USMNT World Cup Daily, Day 7
Making new friends with guys from Tehran, my thoughts on Qatar 0:2 Ecuador and all the news on the USMNT ahead of its showdown with Wales
DOHA, Qatar — Want to know one thing I love about coming to World Cups? Today I made friends with two guys from Tehran.
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We’re staying at a compound of modest townhouses in Doha, and there’s a communal swimming pool on the property. I hadn’t seen another soul use it since arriving on Monday, but when my housemate Guillem Balagué and I went for a swim today we met two men who were there to swim, just like us. One of them had his eight-year-old son with him.
They were wearing Iran jerseys and had just arrived today on a flight from Tehran. They’re living in one of the units just down from us. And we ended up spending a fun 30 minutes in the pool just talking to them about stuff. Soccer. The World Cup. Our two countries.
We started following each other on Instagram. And they ended by saying: “Good luck to the United States!”
MY 2 THOUGHTS ON QATAR-ECUADOR
• I was surprised by how poor Qatar was in its 2-0 loss to Ecuador, the first time a host country in the men’s World Cup has lost its opening game. This is the same Qatar team that is the reigning Asian champion (in a confederation that includes Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia) and competed well as a guest team in last year’s Gold Cup. So I was stunned by how bad Qatar looked from the opening whistle against Ecuador. Maybe they were nervous, but Qatar looked disorganized defending set pieces (especially in the first half), and goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb struggled for much of the game. Thousands of Qatari fans left the stadium at halftime, and even though Qatar played better in the second half there will be recriminations for the embarrassment. Does coach Félix Sánchez lose his job mid-tournament? What happens in upcoming games against the Netherlands and Senegal? Part of me feels for the Qatari players. What are they going to have to deal with now? This could get ugly.
• Ecuador and Enner Valencia were terrific. Valencia has been on fire for Fenerbahce in Turkey, and he put the ball in the net three times on Sunday, only for the first one to be chalked off by a VAR offside ruling (which turned out to be correct, by the way). The two Valencia did score were extremely well-taken on an ice-cold penalty and a pinpoint header. With Ecuador looking strong in the opening game, it’s looking like there are three very good teams in this group with the Netherlands and Senegal also taking part. Will a Sadio Mané-less Senegal have trouble with the Ecuadorians? Potentially. Is Ecuador’s performance potentially a harbinger of things to come for South American teams in this World Cup? Maybe. South America is due to have a big World Cup, because the conventional wisdom at World Cups the last 20 years is that the gap has grown between the top European teams and the rest of the world, including all the South American teams.
In the U.S.’s matchday minus-1 press conference at the main media center of the World Cup, coach Gregg Berhalter was joined by midfielder Tyler Adams and announced (to no great surprise) that the 23-year-old Adams would be the U.S.’s captain for the entirety of the World Cup.
“The last three-and-a-half years we’ve been working with a [team] leadership council,” Berhalter explained. “And we’re very open, and we ask them, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do for the World Cup?’ And they thought it would be better to have a captain named for the World Cup. And we’re proud to announce Tyler is the captain for the World Cup. We think he has great leadership capabilities, and he leads by his actions and his words. So we’re, proud to have him as a captain.”
“It’s a huge honor for me to be named captain of this team,” said Adams. “Obviously it’s a very young team, but a lot of credit to my teammates because anyone throughout our leadership council can wear that armband and represent us with pride and represent us in the right way. So I’m obviously representing us for this World Cup, but there’s a bunch of guys in the team in our leadership council: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Aaron Long, the list goes on and on. We’ve established that we all lead in different ways so that anyone can represent us on any given day and represent us well.”
As I watched them on the podium, I couldn’t help but think back to my first sit-down interview with Adams back in December 2018 when he was just 19 years old. It was at his apartment in New Jersey, where he brought me a cheese-and-cracker plate. How many 19-year-olds are confident enough to say they want to be the national team captain someday? But that’s exactly what Adams said to me then:
“As a young player, it’s easy to be timid and be scared and not to seize the opportunities in front of you. I’m completely the opposite. I’m fearless. I don’t really care what I say to people … At the end of the day, I feel that I can make a case for being the captain. Obviously it’s tough. Being a young player, you have to continue to improve and show that you’re playing at a high level and have the right leadership qualities. For every coach that varies. But for me, my eyes are set on that. Why not aim to be a captain of the national team and continue to be an important stable piece for this team?”
Almost exactly four years later, Adams is there. He’s the U.S. World Cup captain. And he spoke like a captain at the podium today.
“One thing at the end of the day that I always want to do is I want to be a winner,” Adams said. “So first off, I’m very competitive, so I want to hold the guys around me to the same standard. I don’t want to lose and then have to point the finger and say you let me down today. I just want to make sure that everyone’s on the same page intensity-wise, mentality-wise, no frustration. We all buy into the same thing. And I think I’ve been doing that since a young age. And as much as I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses as well, and I want people to criticize me. I’m open to feedback all the time, and I want to get better and improve.”
In other USMNT news today:
• Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated asked Berhalter a terrific question. He brought up an interview they’d had a couple months ago when Berhalter said his biggest concern was that his young U.S. team might underestimate the gravity of the World Cup in the same way that he felt it underestimated the difficulty of the start of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF. (Remember the players saying they wanted a nine-point week from three games?)
Anyway, Berhalter had told Straus to ask him that question at the World Cup. And so Brian did today.
“That’s a great follow-up right there. My gosh,” Berhalter said with a smile. “It’s a great question because that was a major concern of mine then, and what I can honestly say is how I’ve seen this group focused and shift has been incredible. And it’s not just talk anymore. We talk about our goals and what we want to do at the World Cup, but then I’m looking at actions. I’m looking at training. I’m looking at off the field. I’m looking at how guys are interacting with each other. And I have to say that I’m confident that this group is ready to play. And a lot of it has to do with their mindset and their ability to support each other.”
• Sam Stejskal of The Athletic asked Berhalter if he had told the players his starting XI vs. Wales and if Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest were indeed “ready to go” from his perspective, as the players said they were last night.
“We’re working through that. We’re pretty much done, but a couple things to keep working on,” Berhalter said. “In terms of Weston and Sergiño, they’ve made great progress. We see them as being able to take part in the game. For how long we have to see. But that’s the beauty of having five substitutes. They can either come into the game or we can start them and take them out of the game when we feel that they’re getting close to that threshold. But both of them I think are definitely in position to help this team tomorrow.”
• Ron Blum of the Associated Press asked Berhalter if any other players like Luca De La Torre are not 90 minutes fit.
“I think there are, and just working through that and figuring out who has what minutes in them,” Berhalter said. “But there will be players, Luca is a great example of one. And maybe a couple others as well.” Blum’s follow-up: Who are the others? “A couple of them.”
• A Norwegian journalist asked Berhalter for his thoughts on the bizarre whataboutery speech given by FIFA president Gianni Infantino yesterday in support of Qatar as a World Cup host. Reading between the lines of his statements over time, I’ve decided Berhalter is pretty clearly a critic of Qatar as a World Cup host, but he has been diplomatic about that. And his answer today reflected that.
“He’s obviously the president of FIFA, and he expresses his opinions as he sees fit,” Berhalter said. “We’re here to play soccer. We’re here to represent the United States. And we don’t necessarily represent the views of Infantino. And that’s just the way it goes. He has the right to express that, and we have the right to have our opinions.”
• Things that made me giggle: 1) When Adams said the name of Pulisic, he said it the Croatian way “Pul-i-sitch.” 2) Remember many moons ago when Berhalter said he liked to use the term “solutions” instead of “substitutes” with players who aren’t starting the game? Today he just used “solutions” that way without explaining it to the international media in attendance who probably had no idea what he was talking about.
“It’s not just the 11 on the field,” Berhalter said. “We’re going to need the solutions to come onto the field and help this group get the win.”
Have a good Sunday!
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