Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME; source photos: Aitor Alcalde—Getty Images (3); Lars Baron—Getty Images
November 16, 2022 5:43 PM EST

At a hip Brooklyn, NY music venue on a warm November Thursday night, dozens of members of the American Outlaws, the U.S. soccer fan group, gathered near a stage, sipping Bud Light Seltzers and IPAs in their red, white, and blue scarves and hats. “Brooklyn, N.Y., let’s make some noise,” a DJ implored, and the fans complied, singing songs and chanting “USA! USA! USA.” Many of them had waited eight long years for this moment, as the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team lived through a nightmare in 2018; Team USA failed to qualify for that quadrennial World Cup in Russia.

In a few moments, however, the roster for the 2022 U.S. squad, which is headed to Qatar, would be unveiled. So the Outlaws were feeling festive.

Jason Burak couldn’t help but think back to his days as an intern, in the 1990s, for the New England Revolution. The franchise was just starting out in the then-fledgling American professional outfit, Major League Soccer (MLS). “Nobody really knew what soccer was,” says Burak, who now works for a major credit card company. “I spent my mornings handing out free-ticket fliers.”


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These days, MLS is an established enterprise that has produced some key members of the U.S. World Cup team. Soccer has taken a firm hold on the U.S. sporting consciousness over the past quarter century. English Premier League games, readily available on televisions and tablets, have become part of a weekend viewing ritual for many fans. And now, some of the best players, on the world’s best teams, are Americans.

Burak could never have imagined that one day, he’d watch American Christian Pulisic, who’s been playing in top European leagues since he was 17, start a game for Chelsea, one of the most valuable soccer clubs on the planet. “Being able to turn on the TV and see how many Americans are playing abroad, it’s amazing to see,” says Burak. “Our team has depth that it’s never had before.”

The 26 Americans playing in the World Cup

The 26 names called out in Brooklyn a few minutes later, who will represent the U.S. in Qatar, proved Burak’s point. Though this American team may not have enough firepower to bring home a World Cup trophy against the likes of traditional powers France, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina, it’s an American squad unlike any other. The U.S. players own stellar resumes, as they suit up for iconic clubs like Chelsea, AC Milan, Arsenal, and Juventus. The team neatly reflects the nation it represents, as its more diverse and multicultural than ever. Roughly half the roster consists of players of color.

The U.S. World Cup team, by position (pro club/country; U.S. team appearances/goals; hometown) is:

The American soccer players are young

Team USA also represents a youth movement on the global stage. The Americans will be one of the youngest teams in Qatar. According to the analytics firm Stats Perform, the average age of U.S. players during World Cup qualifying—weighted by minutes played in the matches—was 24.9, a full two years below the second youngest squad, Ecuador. (Costa Rica clocks in as the oldest team in qualifying, at 30.3 years of weighted age).

Typically, such a lack of experience would dampen expectations. After all, just one American player, defender DeAndre Yedlin, has any World Cup experience. “That naiveté and inexperience will certainly manifest at different times,” says former U.S. star Alexi Lalas, now a commentator for Fox Sports. “Young people do dumb stuff every once in a while.”

But most pundits concede that, in large part to all the young legs, this is the most talented men’s team the U.S. has ever sent to a World Cup. “One thing about being young and a little bit naive, you have this fearlessness about you,” says U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, who plays for Leeds United, a Premier League club with an American coach, Jesse Marsch, and two American starters, Adams and midfielder Brenden Aaronson. “You don’t really give a shit who you’re playing against.”

The Americans open up their World Cup against Wales on Nov. 21, followed by group stage matches against England (Nov. 25) and Iran (Nov. 29). Many U.S. soccer observers consider this Qatar World Cup as a sort of tune-up for 2026, when North America will host the expanded event, and the young American core of Pulisic, Adams, Aaronson, and others should be in their soccer prime. The home team could be one of the favorites.

These U.S. players, however, are looking to seize what’s in front of them. “The expectations of others that this World Cup is a test, I don’t like that,” says midfielder Yunus Musah, 19, who plays for Valencia in Spain’s top-flight LaLiga. “I want to show people that we can do it. So I’m going to go out there and make sure we do it.”

Read more: Thousands of Migrant Workers Died in Qatar’s Extreme Heat. The World Cup Forced a Reckoning

Gregg Berhalter is head coach

After the U.S. failed to make the last World Cup, in December 2018 U.S. Soccer hired Gregg Berhalter, an ex-national team player, as head coach. In his first training camp in early 2019, he set about building a new team culture. He took the players on a trip to Coronado Beach, Calif. to visit with the Navy Seals, who spoke to the players and put them through some physical training. “That was a really important day,” says defensemen Walker Zimmerman, who was briefly called up to the national team during the doomed qualifying run for Russia. “We suffered through it together, but we were together, so nothing else mattered. That’s the kind of brotherhood we were trying to develop on this team. Gregg and his staff have done a really good job, from day one from that camp, of making sure that those are our core values.”

Berhalter created a player Leadership Council to open a dialogue about team concerns. Zimmerman, Pulisic, Adams, Weston McKennie (of Juventus), and goalkeeper Sean Johnson have been regular members over the past four years. Later in 2019, the team held a prolonged training session in the St. Louis heat, the day before a friendly against Uruguay. The players thought the team felt sluggish—the match ended in a 1-1 draw—and the Leadership Council suggested to Berhalter that they might be better off with less strenuous training sessions right before game time. Berhalter agreed, and a new policy was set.

The Leadership Council doesn’t always get its way. Sometimes, Berhalter has denied requests for team dinners outside of the hotel, preferring that the team stay put and recover from travel. “It can be a bigger decision that affects the game, it can be a small decision that affects the daily schedule,” says Zimmerman. “But ultimately, there’s dialogue between the players and the coach. And I think that council provides a safe way for players to do it. It’s not just the responsibility of just the captain or one person. It’s a little bit more player friendly, which we all enjoy.”

A focus on bonding and accountability

At 29, Zimmerman counts as a graybeard on the U.S. squad, and it often shows. While in Spain to prepare for a friendly against Saudi Arabia in September, many younger players gathered to watch a charity soccer game starring notable U.K. social media influencers. “Walker couldn’t name one person,” says Adams, 23. “Walker’s the old man. He doesn’t know what’s going on. But he’s good. He stays involved with the younger guys. He’s a good older guy to have around.”

Culture gap notwithstanding, by all accounts these U.S. players are a cohesive unit. At team meals, they’ll sit around for an hour, the plates long gone, just talking. They play fantasy football and golf. “You name it, they’re always doing things together,” says Berhalter. “There’s a deep bond that they have together. When you think about what we’re trying to accomplish, when you have everyone pulling in the same direction, you are more likely to succeed.”

These bonds also allow the players to be honest with each other, which can only boost America’s chances in Qatar. “We know each other so well, that we can talk to each other openly,” says McKennie, 24. “So if I’m doing something wrong, Tyler has no problem telling me. We have no problem holding each other accountable in anything that we do.”

American soccer has made changes

In recent years, American soccer has upgraded its talent development system. These changes should pay off in Qatar. MLS teams have invested in academies that cull talent, and offer players pro coaching at young ages, much like top European clubs have done for years.

Take, for example, Adams. He grew up in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., some 50 miles north of New York City. He started playing with the New York Red Bulls youth academy at 12 years old, commuting back and forth between his home and the team’s facility in New Jersey. “It was amazing,” Adams tells TIME. “Because you suddenly realize that being the best in your town doesn’t mean anything. Because now they’re finding the best players from everywhere.”

He also continued to play basketball into this freshman year of high school, following the expert edict that young athletes should sample multiple sports going into adolescence. “I remember playing my basketball right after school and then driving down to New Jersey for soccer training,” says Adams. “If they found out about that, they would not have been too happy. But honestly a lot of how I play soccer today, I give credit to basketball. Just defensively, shifting, all the different things you have to do. I couldn’t suggest more to people that you should play as many different sports as possible. It makes a big difference.”

Adams turned pro, at 16, with the Red Bulls’ second-tier team, and then worked his way up to the main squad before leaving for RB Leipzig, a Red Bull-owned team in the top-flight Bundesliga, in 2019. He jumped to the Premier League, and Leeds, this summer, for a reported $24 million transfer fee. His Leeds teammate Aaronson, who hails from southern New Jersey, trained with the Philadelphia Union’s academy since he was 10. “I just look at the way Brenden Aaronson’s career and the trajectory and the way he’s handled it, going from Major League Soccer to Austria to now Leeds,” says ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman. “Who knows where that next move is because he’s been playing so well in the Premier League. I would be shocked if the World Cup isn’t a real opening of the eyes for the casual fan that will watch the World Cup and go, ‘whoa, where’s he from?'”

All eyes on Christian Pulisic

America’s most notable weapon, midfielder Pulisic, is a product of the international academy system. Borussia Dortmund, a Bundesliga team, signed Pulisic at 16. He was soon playing for the top team, and he became the youngest non-German to ever score in goal in the Bundesliga, at 17. In 2019, Chelsea signed Pulisic for a $73 million transfer fee. While Pulisic became the first American to play in a Champions League Final in 2021, he’s struggled a bit with Chelsea this season, coming off the bench in a majority of games.

FIFA’s official World cup Twitter account recently called Pulisic the “LeBron James of Soccer,” which is a bit misleading. He’s not in the argument for greatest-of-all-time in his sport, as James is. (The Tweet was subsequently deleted).

Still, Pulisic is an American phenom. But he just can’t beat the world by himself. “If Christian Pulisic is an off-the-ball predator, if he’s relentless and he’s playing at the best of his ability, but the other guys don’t show up, it isn’t going to matter,” says Twellman. “It’s literally the sum of the parts. They don’t have one single guy who can carry them to the promised land, like a Messi, like a Ronaldo. But hell, if you get 90 to 95% of the potential and capability of all the players, you’re talking about a special group.”

Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States sprints during a game between Saudi Arabia and USMNT at Estadio Nueva Condomina on September 27, 2022 in Murcia, Spain (Brad Smith—ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States sprints during a game between Saudi Arabia and USMNT at Estadio Nueva Condomina on September 27, 2022 in Murcia, Spain
Brad Smith—ISI Photos/Getty Images

Yunus Musah represents the USA

One U.S. player could have played for a multitude of nations. Midfielder Yunus Musah was born in New York City, while his Ghanaian mother was on vacation. He grew up in Italy and joined Arsenal’s youth academy in London when he was nine. He played for England’s under-17 and under-18 national teams.

In November of 2020 Musah, who plays for Valencia, was invited to a U.S. national team camp in Wales. “For my whole life, I had this U.S. passport and didn’t do anything with it, really,” Musah tells TIME via video interview, after a Valencia training session. “Once I went to that camp, I gelled really quickly with everyone on and off the pitch. I wanted to be part of this journey. Since then it’s been really exciting. I’ve loved going into camp every time. I love representing them. I’m more connected to my American side, and I’m very happy about that.” In March of 2021, Musah committed to playing for the United States, over England, Ghana, and Italy.

While growing up in Europe, Musah always kept an eye on activities across the Atlantic. “I always loved hearing the American accent,” Musah says. “And the music and TV shows.”

His favorite: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Musah has not committed to doing the Carlton Dance if he scores a World Cup goal. Though he didn’t rule it out either.

What the data says about the USMNT’s shot at World Cup success

What do the analytics say about the U.S. style and chances?

According to Stats Perform, the U.S. plays “Fast and Direct,” rather than “Slow and Intricate.” The American team averaged a little more than three passes per possession in World Cup qualifying, while moving upfield at a speed of around 1.6 meters per second. Group stage opponent England, on the other hand, averaged almost 6 passes per possession, while moving upfield at about 1 meter per second. (Wales and Iran play more similar to the US). The U.S launched about 40% of its goal kicks past midfield, a maneuver consistent with a “Fast and Direct” strategy.

Stats Perform’s AI model gives the United States a 45.4% chance of advancing out of its group. England has an 84% shot, Wales a 41% chance, and Iran a 30% chance. (Of all World Cup teams, Brazil is the best bet to advance out of its group, with an 89% chance. Costa Rica is the longest longshot, with a 12% chance of advancing to the knockout round.)

Twenty years ago, the U.S. advanced to the World Cup quarterfinal: the Stats Perform model gives the U.S. a 19.2% shot at repeating that feat. As for winning the whole thing, the odds slim considerably. Brazil, at 16.75%, is the safest bet to win title. France has a 12.7% chance of repeating as World Cup champions. And Argentina has a 10.5% chance to finally deliver Lionel Messi his first World Cup title. The United States, however, has a less than one percent chance—0.73%, same as Mexico—to win the whole thing.

Oof.

For the U.S. team, hope springs eternal

No grim statistical prediction would dim American enthusiasm at the roster reveal. Berhalter walked onto the street after the ceremony, where a car awaited. But fans stopped him along the way, asking for group pictures, saying they’d see him in Qatar.

He got the rock star treatment. While the U.S. women have brought home a pair of World Cup titles since the men last competed in a World Cup, there’s plenty of pent-up demand for men’s national team success. Berhalter has preached ad nausuem about dividing the World Cup into two distinct events: the group stage and the knockout round. While the group stage requires sustained excellence over three games, once you’re in the knockout stage, anything can happen. Berhalter is correct about that. In a low-scoring affair like soccer, a single bounce in one team’s favor can determine the outcome of a game.

“The final determination of this group will be at the World Cup. That’s how generations are measured,” says Berhalter. “We want to be brave, the way we play. This a great opportunity for us. A great opportunity for young players, for old players, for everyone. I just hope that when we get there, we’re ready to take advantage of it. Because we really do see this as a responsibility. We want to get the public behind us. We want to build a ton of momentum going into 2026. But it all starts now.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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