If “Only Forward” is the US men’s soccer team’s official watchword, it may be because looking backward is painful. Five years ago, the Americans stumbled at the end of their quest to return to the World Cup, losing to a Trinidad and Tobago squad that long had been eliminated from the regional qualifying tournament.
“This could be a redemption or revenge tour, if you want to call it that,” said defender DeAndre Yedlin, whose star-spangled colleagues take on Wales in their Cup opener in Qatar Monday. “The guys that were involved in that know that the US is better than we showed on that day. This is now our time to show how much we do want it.”
Only four men from the 2018 group are on the current roster, and the 29-year-old Yedlin is the only one left from the 2014 team that reached the second round in Brazil.
The 2022 edition, the youngest US team since 1990, also was the youngest to qualify for the 32-country field, with an average age just over 25. Three players — forward Gio Reyna, midfielder Yunus Musah, and defender Joe Scally — were teenagers when the roster was revealed earlier this month.
“It’s a little bit underrated how this young group has developed, how the program has developed, how the youth national teams and the senior team have grown,” said coach Gregg Berhalter, a defender on the 2002 and 2006 teams. “We virtually started with a new player pool in 2018 and now we’re back in the World Cup.”
The bounce-back from the Trinidad nadir was significant. The Americans won the 2020 CONCACAF Nations League and last year’s Gold Cup, beating archrival Mexico each time. And after a dispiriting string of failures, they qualified for the 2024 Olympics last summer by cruising unbeaten through the under-20 regional tournament in Honduras to get to the Games for the first time since 2008.
Yet the road to Qatar was decidedly bumpy, as the Yanks finished third behind Canada and Mexico, and didn’t earn their ticket until the final day, edging Costa Rica on goal differential.
While qualifying undoubtedly was satisfying after falling short last time, the Americans understand that a three-and-out in the Middle East will be a downer.
“The final determination on this group will be at the World Cup,” said Berhalter. “That’s how generations are measured. The real measuring stick is certainly going to be how we perform in Qatar.”
Since the US has advanced from group play in three of its last four Cup appearances, reaching the second round has come to be the expectation. That’s certainly feasible in a quartet that includes only one heavyweight in England, the European runner-up in 2021 and fourth-place Cup finisher in 2018.
Wales, which qualified for the first time since 1958, needed to win two playoff games to get in. Iran, which knocked the US out of the 1998 Cup, hasn’t advanced in five previous appearances.
“It’s the World Cup, so every game is going to be difficult,” said Yedlin. “The most important thing is to take it game by game. Each game presents different difficulties, each game presents different ways that we can hurt teams.”
Inexperience and injuries undeniably were factors in the Yanks’ struggles during qualifying. When they were healthy and clicking, as they were in their two victories over Honduras, their home shutout of Mexico, and their 5-1 drubbing of Panama that essentially clinched their berth, the young Americans looked formidable.
But more often than not, they were sluggish out of the box, scoring only eight of their 21 goals before halftime. In their Cup tuneups in September, they were blanked by Japan and Saudi Arabia.
None of the US forwards has emerged as a killer sniper in the mold of Clint Dempsey, the three-time World Cupper whose lightning strikes kept his mates in matches.
This is not a US side built to chase the game once it falls behind, and that will put a burden on former Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner to keep a clean sheet for as long as possible.
The Americans never have won a Cup match when they’ve conceded the first goal, and they’ve never advanced when they’ve lost their opener. But when they’ve survived their group, they’ve made some noise.
The 2002 team, which stunned Portugal in its first match, lost, 1-0, to Germany in the quarterfinals. The 2010 squad, which drew its opener with England, lost to Ghana in overtime in the second round. And the 2014 group, which bested Ghana and drew with Portugal, took Belgium to extra time in the second round.
“There’s two tournaments; that’s the way we’re looking at this,” said Berhalter, whose charges have to finish in the top two in the group stage to advance. “From there, anything can happen.
“For us, it’s just about how do we play the best possible game that we can in the knockout stage to keep advancing? And if we don’t advance but we play the best possible game, we’ll leave the tournament with our head held high.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.