World Cup: Ecuador MLSers seek "something very beautiful" in Group A

Ecuador MLS players

Right from the get-go, José Cifuentes had a feeling Ecuador had what it took to make the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Despite the daunting task of competing in brutal Conmebol qualifiers against the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, LAFC's 23-year-old midfielder felt La Tri could secure one of the region's four direct spots for Qatar.

"I think from that first call-up when we met and arrived at training ... we looked at each other and we realized we've got a good group," Cifuentes said with Ecuador opening the tournament against the host nation Sunday (11 am ET | FOX, Telemundo).

"We've got good players and [thought] this is going to be a beautiful qualifying process."

Quite beautiful, in fact. Ecuador finished fourth with a 7W-6L-5D record over a nearly two-year span that secured them a ticket to the quadrennial event for just the fourth time in the nation's history.

Cifu and fellow 2022 Black & Gold Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double winners Sebastián Méndez and Diego Palacios, as well as Seattle Sounders FC center back Xavier Arreaga, all took part in the grueling qualifying process and were rewarded with World Cup call-ups by head coach Gustavo Alfaro.

La Tri have the third-youngest roster in Qatar with an average age of 25.6 years, behind only Ghana and the United States.

According to Méndez, the squad's relative youth compared to other teams at the tournament is an advantage rather than a handicap.

"I think that in the beginning, no one trusted maybe that such a young team could do what we did," the 25-year-old midfielder said. "But there is a very important factor named Profe Alfaro.

"From that moment, to have the confidence of a new coach who didn't care how old you were and played you, I think we realized that we could put together a good group."

Palacios was quick to warn that as talented and confident Ecuador are, their Group A opponents should also be wary of the team's unity.

"Family is family," Chiqui explained. "You'll kill for a brother. And that's the feeling around this national team."

After taking on Qatar, the South Americans will face the Netherlands (Nov. 25) before closing out their group stage slate against Senegal (Nov. 29).

A trip to the knockout phase is the goal for a country that has reached the Round of 16 just once: in 2006, falling to England on a lone goal by former LA Galaxy superstar and current Inter Miami CF co-owner David Beckham.

"We have to enjoy this with the responsibility that comes with representing your country," said Méndez.

" ... We have something very beautiful to face and we hope to do it the best way possible."