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Tim Ream, the USMNT’s ‘grandpa’ at 35, never gave up on his World Cup dream

Tim Ream, 35, participates in activities with construction workers who helped build World Cup stadiums and infrastructure in Qatar. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — In November 2010, when Tim Ream was called up to the U.S. national team for the first time, 2022 World Cup teammate Gio Reyna was two days shy of his eighth birthday.

Most of the 26 U.S. players here for soccer’s quadrennial festival did not arrive on the international scene until Ream was deep into his career in England, with his past 4½ years spent shuttling in and out of the Premier League with London club Fulham.

“Tim’s the grandpa of the group,” Tyler Adams, a 23-year-old midfielder, said with a wide smile.

Few expected Ream would make his first World Cup squad this year — including Ream. It wasn’t his age; rather, it was his long absence. Before he fielded a call from Coach Gregg Berhalter two weeks ago, Ream had not received an invitation in 14 months.

Graphic: A closer look at the USMNT World Cup roster

The World Cup, though, demanded experience, particularly on the second-youngest squad (25.2 years old) in the tournament. (Only Ghana, at 24.7, is younger.) The U.S. situation also required reinforcement in central defense, which had lost two candidates to injury and showed fragility in September tuneups.

Furthermore, Ream has been enjoying a terrific season in the Premier League, playing alongside U.S. left back Antonee Robinson.

“He’s a top performer for his team,” Berhalter said. “It’s really hard to ignore stuff like that. … All the pieces were aligned to bring him back.”

Though he has not played for the U.S. team since the first World Cup qualifier in September 2021, Ream could start the first U.S. World Cup match Monday against Wales.

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“You don’t ever give up hope,” said Ream, a St. Louis native who has also played for the New York Red Bulls and England’s Bolton Wanderers. “You never completely say you’re out of the picture. There were conversations [with Berhalter] before every [match] window from last October onwards, and so I knew there was maybe a possibility.”

Still, though, he was not optimistic.

“Not being involved, not being called in,” he said, “you just kind of start to make peace and accept where things are heading.”

Although he had passed over Ream for one camp after another, including the two-game tour this fall in Europe, Berhalter said he never closed the door.

“Decisions aren’t made [at that point]; they’re not final,” Berhalter said. “So if the guy doesn’t get into camp, it doesn’t mean he’s never going to be in a camp again.”

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Then came the invitation to the best camp of all.

“Things kind of took a turn for the better for me personally,” Ream said, smiling. He would join Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long and Cameron Carter-Vickers in the central defense corps.

The U.S. men’s national team will be one of the youngest squads at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and will feature many players new to the global tournament. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Ream started the 2022 qualifying opener in El Salvador and was on the bench for the subsequent two games. Over the course of the remaining 11 qualifiers and several friendlies, though, Berhalter opted for other partnerships in central defense.

While Berhalter monitored Ream’s play at Fulham, Ream said: “I was watching from afar as a fan and watching the guys do their thing. I didn’t expect to be here involved in a World Cup.”

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He and Robinson, a sure bet for the World Cup squad, spoke regularly about Ream’s prospects.

“I knew there was every chance Tim was going to get called up,” Robinson said. “It was never in doubt for me, especially when I see Chris [Richards] confirmed he couldn’t go. For it to finally get confirmed [with the Nov. 9 roster announcement], it felt amazing for me and for him.”

Richards, a strong candidate from Premier League club Crystal Palace, had not played in months because of injury. Miles Robinson, a probable starter, was ruled out in May after he ruptured an Achilles’ tendon.

That’s not to say Ream was chosen by default. Clearly, though, the outlook was not promising.

“A lot of people thought he was down and out,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said, “and now at 35 he’s playing in his first World Cup. Guys on this team never give up, and that’s a big part of our DNA.”

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Ream earned his way back into consideration with his solid work at Fulham. Last season, he started all 46 matches and played all but 69 of 4,140 minutes as the Cottagers finished first in the Championship to earn promotion back to the Premier League. This season, Ream has started all 15 games and missed two minutes.

The U.S. men’s World Cup squad will face off against Wales, Iran and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Fulham is seeking to keep its place in the Premier League over consecutive seasons for the first time in nine years. The club earned promotion in 2018, only to drop back down the following year. “He struggled,” Berhalter said. “The whole team struggled.”

Fulham climbed back up in 2020 before falling again.

The promotion-relegation adventure with his club has mirrored his erratic status with the national team.

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After their clubs clashed last month, Adams (Leeds United) asked Ream how he felt about his U.S. situation.

“Not getting called into last camp for him, yeah, it was tough probably,” Adams said. “But he’s been working hard, and these performances earned him this position right now. He’s a crucial part to our team. At times we probably missed him — his leadership, his quality, just having someone of that experience and caliber in and around the group. It’s good to have him back.”

Notes: The U.S. squad conducted a training session with Al Gharafa SC, whose stadium is serving as the Americans’ training venue in greater Doha. It was closed to reporters and the general public, suggesting the sides engaged in a scrimmage. No details were released. …

With all three group matches scheduled to kick off at 10 p.m. local time, Berhalter has shifted workouts to the evening after opening camp with a set of midday practices.

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