USMNT World Cup Daily, Day 2
My encounter with a security guard, an internal security document and interviews with Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, Kellyn Acosta and Josh Sargent
DOHA, Qatar — I promise I’ll get to the USMNT coverage soon below, but my day had a weird start. I visited the FIFA Broadcast & Media Accreditation Centre to pick up my World Cup credential. Everything seemed normal. I got in a line full of international journalists. And I was amused by the slogan on the wall (NOW IS ALL), which reminded me of the slightly bewildering slogan for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (HOT. COOL. YOURS.).
So I took a picture of it with my phone.
Within seconds, a security guard walked over.
“Picture is not allowed, sir.”
There was nothing posted saying that photos were not to be taken. I looked at him quizzically. “But I was just taking a picture of the slogan on the wall.” And what he said next was absolutely wild.
“Kindly delete it, sir,” the guard said.
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I looked at him. He looked at me. We were quiet for a few seconds. And then he walked away.
Dear reader, I did not delete that photo, which is posted above as my little World Cup protest. At least the guard didn’t physically seize my phone, and he did walk away, so it could have been worse. But is this what we’re in for here? Security guards telling people to delete cellphone photos of World Cup slogans?
It was a subtle reminder that no matter how much organizers might say about security forces being trained not to escalate matters with visitors who might be wearing a rainbow flag or having some beers or, I don’t know, protesting, those security guards on the ground might well escalate things beyond what they should. Or at least create the conditions for an escalated situation when there shouldn’t be any.
Let’s see how things go. A friend sent me this internal document that contained instructions for security forces:
AT THE USMNT TRAINING CAMP — All things considered, today was a great day for uncomfortable silences. Tim Weah is actually one of the most chill guys on the U.S. team, someone who’s a lot of fun to talk to. But then I asked him during our post-training roundtable: Has Gregg Berhalter had you training at all at the center-forward position this week? Or have you strictly been a winger?
Pause. “Um,” Weah said, “I think he should tell you that.”
Let’s see what happens. As I mentioned on my podcast with Chris Wittyngham, I still think one of the true center-forwards—Jesús Ferreira, Haji Wright or Josh Sargent—will start at the No. 9 against Wales on Monday. But I do think the chances are slightly higher that Berhalter would consider one of his wingers for the No. 9 role, and if he did that I think Weah would be the one.
Still, it’s more likely Weah will play out on the wing, even though Berhalter has a wealth of healthy options for the two winger spots in Weah, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson and Jordan Morris. For his part, Weah prefers to stay out wide in that role, unlike players who prefer to cut in like Pulisic and Reyna.
“I think everyone brings something to the table,” Weah said. “With me, I definitely love staying wide. I love making runs in behind, and I think that does benefit the team. But when other wingers come on, Gio benefits the team with his technical ability and his dribbling, and everyone has something to offer. So I think that whichever option the coach has to go with, we’re all going to be happy with it.”
Weah’s father, George, the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year, is among the most famous soccer players never to have competed in a World Cup. He’s now the president of Liberia, which means he can sit in the stadium in what FIFA calls its VVIP section, which is kind of like the VIP section turned up to 11. (VVIP is a very FIFA terminology.) Tim talked to us today about attending the 2010 World Cup final with his dad and being overjoyed to see his soccer heroes in person.
Now Tim gets to do something his pops didn’t do in his storied career. “It’s a blessing,” Tim said. “I’m not only representing my family, I’m representing the whole country on my mom [Clar] and dad’s side. Being a Jamaican Liberian, being the first in my family to make a World Cup, is amazing. I mean, my dad wanted to do it with this country. He didn’t have the opportunity to do it, and now he’s kind of living that through me.”
The best scouting report on Wales Tuesday came from Kellyn Acosta, who just won an MLS Cup title for LAFC with the Wales superstar Gareth Bale (who until leading his country to its first World Cup since 1958 was viewed in that same best-players-never-to-play-in-the-World-Cup group as George Weah).
It’s clear how much affection Acosta has for Bale. “He’s a great dude and someone that I admired for a long time, so to share the field with him is pretty special,” he said. “In stature he’s a big dude. Physically, he’s like a specimen. He’s huge. And then he does have that glow because when you admire someone, you kind of see him in a different light. Just the way that he carries himself, I think he’s a guy that comes to the field with a lot of responsibility. He’s in the gym. He’s the first one in and one of the last guys out. He really takes care of himself, so it’s the little details that go a long way. That’s why he’s had such a long career and a good career.”
How-evvvvver, as Stephen A. Smith would say, Acosta does think he can bring some intel on Bale to the USMNT. “Don’t let him get to his left foot, simple as that, right?” Acosta said with a smile. “Special players make special plays, and he’s a guy you would definitely be worried about. Because once he gets into the game and finds spaces he becomes comfortable and confident. He’s very dangerous, and he’s going to be a catalyst for them. And so he’s a guy that you definitely need to have eyes on. We’ve got literally to start kicking him around the field, make him feel us, and kind of limit his time and space.”
“I know his tendencies,” Acosta went on, “like where he wants to find the ball, what kind of runs he’s looking for. Movements, just how he kind of operates within the game. And so I think I have an advantage in that respect, and obviously I’ve kind of shared with the guys here.”
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Wales plays with a five-man back line and may well sit deep against the U.S., and the Americans are well into their preparations for how they want to attack Monday’s game.
“With five in the back, they have an extra defender, so it’s one of those things where we’re going to have to draw them out,” Acosta said. “We have a numerical advantage in the midfield and obviously are going to exploit that. So usually with five in the back, there are going to be three centerbacks and they’ll be more aggressive. And so we want them to kind of be overly aggressive in a sense where there’s going to be space in behind.”
I watch every Leeds United game, and I’ve lost count of how many times U.S. winger Brenden Aaronson has been on the floor this season after being knocked over in what’s probably the world’s most physical league. But Aaronson has also adjusted well this season. The knockdowns don’t faze him, and more and more he has been able to wriggle out of contact or absorb it and stay up.
As Aaronson explained on Tuesday, he thinks it’s good preparation for the U.S.’s World Cup group. “You’ve got Wales, you’ve got England, you’ve got Iran, and think that those three teams are super-physical,” he said. “And I think that since I’ve been playing in the Premier League, I’ve had to deal with a lot. I mean, I walk out in the tunnel sometimes, I’m looking up at some of these guys and I’m like, the one guy from Wales, Kieffer Moore (with Bournemouth), he’s gigantic in person. It’s crazy. But week in and week out, it’s making me stronger, and I feel like I can deal with the physicality. I feel like I proved some people wrong about that.”
The physical playing style of England and Wales was something Berhalter mentioned when he explained why he chose Josh Sargent (who plays in the English Championship) for the World Cup roster ahead of Ricardo Pepi (who plays in the less-physical Dutch league). It seemed a little uncharitable to Pepi. Would he be on the World Cup team if he had gone on loan to a team in the Championship instead?
But Sargent said on Tuesday that he does think playing in the Championship will help him in the U.S.’s group. “Playing against these type of players every three days in the Championship definitely helps give me a little bit of knowledge of how those type of players like to play,” he said. “It’s a very physical league … I think it can be pretty brutal at times with all the tackles. But I think the speed of play and your thought process has to be a lot quicker as well.”
We already told you about the over-the-top opulence of the U.S. team hotel, the Marsa Malaz Kempinski, in our recent story. And it sounds like they’ve gussied it up even further for the U.S. players. Several players told us today about the players lounge that was constructed in just 72 hours and has all sorts of amenities.
“You name it, we have it: TVs, ping-pong tables, a putting green. The whole nine yards,” said Acosta.
“Yesterday, everyone was watching the FIFA documentary on Netflix,” Weah said. “So we just have these big couches. We were all just laying down with blankets, and it’s cool just to be with everyone and hang out on our downtime.”
What did the players think of FIFA Uncovered? Weah decided not to go down that road. “Me personally, I wasn’t watching it,” he said. “I was preoccupied.”
Some things that stood out to me today:
Back at you tomorrow from Doha!
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