Near full-strength USMNT arrives in Qatar and makes immediate statement with Pride badge

The US men’s national team participated in its first full practice session in Qatar on Monday afternoon, with 22 of the 26 players on the World Cup roster taking the field at their training base of Al-Gharafa Stadium.

As we walked into the stadium from the main press conference area, we stopped by an auxiliary media room where select US players will participate in roundtables with reporters later this week. The decor was striking, given the setting: A pair of Pride crests, on which the red stripes in the US logo are replaced by the colors of the rainbow flag, were emblazoned on a blue background along the wall.

Controversy has shrouded this World Cup from the moment FIFA awarded it to Qatar in 2010. On the ground, everything we’ve seen thus far feels brand new, like a whole country was constructed precisely for this moment. As we drove up on Monday, less than a week before the start of the tournament, work was still continuing on some sites in northern Doha near Al-Gharafa Stadium.

Thousands of migrant workers from countries all around the world built much of the new infrastructure, often at great cost. Many were exploited, injured and, in the most tragic cases, died while working in Qatar. That human tragedy colors this tournament, as do Qatar’s laws criminalizing homosexuality and denying basic rights to women.

The Pride crests are a small statement of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community by US Soccer. According to a federation spokesperson, US Soccer will also display the Pride crest and rainbow flags at the pre-match parties it hosts for fans the night before World Cup games.

The idea, the spokesperson said, is to display the federation’s values ​​and show fans that the pre-match parties are welcoming and open for all. US goalkeeper Sean Johnson reinforced that during a press conference after training on Monday.

“It’s a sign of our values ​​and what we represent as a men’s national team and US Soccer,” Johnson said. “We’re a group that believes in inclusivity and we’ll continue to project that message going forward.”

The spokesperson said that US Soccer informed the Qatari Supreme Committee, which is in charge of organizing the tournament, late in 2021 that it planned to display the Pride crest in different areas. That conversation, the spokesperson said, was more of a case of the federation letting the Supreme Committee know that it would be taking the action rather than asking their permission. The team will display the rainbow crest only in areas it controls. It will not be worn on the field.

Earlier this month, FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary general Fatma Samoura sent a letter to each of the 32 federations competing in Qatar, encouraging them to “focus on the football” while at the World Cup. By their definition, US Soccer may be crossing a bit of a line.

“We know football does not live in a vacuum and we are equally aware that there are many challenges and difficulties of a political nature all around the world,” Infantino and Samoura wrote. “But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

FIFA was aware of the USSF’s decision to display the rainbow flag, the spokesperson said. It should go without saying, of course, that homosexuality is not an ideology. It is, as Adam Crafton noted in a poignant column shortly after FIFA sent its letterthe way a person is born, not a political belief.

US Soccer launched a “Be The Change” campaign after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. In the team’s subsequent matches later that year, each player wore ‘Be The Change’ on the front of their warm-up jacket and put personalized messages on the back. The US has opted to continue that campaign in Qatar. That includes the phrase written in both English and Arabic on memorial “challenge coins” that US Soccer players and staff have given out as gifts ahead of every World Cup since 2002 — USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter gave out coins this week to the FOX talent, for example — as well as on team autograph cards. It’s unclear whether the team wants to take any further action in Qatar, although the players are scheduled to coach a group of migrant workers in a training session on Tuesday evening.

“We’ve been talking to the team for the last 18 months about Qatar, about social issues in Qatar, and we think it’s important that when we are on the world stage … it’s important to bring awareness to these issues,” Berhalter said. “And that’s what Be The Change is about. It’s not just stateside that we want to bring attention to social issues. It’s also abroad. We recognize that Qatar has made strides and there has been a ton of progress, but there’s still some work to do. ‘Be The Change’ basically represents everyone’s individual opportunity to make change and have change start with them. So I think it’s appropriate that we have it here, as well.”

US trains with near-full squad, pleased with facility

Al-Gharafa Stadium, a 22,000-seat venue home to seven-time Qatar Stars League champions Al-Gharafa SC, is simple but well-appointed. Representatives from US Soccer first visited the venue several years ago and Berhalter toured the facility in 2019. It was their No. 1 choice for a home base in Qatar, with the federation booking it seconds after the portal opened for federations to reserve their training facilities and hotels at the World Cup.

The field is pristine. Conditions on Monday were hot, but not overwhelmingly so, with the temperature in the high-80s when training kicked off. That kind of weather certainly isn’t unfamiliar to most of the USMNT, which includes many players who train through the summer in MLS or who grew up playing in hot conditions in the States.

US Soccer also shipped a large amount of gym equipment to Qatar. Al-Gharafa Stadium has workout facilities, but Berhalter wanted the US’s gym to be located outside, so the federation worked with stadium officials to put together a substantial, covered workout area on the sideline closest to the locker rooms. Five US players — Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson and Josh Sargent — spent Monday in that area doing regenerative fitness work after playing extensively over the weekend.

Al-Gharafa Stadium, training base for the USMNT. (Photo: Sam Stejskal)

Ream and Robinson both went 90 minutes in Fulham’s 2-1 loss to Manchester United on Sunday before catching a late-night flight to Qatar. Aaronson, Adams and Sargent all logged extensive minutes for their English teams on Saturday, with Aaronson going 90, Sargent forced off after 84 minutes due to a minor injury and Adams was sent off in the 87th after receiving a second yellow card.

The three goalkeepers and remaining 14 outfield players in camp on Monday afternoon took part in the full session. Cameron Carter-Vickers, who went 90 minutes for Celtic on Saturday, was the only player who played more than 45 minutes over the weekend, who was warming up on the field with the larger group.

Four players — Sergiño Dest, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Haji Wright — had not yet arrived as of Monday afternoon, following their clubs’ scheduled matches on Sunday. Wright and Antalyaspor didn’t play on Sunday, however, as their match at Besiktas was postponed after at least six people were killed and dozens more injured when a bomb exploded in Istanbul earlier in the day. All four players are scheduled to arrive on Monday.

USMNT’s stars align

While the focus of the World Cup roster decisions a few days ago was on the players who would not be going to Qatar, the most striking aspect of this team is who is here.

The US’s biggest stars are all in the squad: Adams, McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah, as well as Aaronson, Dest and Weah. It was certainly not a given for that core to be intact.

Those eight players have been in just one camp together: the Nations League final four in May and June 2021. The quintet of Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, Adams and Musah has never been on the field at the same time. Even the combination of McKennie, Adams, Pulisic and Reyna had limited time together. They have been on the field at the same time in just six games for a total of 230 minutes and 41 seconds.

“That’s exciting,” Berhalter said. “As we go through this tournament our goal is to get stronger, our goal is to have players on the field that can complete the action that we’re looking for on the field, and to have that group of players potentially together on the field , it’s exciting. There’s a lot of talent there. And it’s good that we’re getting to full health now.”

Even with all of those players on the roster, however, it’s not yet clear whether they will be available against Wales on Nov. 21. McKennie was held out of Juventus’ game on Sunday and has not played since he suffered a quad injury on Oct . 29, though Berhalter did say on Monday that McKennie trained with Juve over the weekend. He did not arrive in Qatar in time for Monday’s training session, but met up with the US later in the day.

Berhalter said he expects McKennie to be in full training with the team upon arrival.

If he is not able to go or start against Wales, Berhalter will have a number of choices to replace him, including Aaronson and Luca de la Torre, who is working through injury issues, too. He picked up a hamstring injury in late October and has not played for Celta de Vigo since Oct. 24. Notably, Aaronson was listed as a midfielder, not a forward, in the roster announcement, indicating Berhalter was prepared for the 22-year-old to play in a central role. Berhalter said last week that they listed Aaronson there because they were “somewhat light” at the position. He plays in a more central role with Leeds, and performed well in the position for the US in their friendly win over Morocco in June.

Other notes

The US players will see some familiar faces in Qatar.

US Soccer flew out team barber David Marulanda to be with the team for the tournament. The federation also brought along a chef who they met during the World Cup qualifying cycle. Giulio Caccamo worked with the US at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador during the opening window of qualifying last September. The team performance staff enjoyed working with Caccamo there and started discussions with him, then worked with him again during the US’s visit to El Salvador for a Nations League game in June.

Caccamo, a native of Venice, Italy, accompanied the technical staff on a trip to Qatar after friendlies in September and met with the executive chef at the team hotel, helped source ingredients and set up the kitchen for the tournament.

US women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski said in a press conference after the women’s 2-1 win against Germany on Sunday that he was headed to Qatar to help the USMNT shortly after the match.

A USSF spokesperson confirmed that Andonovski would be serving as a scout for the US team. He is one of a number of US Soccer coaches who are helping to scout, though the full list of personnel being used in scouting roles was not immediately clear.

(Top photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos)


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