In Thursday night’s Gold Cup semifinal in Austin, the US men’s national team meet one of the most unique sides in world soccer – an invited guest from halfway around the globe, representatives of a tiny country with enormous wealth, simultaneously 2022 World Cup hosts and rank outsiders, navigating situations that few other national teams have.
Oddly enough, Qatar are also a glimpse of both the USMNT’s past and its future.
By now, the oil-rich nation’s dramatic ascension onto the world stage is well known. Leveraging their substantial resources, Qatar mounted a stunning and highly controversial upset of Australia and the United States to earn hosting rights for next year’s World Cup, the crown jewel of a decades-long investment in the sport that also included the construction of the ambitious Aspire Academy, a global talent-identification network and the long-term cultivation of dual-national and naturalized players.
The USMNT were hours away from staging their 2020 January camp in Doha to give players and staff exposure to the environment they aim to compete in come November 2022, only for regional instability to force a last-second relocation to Florida. Head coach Gregg Berhalter had already gotten a glimpse of the project that’s taken root on the shores of the Persian Gulf.
“Back in 2019, I was able to go over there and meet with the coaching staff, spend some time with them, see Aspire, look at potential stadiums for the World Cup and just get a feel for Doha in general,” said Berhalter on Wednesday. “So I was pretty familiar with their setup, pretty familiar with what they do and their philosophy and their game model. But it's been nice to see it in action against Concacaf teams. That's the great unknown, is how's the game model going to translate against difficult Concacaf opponents, and I think they've been managing through in a good way.”
With no qualifying process to navigate because of their host status, much like the USMNT’s situation in the runup to the 1994 World Cup, Qatar have aggressively pursued opportunities for competitive matches on multiple continents. Spanish manager Felix Sanchez and his staff have also created a quasi-residency scenario for their entirely domestic-based squad comparable to what Bora Milutinovic – who just happens to be working as an advisor at Aspire – did with the United States several decades ago.
“They're basically represented by two club teams, and having an inside look on what they do, they almost operate like a club team,” explained Berhalter of The Maroon. “The guys come to Aspire to do re-gen every week. So after their club team games, then they will meet up together and do regeneration in the facility there, they get to spend time with each other after the games, analyze it. It's a really unique model.
“I'm excited to see how they play in the World Cup, because they really have a blueprint for how to prepare, with playing Copa America, playing European qualifying, playing Gold Cup. They really have gotten a sample of the entire world, basically.”
The United States will soon find themselves in an analogous spot, alongside World Cup 2026 co-hosts Canada and Mexico. While the massive differences in size, geography and player pools limit the extent to which the Gulf state’s approach can be copied on these shores, Berhalter might have been lobbying in advance for similar commitments when he underlined its value.
“They have a national training center, which I think is important. It's more complicated for us, because of our geography,” he said. “Most of the teams being in Doha, it's easy for guys to jump in the car and meet at the training facility to regen after the games. So one thing is, it would be nice to have a national training center that we have access to, and that we can have all the national teams there and working together, all the coaches there.
“Looking forward to 2026, the team is going to be put in a position where they don't have to qualify, and it's, how do you get those competitive games? And that's what I've been impressed with the most, is [Qatar] participating in tournaments like this. And it's not the first time, right? We had South Korea playing in the Gold Cup before the 2002 World Cup. So it's something that can be done, and perhaps it's a question to ask the U.S. Soccer Federation, if they're prepared to enter the US men's team in tournaments like that.”
Qatar have been this Gold Cup’s highest-scoring and arguably most entertaining team, showcasing individual flair and creativity within a fluid, organized counterattacking structure that’s an upgrade from the other opponents the USMNT vanquished this month.
“They've been scoring goals. They've also been conceding goals,” said Berhalter, who cited winger Akram Afif as a particular danger. “But they have an exciting game model, it's heavily based on offensive transition. They haven't had the majority of possession in three of their four games. But they're deadly on the counterattack, they have creative players.
“We're going to ask our guys to go out of their comfort zone and compete against an unfamiliar opponent. We have a game plan set up and try to go out and execute that,” he added, noting that defending against quick transitions has been a focus in his training sessions. “And I think it's a great learning experience. They're definitely going to be in the next World Cup, we know that. And if we end up qualifying, there's a potential to play them in the World Cup. So it's a great opportunity for this team.”