfielder is already making waves in the Premier League, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he did so at the World Cup.
Uruguay: Darwin Núñez (23). Yes, the Liverpool striker can be “agricultural,” but he’s also a chaotic force of nature.
USA: Yunus Musah (19). The Valencia central midfielder creates all sorts of danger carrying the ball up the gut, and he’s the most likely U.S. player to break out in Qatar.
Canada: Jonathan David (22). We all know who Alphonso Davies is, but if David lights up the scoring chart the way he’s done at Lille, he’ll do even more to set up the big transfer that’s inevitable.
Ghana: Mohammed Kudus (22). The Ajax forward has been tearing it up at club level, and Ghana would be smart to ride him as far as it can.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
What do you think is the best way to move the needle on the abuses in Qatar? I don’t know if I’m strong enough to boycott watching the World Cup—when it comes to the USMNT, I’m a good example of why fan is short for fanatic. But I’m seriously considering it. If fans don’t act, FIFA will have no motivation to change, and I can’t think of anything that will get their attention other than the bottom line.
I have no issues with anyone who wants to boycott watching this World Cup, but honestly I don’t with anyone who decides to watch it either. When it comes down to it, I have a deep understanding of anyone who has conflicting emotions about this particular tournament. I do too. As I reported in my recent story, public pressure has already caused some change in Qatar, which adopted new worker laws in 2019 that haven’t been adopted in other Gulf states. The big questions are whether those laws are being observed on the ground and whether there will be a rollback after the Qatar World Cup. But there has been some much-needed progress. I certainly hope there will be more.
What’s wrong with Leeds: America’s team in the EPL?
I watch every Leeds game, so I have some thoughts. The club knew it needed to buy a striker and left back in the transfer window, and it didn’t end up pulling the trigger. Those two spots have been a real issue. The central defense hasn’t been good enough, the cutting edge to score goals hasn’t been there often enough, and there hasn’t been as much advantage on set-pieces (attacking and defending) as I would have expected from a Jesse Marsch team. The Americans, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, have actually been among Leeds’s best players, so it’s not their fault. But I do feel a lot is riding on this weekend’s game at home against Fulham. LUFC needs a win.
What group stage games at the World Cup not involving the U.S. are you most looking forward to?
Senegal-Netherlands. The Dutch are good enough to win the tournament, and Senegal has a chance to go deeper than we’ve ever seen an African team go at a World Cup. Plus one of these teams could be the U.S.’s opponent in the Round of 16.
Belgium-Canada. The Belgians will be favored, obviously, but we’ll get a sense early in the tournament if the young Canadians will be able to hang with an older heavyweight. (Chance No. 2 comes against Croatia.)
Portugal-Uruguay. A rematch of the 2018 elimination game won by Uruguay. Lots of big names on the field for two soccer nations that punch way above their weight.
France-Denmark. Four of the last five defending men’s World Cup champions have gone out in the group stage of the subsequent tournament. If France does a pratfall, this game will likely have something to do with it.
Argentina-Mexico. We’ve seen plenty of Argentina-Mexico matchups in the World Cup over the years, so why not one more?
Spain-Germany. The 2010 and 2014 champions will want to make a statement here.
What role will fatigue and rest play in the World Cup? Both for the USA and for all teams? I’m thinking of the Soccernomics chapter that explains how much fatigue plays a role in the World Cup because teams like England whose players play in the Premier League and have many more games do worse than teams that don’t have so many fatigued players. That comes even with one month off before the start and in a longer tournament.
Well, you could say that players won’t have a full club season, so it may not be as big of an issue this time around. The main thing to be concerned is injuries, especially of the kind that don’t heal in the week off between club and World Cup games that might heal in the three weeks we usually see between the club season and World Cups. I will say that important U.S. players like Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson have incredible stamina from their typical Leeds workload, so those guys are not to be worried about.
Will you put out your projected USMNT lineup (aka, what lineup do you think Berhalter will go with, at least for the first match) and your preferred USMNT lineup (if you were the manager/coach)?
Me: Turner; Dest, Zimmerman, Carter-Vickers, Robinson; Adams, McKennie, Musah; Pulisic, Pefok, Aaronson.
Berhalter: Steffen; Dest, Zimmerman, Long, Robinson; Adams, McKennie, Musah; Pulisic, Ferreira, Reyna.
Who do you like for the MLS playoffs? LAFC seem bound for the final, but Supporters Shield winners rarely make it to (let alone win) the final. Philadelphia has been on the bubble for years and probably would've made the final last year had half the starting lineup not been out of the conference final because of COVID protocols. What are the odds this is their year? Or do you see someone else lifting the cup in the end?
I actually think we’re going to see a No. 1 vs No. 1 matchup with LAFC and Philadelphia in L.A. for the final. Which would be a great occasion. And I’ve seen Philadelphia impress me enough over the last couple seasons that I’d like the Union to win it.
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