Coming off disaster, U.S. looks to play Qatar World Cup spoiler

The soundtrack to the US national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup will always be Taylor Twellman’s epic tirade at an ESPN studio in Bristol, Connecticut.

“This is an absolute cheek!” Twellman, a former international, yelled into a camera shortly after the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago and missed the World Cup for the first time in almost three decades. “That should never have happened. And it did. And every single person should look at themselves in the mirror.

“What do we do?”

Twellman’s argument was that the United States could not consider itself a footballing country, one that could compete with Argentina and Belgium if it could not beat Trinidad and Tobago. How could it be a world power if it couldn’t qualify for a World Cup?

US soccer had to start over – and it did.

After the loss, Bruce Arena resigned as coach. Association President Sunil Gulati decided not to run for re-election. And Dave Sarachan was appointed interim manager and told… well, he really wasn’t told anything.

“There wasn’t much input,” he says today. “Everyone was just kind of distanced from the men’s team. But I didn’t mind because it gave me a lot of autonomy in terms of what I felt was good judgment to begin the process of identifying these next-gen guys.”

The wisdom of that ruling will be shown in Qatar on Monday when the United States returns to World Cup action after an eight-year absence. In Sarachan’s 12 months as caretaker manager, he gave international debuts to a record 23 players, including nine – Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Shaq Moore, Luca de la Torre, Josh Sargent, Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Aaron Long – who are on the World Cup list.

With an average age of 25, the US team is the youngest in Qatar and the second youngest World Cup team in US history. It could also be one of the best, as after Sarachan was replaced by Gregg Berhalter, the team he helped build climbed into the top 11 in the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in 16 years.

And it might never have happened if the United States had squeaked from Trinidad and qualified for the tournament in Russia.

“It’s hard to go back in time to say ‘what if’ and predict or say if we had qualified certain guys wouldn’t have gotten a chance? Would certain veterans still be there?” said Sarachan, now coach of Puerto Rico’s national team program. “The answer could be yes. Could be no.”

Berhalter agreed.

“I can sit up here and tell you the pros and cons. But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Because it is so. That’s just the nature of what we’re working with.

“We are happy with how this group has been rebuilt. We are satisfied with the core of this team. The core of this team has a lot of potential. We’re just looking forward to starting the tournament.”

DeAndre Yedlin, one of three holdovers from the 2017 team and the only player in the squad to have competed in a World Cup, said the first step towards Qatar began when he left that Trinidad locker room.

US national team coach Gregg Berhalter watches an international match from the sidelines.

US coach Gregg Berhalter watches from the sidelines during the friendly against Japan in Dusseldorf, Germany, in September.

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

“It was extremely disappointing,” he said. “Every negative also has a positive and I think that’s what this team, this young team, built and rebranded the federation a bit. The players are really excited about the group we have and believe we have a great opportunity to be successful.”

It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. Germany underwent a similar transformation, unveiling a 10-year recovery plan after rebounding from Euro 2004 without a win. Two years later, 13 players made their World Cup debuts for the country, and in 2014 Germany became champions for the fourth time.

“Whenever there is failure, people tend to dig deeper into the reasons why, which is understandable and should happen. And how do we get it better then? How do we rebuild it?” Sarachan said of the US program.

“Sometimes when there’s a bug, it needs a reset, and I think it did.”

No one predicts a world title for the United States. But the core Berhalter spoke of – Christian Pulisic, Sergiño Dest, Gio Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Robinson and Sargent – includes players between the ages of 20 and 25. They played in youth national teams together and could be together for another two World Cup bikes.

There’s no telling what they might do. If Trinidad marked the end of something, Qatar marks a new beginning.

US forward Gio Reyna controls the ball in a friendly against Costa Rica last year.

US forward Gio Reyna controls the ball in a friendly against Costa Rica last year.

(Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

“It’s a bit underestimated how this young group has developed, how this program has developed,” said Berhalter. “We practically started 2018 with a new pool of players and now we are back in the World Cup [and] the final decision about this group will be made at the World Cup. This is how generations are measured.”

Competing in Qatar could be tricky as the United States, ranked No. 16 in the world, were dragged into the tournament’s deepest group of 32 teams, where they played Gareth Bale and 19-5 England and No 20 Iran. No other group has four teams in the top 20 in the world rankings and the United States must finish in the top two to advance to the knockout stages.

Berhalter therefore said he viewed the World Cup as two tournaments.

“There’s the group tournament and we have to finish second to earn the right to play in the other tournament, the knockout tournament,” he said. “From then on, anything can happen. For us, it’s about how we play the best possible game in the knockout stages to get further up the field.”

Go ahead. That’s the mandate Sarachan accepted five years ago, and it’s one that Berhalter accelerated when he took it on a year later.

And it’s a big step forward from USA as Twellman walked into an ESPN studio and was asked what he thought of the team’s performance on an unforgettable night in Trinidad.

“I’m not telling you that you have to win the World Cup. But they can’t lose all three games,” he said of the Qatar team. “The rest of the world, when you have generations like this, you see positive, tangible results that show you are moving in the right direction.

“You are ready. They’re a bit naive, which I think is healthy because they’ve never been there. [But] For the core group of players, this is 100% building their basis for whether or not they’re going to do it [do] anything of really serious proportions.” Coming off disaster, U.S. looks to play Qatar World Cup spoiler

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