The World Cup is at hand. Today, the biggest theater of dreams in sports opens its doors and welcomes 32 performers vying for the spotlight and the most coveted trophy in the world. This year the individual nations have and will be overshadowed by the host nation Qatar, Fifa, and the larger political context. Human rights abuses and backward laws around gender and sexuality have placed Qatar squarely at the center of criticism from many journalists and fans. Bribery and sportswashing have clearly stained the shiny gloss on Qatar’s new stadiums, not to mention Russia 2018.
For now, the days continue and football will be played. In that vein, and as an excited USMNT fan, I present three hypothetical dream scenarios of the United States’ first World Cup game in 8 years. Further roster details and previews are available going into the first game against Wales today.
First, the psychedelic fever dream. Haji Wright, the Antalyspor striker (20 goals in 2022) is dressed in a superhero cape: not Captain America, but a flowing dress of goals, class, and finishing. A surprising pick but an enjoyable entry into the World Cup squad. As he masquerades across the screen, we see a mentoring session. Tim Ream, master of getting by, gluing the surprising Fulham defense together is sitting with his Jedi apprentice. Antonee Robinson – self-proclaimed Jedi and maybe the player who unlocks Greg Berhalter’s scheme the most – is training his force skills with Luke’s helmet before blasting up the left side, powered almost into light speed.
Further ahead, the rebellion gathers. Hard pressing, take no-bullshit Leeds partnership Tyler Adams and Brendan Aaronson huddle with Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic, and the rest of the upfield players. They strategize and turn into x’s and o’s, zooming around the field, causing mayhem and forming a whole that is better than any individual. One loner though, with maybe the most magic in his feet, Gio Reyna, sits behind it, smoking the bubble pipe from Spongebob and waits to paint his masterpiece. He sees the colors coming together and the way the pieces fit. Amidst all this chaos, a beautiful harmony emerges, and more than that, a fun if sometimes chaotic team emerges. They scored the most goals in the group, but lost a 3-2 thriller to Wales thanks to some Gareth Bale brilliance – we all want to see that anyway. A draw with England and a hard-fought win over Iran leads to second in the group and a tough round of 16 matchup with The Netherlands. In a work that Rembrandt would be proud of, the teams painted a thrilling match and Oranje came out on top 4-3. Our hearts beat too fast each game, and the ups and downs of the 4 games left us exhausted, thrilled, but truly happy that we got to go on the trip.
Unfortunately, the next dream is not a restful one. This is the nightmare scenario. Gregg Berhalter, as the fans have seen, is a tinkerer. He is not necessarily a progressive manager, but one who has his ideas and bends his team to fit them. The mad scientist behind his desk, tactics in thought bubbles, the team does fit the shape. Strong fullback play powers the team. DeAndre Yedlin, the only roster member to have played in the 2014 World Cup, presides in a dutiful way over the next generation of Robinson, Sergiño Dest (finding his feet at AC Milan), Joe Scally (playing well Borussia Mönchengladbach), and Shaq Moore, a surprise inclusion. As the tournament progresses, that is about the only part that finds success in this dream. Against difficult if understated opponents, the midfield fails to find their cohesion, and the attackers all become Benjamin Button. The attacking trio of Reyna, Pulisic, and Weah age before our eyes and are plagued by nagging injuries which see the minutes of the top players decline together. The US fails to find goals, and the team crashes out of the group stage. Sad, yes. Also thankfully short.
The last one is the best though. After a night of restful sleep you can doze off in the warmth next to the rickety radiator gazing out the window of your afternoon class. The USMNT is alive. Pieced together into a brilliant jigsaw, we watch this form in our mind’s eye: all of the parts individually impressive among a beautiful whole. We can see this generation, not quite in their prime, evolve. Pulisic puts a firm hand on the leadership on and off the pitch, with important and hardworking performances on the left wing. Brendan Aaronson, Gio Reyna, and Tim Weah provide a smooth rotation between young but still growing attackers. In the group stage, we concede only 3 goals, winning 2-1 over Wales, a hard fought 1-0 over England, and a thriller 3-2 against Iran coming first in the group with the highest average Fifa rating of 15.
The round of 16 comes and the next piece of the puzzle comes into focus. The defense forms a solid and impressive unit. Antonee Robinson again takes center stage and impresses alongside the Deadhead of a veteran Tim Ream. Walker Zimmerman, MLS star, is good, and Dest and Yedlin provide the glue. Senegal comes bearing a formidable task, a flowing river of knives, ready to jump on your mistakes. The USMNT navigates this agilely and is through to the quarters. At this point, we’ve returned to semi-consciousness, being pulled back into the real world by the chatter of the end of the day.
Still solving more pieces of the puzzle, the midfield showed up in the quarters against the Space Jam Robots of France, undeterred by injury, Mbappe powering the way. Adams, Musah, and Mcknennie are a devastating unit, all peaking. The game goes better than expected, a one-nil lead, only canceled out later in the first half. A Gio Reyna wonder goal in the second half marks the complete evolution of this team into their prime years, excited about what a home World Cup can bring. France dutifully answers and the game goes to extra time and then penalties. 3-3, each goalie saving one penalty with a chance for the US to win it and send the team to the semis of the World Cup.
Cruelly, the bell rings for the end of the day, and we must travel back into the physical realm, a lovely dream to keep pushing towards.