More questions than answers after U.S. ties Saudi Arabia 0-0 in final World Cup tuneup | Opinion

Jose Breton/AP

Once upon a time, American soccer fans were happy just to have their team make the World Cup. Unlike in the rest of world, where the makeup of the national team is as hotly debated as presidential elections, there was little discourse about who was on the U.S. roster or whether the coach had the team prepared.

Heck, it was hard to know if the U.S. teams were prepared because it was nearly impossible to find World Cup warmup matches on American television. And there was no such thing as the internet or social media.

But those days are way back in the rear-view mirror.

Fans of the 2022 U.S. men’s World Cup team are well-informed and deeply invested in every move coach Gregg Berhalter makes; and chances are, they are not feeling very optimistic after watching their team lose 2-0 to Japan in Germany last week and settle for a scoreless tie against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, on Tuesday.

The World Cup kicks off in 54 days in Qatar, and the USMNT plays its opener in 55 days against Wales (Nov. 21, 1 p.m.), then faces England and Iran. Tuesday’s game was the final tune up. If the Americans play like they did against Japan and Saudi Arabia, their chances of advancing from the group stage look bleak.

Here are the cold, hard facts: In the past eight matches away from U.S. soil, the Americans have scored two goals and allowed nine. In 180 scoreless minutes against Japan and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. team managed only two shots on target. Two. Total.

Granted, Japan and Saudi Arabia are talented, World Cup-bound teams, but still, this collection of American players has been touted as “The Golden Generation” with young players who make millions at some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Christian Pulisic has been playing for Chelsea since 2019, was nominated for the Premier League’s best young player award and last year became the first American to play in and win an UEFA Champions League final.

Weston McKennie plays for Juventus, Gio Reyna for Borussia Dortmund (at 17 became the youngest American ever to play in the Bundesliga), and Sergino Dest for AC Milan, on loan from FC Barcelona.

We were led to believe that these U.S. players would be more skillful, confident and fearless than those of the past because they go up against the best players in the world week in and week out. We were fired up that our team is back in the World Cup after failing to qualify in 2018, and these young phenoms gave us high hopes.

But the team that played against Japan and Saudi Arabia did not look special, confident or fearless. The collective performance was disjointed and underwhelming, and now we must wonder whether the team’s youth and inexperience will be too big a hurdle to overcome.

The U.S. roster is the youngest of the 32 World Cup teams. Most teams have an average age of 26. The U.S. players average 23.7 years old.

Most teams that do well in World Cups have at least a few veteran leaders. Inter Miami right back DeAndre Yedlin, 28, is the only player on the U.S. roster who has played in a World Cup, and his experience was evident on Tuesday.

Yedlin started against Saudi Arabia after remaining on the bench against Japan, and put in a good shift, with a few notable passes and a calm demeanor. But he was subbed out in the 57th minute with an ankle injury after a hard Saudi tackle, a sight that surely had Inter Miami coach Phil Neville and the team’s fans cringing, as they have a game Friday night in Toronto as they try to remain above the MLS playoff line with three games to go.

“We were playing tentative, the connections were not there,” Berhalter said after the game. “In general, it’s nervy times. People are worried about being on the roster. It’s a difficult moment. Confidence isn’t there yet, but we’ll get there.”

FS1 commentators Alexi Lalas and Clint Dempsey, both former U.S. World Cup players, did not mince words in their postgame analysis.

Lalas: “Nervy times? You’ve got the World Cup coming, a billion people are going to be watching. If you can’t hack it in a sterile environment like this against two OK teams that are going to the World Cup, then I don’t want you on the plane. I don’t want you in Qatar. This was an uninspired, unflattering window. We wanted to believe in this team going in.”

Dempsey: “Not much good you can take away from these games other than they got a clean sheet in the second game, put in a better performance, but still, not creating enough chances. No goals scored. There’s really no buzz going into the World Cup thinking, `Man, we’re going to get out of the group and go on and do well.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Berhalter said he was looking for more “confidence” and “personality” from his players. They did play better than they did against Japan, but confidence and personality – and goals – were still lacking.

He has 54 days to get this team World Cup ready. American fans won’t be satisfied unless the team advances from the group stage. They’re not just happy to be there, anymore.