Part of the charm of every FIFA World Cup is how it takes up a large chunk of summer. It either coincides with the tail end of the NBA and NHL playoffs, or misses it all together and only has to share sports airwaves with baseball’s slow ass. And it’s much more palatable to sit through a pair of 45-minute halves plus stoppage time than a loathsome three-plus hour, stop-and-start America’s pastime snoozer.
That’s not the case for the 2022 edition, as the sauna known as Qatar is too dangerous to play in during the summer months. It’ll be hotter than 100 degrees in Doha this weekend. That shifted the showcase to a late-November start date for the first time, when it has always begun anywhere from Memorial Day to the Fourth of July. We’re still 172 days from the first match of the tournament.
The United States men’s national team plays its first game tonight since World Cup Qualifying ended against a Morocco squad that’s also Qatar-bound. It’s typical to play friendlies before any major tournament, but instead of this round of exhibitions leading to the most important matches in four years, it’ll just end. The shift from summer World Cup to late fall and winter takes away an under-the-radar advantage for the Americans, as the MLS season typically takes place from March to early December. Most international leagues run from August to May.
Don’t take my word for it? After all, my dreams of playing in a World Cup pretty much ended when I was 9. I was disqualified for the pesky reason of not being athletic enough. In that case, how about someone who was good enough to represent the Yanks three times on the biggest stage in soccer? And is the most important American male to ever play the sport?
“What I found in the three World Cups I played in was that I was much fitter, fresher and in better form than most of the players we would play from around the world on other teams,” Landon Donovan told Deadspin during a recent phone interview from California, where he’s currently the manager and EVP of Soccer Operations for San Diego Loyal SC, who plays in America’s second-tier of pro soccer.
“They were coming right at the end of their club season that ended in May and they were just physically exhausted. It’s really challenging. Do you give those guys a week off? Two weeks off? And then they’re right back into training.
“This will be the opposite,” Donovan continued. ”MLS guys would be at the very end of their season, presumably, pretty tired from playing a long season. And the European guys will be two, three months in and they’ll be fully fit. So it should be a really interesting dynamic to watch play out.”
Since the formation of Major League Soccer in 1996, the USMNT has played in five World Cups. In 1998, only six of the 22 Americans played their club soccer outside America. In 2002, when the US advanced to the tournament’s quarterfinals, 12 of the 23 played in the MLS. The domestic club players fell into the minority for the 2006 event with 11 of the 23 applying their trade at home. That advantage was nearly nonexistent for the 2010 World Cup with 19 non-MLSers. For the most recent American appearance in the World Cup, it was more even with 10 MLS players.
The split for the 2022 American squad is extremely hard to project with summer transfers and straight-up time between now and the event. How players perform, injuries and whatever new theory Gregg Berhalter wants to run with will all affect the selection. The prediction colleague Sam Fels and I conjured already won’t be perfect because of Miles Robinson’s achilles injury. If Berhalter’s squads from WCQ are any indication, it’ll be another near-even split. Then again, that’s half-a-team more than most squads in Qatar will have from clubs that don’t follow FIFA’s calendar.
“Now you would use a lot of data,” Donovan said about how he’d prepare for a non-summer World Cup. “You would watch probably your last five, seven, 10 games and see if your physical output was deteriorating. Or if it was staying the same or even increasing, try to use data to figure out where your body was, along with how you just actually felt physically. And use that to make an informed decision.”
The USMNT not leveraging the advantage of the MLS calendar doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent. One knockout round win at the World Cup since the formation of the league isn’t a good look. My best prediction for a starting lineup a half-year out would have two MLSers in the 11, weirdly both at center back in Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long. (John Brooks is better but Berhalter doesn’t think so.) That lack of elite domestic players for this World Cup cycle will be a good thing and the Yanks better take advantage for once.