Make it count.
It’s been eight long years. So make it count.
This is the charge of the U.S. men’s soccer team as it plays on Monday in the World Cup for the first time since 2014.
When you believe you’ve advanced as a soccer nation in that time — as the U.S. believes it has (even in failing to qualify four years ago for the largest sporting event on the planet) — you must seize the moment.
For the Americans, that must begin immediately, as in 2 p.m. Monday when it plays its first match of group play, against Wales, in Qatar.
A positive result will be imperative for the U.S. if it’s going to survive and advance through Group D and get to the knockout stage of the tournament. Without a win or at least a draw, the U.S. will put itself in an early hole it might not be able to climb out of with more difficult opponents still to play in England, one of the tournament favorites, and Iran.
When the U.S. and Wales kick off, it will have been 3,066 days since the Americans lost to Belgium in the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, their last World Cup match.
For Wales it’s been even longer — since 1958.
In the years since the last U.S. World Cup appearance, a total of 118 different players have played for the national team over the course of 68 matches, including 91 since Gregg Berhalter was hired as the coach in December 2018.
The end result is the youngest team among the 32 in this World Cup, at an average age of 25 years and 175 days. In fact, 23-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams, a native of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and a homegrown product of the Red Bulls Academy in New Jersey, was named captain on Sunday by Berhalter.
“Three years, four years of just working up to this moment, I think all the guys are ready to go,” U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie told reporters in Qatar in advance of Monday’s opener.
There will be significant challenges, the first of which is who’s going to score goals?
The U.S. in World Cup play has historically struggled to find players to put the ball in the back of the net. In 2014, even while advancing out of group play, the Americans managed to score only five goals in four games.
In 2010, while advancing into the quarterfinals, the U.S. scored five goals in five games. In 2006, it scored only two goals in three games. In 2002, the U.S. scored seven goals in five games, after scoring only one in three games in 1998.
During World Cup qualifying, the U.S. got only three goals from the forward position, which is a concern.
The candidates include Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who has five goals in 21 national team appearances; Jesús Ferreira, the FC Dallas striker who has seven goals in 15 national team matches; Gio Reyna, who plays with Dortmund and has four goals in 14 national team matches; and Haji Wright, who’s logged only three matches.
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The 21-year-old Ferreira had a four-goal performance in a match in June, and had a spectacular MLS season in Dallas with 18 goals.
Christian Pulisic, who plays for Chelsea, is considered the Americans’ best player by many. He has 21 goals in 52 national team matches.
Berhalter desperately needs not one, but a couple of these players, to step up, beginning Monday.
Another challenge for Berhalter’s side is the lack of continuity in playing together.
The team’s players from MLS, for example, finished their regular season a month ago. Ferreira played his last competitive match on Oct. 23. Defender DeAndre Yedlin, the only player on the team who was on that 2014 World Cup team, last played on Oct. 17 with Inter Miami. Center back Walker Zimmerman last played on Oct. 15 with Nashville SC.
Some of the U.S. players based in Europe, meanwhile, have struggled to get minutes on their respective clubs. Matt Turner, the projected starting goalkeeper, has been a backup at Arsenal. Pulisic has not been starting for Chelsea, instead coming off the bench as a late-game substitute. Right back Sergiño Dest’s minutes have been sporadic with A.C. Milan.
Berhalter has done what he can to keep his players sharp, conducting a training camp and playing some 90-minute scrimmages against the U.S. Under-20 team.
The question is how effective will that simulation be come Monday when it gets real?
Beginning with the 2 p.m. kickoff against Wales, the answers to these pressing questions will begin to crystalize.
It’s been a long wait. Eight years. Make it count.