National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT-Qatar semifinal clash presents "very different" Gold Cup test

The US men’s national team have had to grind out results at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, edging past three of their four opponents by narrow 1-0 scorelines, all of which involved some scrappy play, and suffering, on the part of the host nation and favorites.

They’re expecting a change of pace in Thursday’s semifinal against Qatar at Austin FC’s Q2 Stadium (7:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN).

“I think this game coming up is going to be very different from all the rest,” said LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget during a Tuesday media availability. “That's one thing you get in Concacaf, just different styles. Jamaica was a very physical team and now going against Qatar is going to be quite [the] opposite. They're going to want to play the ball on the ground and they're going to want to attack and throw numbers forward.”

Invited to participate in the tournament as a guest team in keeping with a strategic partnership between Concacaf and the Asian Football Confederation, Qatar have turned out to pose the competition's most prolific attack. Asia’s reigning champions banged in nine goals across their three group-stage matches and netted another three in their pulsating 3-2 quarterfinal win over El Salvador as they aim to become the first-ever invited team to win the Gold Cup.

The Maroon also carry a 12-game unbeaten streak, recording 10 wins and two draws since a November 2020 setback against the Korea Republic. Their entire roster is based in Qatar and hails from the same four clubs, allowing for increased chemistry that’s rarely found on the international stage. Each layer makes the first-ever meeting between these two senior national teams only more challenging.

“Qatar is definitely a great team. They're a very offensive-minded, counter-attacking team and they’ve scored a lot of goals so far this tournament,” said Atlanta United center back Miles Robinson, one of the USMNT’s most eye-catching starters thus far. “So it's just a matter of us sticking to our game plan and trying to stay solid defensively.”

Qatar’s Almoez Ali is currently the Gold Cup’s leading scorer with four goals, one of several skillful, vibrant performers in the pass-and-move style overseen by Spanish manager Felix Sanchez, a former FC Barcelona academy coach. Conversely, the USMNT have been the stingiest side, conceding just one goal.

“We're definitely aware of it; we definitely respect them,” said Lletget. “They've done really, really well overseas and now they come here and not many people know much about them and they're doing good.

“They play a very attacking [style],” he added, “so we definitely have to respect that. But I think we have a lot of tools that can hurt them, and I think we can exploit their weaknesses.”

As potent as the 2022 World Cup’s host country has been this month, the USMNT might welcome a change of pace from the rugged affair with Jamaica they survived on Sunday. And they sound highly enthusiastic about their first visit to brand-new Q2 Stadium, which has been a vibrant venue in its opening weeks and was recently announced as the site of the USMNT’s World Cup qualifier vs. the Reggae Boyz in October.

“I've heard it's a great stadium, a great atmosphere, I've heard the fans are energetic and just the stadium as a whole is really great,” said Robinson, who also said the squad is ignoring “the outside noise” about the rough edges on their performances thus far. “So I'm definitely excited to play there for the first time. We checked out the training ground today, when we were training, it's nice. So I'm expecting big things from Austin.”

It’s the first visit to Texas’ capital city for Lletget, whose LA Galaxy don’t visit Austin FC until late September.

“It's definitely been a topic of discussion, just being in the new stadium, and everything's just fresh,” Lletget said. “We've heard a lot about this place and the fans that are in the city, so we're definitely hoping for a really good crowd.”