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The USMNT, a program reborn, awaits its first World Cup test

Walker Zimmerman, DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Ream prepare for the Americans' first World Cup match since 2014. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

DOHA, Qatar — The rebuilding project began in earnest almost five years ago with an interim coach, a flight of players entering adulthood and long-term designs on returning to the World Cup after a catastrophic spill.

It seemed so far away, literally and figuratively.

At sobering training camps, a U.S. men’s soccer program that had tumbled to unfathomable depths sought to find its feet again.

With an infusion of youth, the plan began with baby steps, first under caretaker Dave Sarachan and now Gregg Berhalter: integrating new players, establishing a culture and style, and regaining the trust of the public.

“We had no identity, no game plan,” captain Tyler Adams, 23, said Sunday. “It was almost like you were going to national team camp for fun, and although we’re enjoying the ride and having fun here, the past [several] years have been a lot of hard work of building our identity.”

Tyler Adams, a leader ‘by his actions and words,’ named USMNT captain

After fits and starts, after regaining strength in the region and learning from unavoidable growing pains, the United States on Monday will return to the global stage with a Group B match against Wales — the Americans’ first World Cup appearance since pushing Belgium to the extra-time brink in the round of 16 in 2014.

Attacker Brenden Aaronson, 22, remembers his first invitation to camp three years ago. A year on the job, Berhalter showed the players a schedule on a video screen for what he wanted to accomplish leading to the World Cup.

“It was like the longest timeline when it first started,” Aaronson said. “It went all the way across the screen and then slowly but surely got shorter and shorter. And now it’s ultimately here — and it’s amazing. It’s crazy to think all that time just flew by, but I think as a group we’re all ready to go and we all know what we need to do.”

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)

Are they, though, ready for soccer’s ultimate testing ground?

“What I’ve seen is the maturity grow over the last 3½ years with this group, and now I see a tremendous amount of focus,” Berhalter said. “This focus is going to help us go for success and, in no time, is going to tell us if we’re able to play with the best teams in the world.”

The U.S. roster features just one leftover from the tournament eight years ago in Brazil (defender DeAndre Yedlin). It includes two teenagers and 12 players between ages 20 and 24 and is the second-youngest squad (behind Ghana) among the 32 hopeful teams in Qatar.

It’s a team that, based on many performances during its rebirth, has a very good chance of finishing in the top two in the four-team group and advancing to the round of 16. If the Americans accomplish that, their tournament would be deemed a success, no matter how much further they advance.

However, it’s also a team that, based on performances in the final two tuneups in September, could head home in 10 days. There are questions about defensive fortitude against seasoned attacks and the ability of the midfield to set the tone and the forwards to capitalize on scoring opportunities.

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)

It’s a team that likes to play progressive soccer and fields a wealth of young players employed by clubs in Europe’s biggest leagues. But it’s also a team that, thanks in part to the coronavirus pandemic and changes in global scheduling, has had few opportunities to test itself against world-class opponents since 2018.

“We’re going to play the sport that we’ve been playing our whole lives,” star forward Christian Pulisic said. “There’s no crazy advice that can be the turning point, the thing that’s going to help us win the World Cup. We’re a team that has been learning through these experiences.”

Youthfulness does not seem to trouble the players, who, given their age and experience, seem better positioned for success in the 2026 tournament, jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Are they ahead of schedule? Berhalter is eager to find out.

“We can speculate whether it’s a disadvantage or an advantage for hours here, but the truth is going to come out when we actually play the game,” said Berhalter, a defender on the 2002 squad that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in South Korea and Japan. “What I would say is we’re not making any excuses for ourselves. We are who we are, and we want to go out and we want to compete.”

Graphic: A closer look at the USMNT World Cup roster

The opener promises to be revelatory. A good showing, rewarded with three points for a victory or one for a draw, would offer hope heading into Friday’s showdown against England, the group’s heavy favorite and a tournament contender. A defeat would send the wounded Americans into the den of the Three Lions.

“Winning your first game bodes well for you,” defender Aaron Long said. “We know that as a team. There’s calculated risks you can take trying to win the game, but by no means are we going to go [all out] trying to win a game and then leave ourselves too vulnerable to get scored on and potentially lose the game.”

U.S. men's national team Coach Gregg Berhalter has a talented young squad with experience in top European leagues, but not in international competition. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The Americans waited eight years to return to the World Cup, a blink of the eye compared to Wales, which last appeared on this grand stage in 1958. The Dragons are no strangers, though, to major competition, having advanced to the semifinals of the 2016 European Championship — the second most important international tournament — and the round of 16 last year.

The supporters, known as the Red Wall, have arrived en masse from Cardiff, Swansea and elsewhere in the nation of 3.1 million.

Absent from the World Cup for 64 years, Wales insists: ‘We are still here’

“It’s a massive piece of history in our country, something we’ve all wanted for a long time,” star forward Gareth Bale said. “To be the team to get over the line and do that for our country is incredible.”

Bale also said the success was “the best thing to do for our country, to grow football in our country, to inspire another generation.”

The impact of taking the next step also rings true for the U.S. program, which aims to parlay World Cup exposure (and perhaps a place in the round of 16) into long-term gains for the sport at home.

“Three years or four years working up to this moment,” midfielder Weston McKennie said, “all the guys are ready to go.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.