Americans, back in World Cup after eight-year wait, face Wales to open

AP photo by Ashley Landis / U.S. forward Christian Pulisic, left, and teammates practice Saturday in preparation for their 2022 World Cup opener against Wales on Monday in Qatar.

DOHA, Qatar — Yusuf Musah, Gio Reyna and Joe Scally were 11 years old the last time the United States men's national team took the field in a World Cup match. On the 3,066th day after that loss in Brazil, the Americans will return to soccer's quadrennial showcase with a new-look team dreaming lofty goals and hoping for actual ones.

Filled with novelty, nerves and naivety, these young Americans take the field against Wales at 2 p.m. Eastern on Monday in a Fox-televised match a growing fanbase back home has been pining for since 2014.

"Three years, four years of just working up to this moment, I think all the guys are ready to go," midfielder Weston McKennie said.

President Joe Biden called players to offer encouragement ahead of the opener.

A Friday match against England follows before the Americans wrap up their group play Nov. 29 against Iran, which famously eliminated the U.S. from the 1998 World Cup in France.

Only DeAndre Yedlin, a 29-year-old defender, remains from the American team eliminated by Belgium in the second round eight years ago. He is joined, Kellyn Acosta, Christian Pulisic and Tim Ream as holdovers from the group that flopped to the field in anguish after the crushing loss at Trinidad in CONCACAF qualifying in October 2017, which ended the streak of U.S. World Cup appearances at seven.

McKennie debuted a month later in a 1-1 friendly draw at Portugal, as did Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tyler Adams, who was appointed captain Sunday at age 23.

A total of 118 players were tried over 68 matches in a World Cup cycle interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including 91 games after Gregg Berhalter was hired as coach in December 2018. He gave debuts to 56 players and took the second-youngest roster to the tournament at an average age of just more than 25 years, older than only Ghana.

Some are already looking ahead four years, to when the United States co-hosts the tournament and the core group figures to be in its prime.

"We want to build a ton of momentum going into 2026, but it all starts now," said Berhalter, who becomes the first American to play and coach at a World Cup.

His 50th-minute shot from Claudio Reyna's corner kick struck German defender Torsten Frings' arm on the goal line but was not called a hand ball in 2002′s 1-0 quarterfinal loss.

"I was in my mom's belly," quipped Gio Reyna, Claudio's son, who was born that November.

Berhalter has installed a high-pressing style and led the Americans to a 36-10-10 record that included titles in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup and Nations League.

"The final determination of this group," he said, "will be at the World Cup. That's how generations are measured. We can all be talking — that's great, we beat Mexico three times. Or we won the Gold Cup or the Nations League. But the real measuring stick for this group is certainly going to be how you perform in Qatar."

Wales is back in the World Cup for the first time since 1958, led by 33-year-old Gareth Bale and 31-year-old Aaron Ramsey but without injured midfielder Joe Allen. The Dragons advanced to the 2016 European Championship semifinals before losing to eventual champion Portugal and made it to the second round of last year's Euro event before a 4-0 wipeout against Denmark.

The lack of World Cup experience has the Welsh as guarded as the Americans heading into the match at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, a renovated 44,000-seat venue west of the capital.

"They're a good young squad and have some fantastic players," Bale said. "We're under no illusions that they're here to win the game just as we are, so we know it's going to be a difficult match tomorrow and I'm sure they know the same thing, too."


Qatar drops opener

AL KHOR, Qatar — The large swathes of empty seats in the second half summed up the Qatar soccer team's disappointing start to its first World Cup.

The night started with more than 67,000 mostly Qatari fans filling the cavernous Al Bayt Stadium, enjoying an opening ceremony that showcased the tiny Arab emirate to a global audience 12 years after winning the right to host soccer's biggest event.

It ended with Qatar's overmatched team trudging off the field, its unwanted place in the sport's history secure and with many of its dismayed fans having long disappeared.

The controversy-laced tournament opened Sunday with the 2019 Asian Cup champions getting outplayed in a 2-0 loss to Ecuador, ensuring a host team lost its opening game for the first time at a World Cup.

"I would say we felt bad (for our supporters)," Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said. "I hope in the next game they will be prouder."

Ecuador captain Enner Valencia scored both of his team's goals in the first half of a one-sided game that wound up being a damage-limitation exercise for Qatar on one of the biggest nights in the nation's history.