AL-RAYAN, Qatar — Preparing a team for the World Cup is always complicated. In some cases, they can make or break a tournament. Germany’s hideout in Brazil 2014 was widely hailed as key to their eventual title run. On the other hand, the decision of the United States men’s national team to sequester itself in a remote cabin in 1998 is often cited as one of several factors that led to the team’s miserable time in France.
The reality is that every tournament has its own specifics, whether it’s the host country, the pitches, the training base or the opponents. American personnel, led by USSF Director of Administration Tom King, are well aware of this truth. The 2022 World Cup, however, will be like no other, and not least because it will be the first to be held in the Middle East.
The November start of the tournament means it will fall in the middle of the European club season. This has created various obstacles and struggles in terms of preparation, especially for the US
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Normally, the USA would have an extended training camp with about three friendlies to prepare and fine tune things. Then came a relatively early arrival in the host country for acclimatization. Not so this time. Players from European clubs played until last weekend. Most MLS players with national teams have had to contend with the fact that their season is over for a month or more.
For US manager Gregg Berhalter, it represented an awkward run-up to the form and fitness of his players. Every week, he took a microscope to his players’ performances and prayed that they would come through unscathed. He also held a camp specifically for MLS players in an attempt to keep them in shape, producing seven of the final 26-man roster, though the sharpness of play — or lack thereof — will be an issue.
Now that the roster is named and the team is in Qatar, the short run is complex. The United States play Wales on Monday, the second day of the tournament, giving Berhalter’s team just over a week to settle in and make final preparations. Compare that to the extended camp and 14 days in the country that Berhalter had when he played in the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. But the American manager likes the idea of this short runway.
“Everybody’s just going to want to launch,” Berhalter told ESPN in an exclusive interview. “We’ve been waiting for this for a while, and with a younger team, we just want to get down to business. In World Cup qualifying, we’re used to quick turnarounds. This will have a little more introduction, and we’ll be ready to go.”
The question arises as to how much the short run will affect the team’s tactical preparation. When the group met for the September international term, Berhalter noted that there was too much focus on fine details — such as the shape of the team when opponents break pressure and switch fields — instead of focusing on the fundamentals.
“What we missed was guys being out for three and a half months,” Berhalter said. “They’ve just done a whole preseason with their clubs where they’re learning different things, and our basic pressure wasn’t even right. The other part was that guys were also coming into camp with different starting points with the build-up part of the game.”
Berhalter added that he doesn’t think the six weeks between camps — at least for the European contingent — will be a problem in Qatar.
“They were just with us [in September]so I think that’s a really good thing,” he said in terms of the team’s tactical preparation. “But I think we’re in a really good place in terms of understanding what we’re going to need to prepare this group to play against Wales.”
There has been some discussion as to why the USA did not schedule a friendly between the introduction of the players to the camp and the first game against Wales. Berhalter said that there was basically not enough time for the friendly with some players not arriving until last Sunday night. The coach said that the most reasonable time to play the game would be on Thursday, but that there would be only three days left to recover before the Wales game. There is also the risk of injury, something that has plagued the US to varying degrees during the run.
“I’m just not sure about the teams playing in the tournament [second] on the day of the World Cup, that it makes sense,” he said.
One area where short time helps is scouting. In past World Cups that have been packed with pre-tournament friendlies, there has almost been an adrenaline rush of scouting. Not so this time.
“This gives you a longer lead time,” Berhalter said. “The work is basically done with scouting. This is actually useful, I think.”
Much has been made of the weather in Qatar. The intense summer heat was the reason why the tournament was moved to autumn. With the US games starting at 10pm local time, temperatures should be in the 70s. Adapting the player’s body to the game at that time of day will be a more difficult matter.
“We’re going to have to reschedule these guys, and we have a plan for that,” Berhalter said. “We talked to experts in that field and how to do it. We’re going to live differently every waking day during the tournament, and that’s just part of it.”
The US can have no excuses in terms of its base camp and training facility. The U.S. Soccer Federation visited Qatar nine times, scouting every location available, before settling on the lavish five-star Marsa Malaz Kempinski Hotel at The Pearl-Qatar, a man-made island off the coast of Doha, as its home. base. The USSF left nothing to chance, as it submitted its application within seconds of the portal opening in October 2019. The hotel has a private beach and 10 restaurants.
“The hotel, as soon as we walk in the door, all the staff are there waving flags, our rooms are great,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “Our chefs have done an outstanding job. We’ve got a players’ lounge, we’ve got everything we need. It’s been great. We’ve got TVs, ping pong tables, PS5s, a playing green, the whole nine yards, pretty much.”
LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta explains what the USMNT will look like to stop Gareth Bale and Wales at the World Cup in Qatar.
Privacy also factored into the selection of the US team’s training base, with the US set to use the Qatari club’s Al-Gharafa facility. The site has the usual facilities such as locker rooms, coaches’ offices and a cafeteria.
“We didn’t want to share the training ground with others [team]”There will be a certain number of teams that will have to share a training ground,” Berhalter said. We think that the location of the stadium we have is good for isolated trainings, for recording.”
Not all of the team’s preparations were focused on football. Ahead of the tournament, there is a focus on labor and human rights, given the sometimes brutal working conditions in the country, as well as the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in the celebrations. To that end, the USSF has educated players on these issues and is also involved in on-field programs. This includes inviting workers to their own training session where they will receive training from American players and staff at the training site. The USSF plans to display rainbow flags and messages of inclusion at its night parties in Qatar.
The USSF has worked extensively with the US Embassy in Qatar, the Supreme Committee, FIFA, the US Chamber of Commerce and various Qatari government agencies to ensure that all must provide a safe and comfortable environment for all US citizens planning to attend the World Cup. championship. The USSF also supports the creation of a compensation fund proposed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UEFA Working Group to provide migrant workers and their families who need such a safety net for unpaid wages, injuries or other damages.
“We were preparing [the players] for a year and a half about it,” Berhalter said. “We had presentations from people who lived there. We have a weekly newsletter that we send out about it. So I think it’s very important that they’re informed about that and that’s why we’ve been preparing them.”
For the USA, he hopes that all these preparations will pay off with a performance in a tournament to remember.