Dest USMNT

AL RAYYAN, Qatar – A pandemic. A sweeping youth movement. An arduous qualifying journey that was somehow simultaneously compacted and winding, earning a precious ticket to a distant desert land. The shock and trauma of the 2018 cycle’s failures hanging heavy overhead, and the global turmoil of perhaps the most controversial tournament in FIFA history always rumbling menacingly in the background.

It’s been a long, strange trip for the US men’s national team. But now that they’ve at last reached the stage they’ve been aiming for, with their World Cup opener vs. Wales arriving Monday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo), they’re vowing not to let it slip through their grasp.

“Three years, four years of just working up to this moment,” midfielder and emotional touchstone Weston McKennie told reporters in Saturday night’s matchday-1 press conference before the USMNT’s training session at Al-Gharafa Stadium.

“I think all the guys are ready to go and the staff is ready to go and put a good game plan together. So hopefully we execute that and get the three points on Monday.”

Chatty, energetic both on and off the field, always poised to crack a smile or joke, McKennie kept true to his sunny disposition when asked one of the most pressing questions around coach Gregg Berhalter’s lineup vs. Wales: Has he healed the quad strain that sidelined him over the past few weeks in Italy?

“The week has gone good,” he said of this injury. “I came in at a pace that was controlled by Juventus and by the national team, they were both working together to make sure that I'm 100% fit here. So I came and did a couple of days of just maintaining and keeping it under control. And yeah, we played a friendly the other day and I felt good, felt ready to go.”

While U.S. Soccer staff have resolutely insisted on calling it a “training exercise,” McKennie and his teammates didn’t hesitate to acknowledge Thursday’s scrimmage with Al-Gharafa SC, the Qatar Stars League side that calls their training venue home, as a competitive occasion that helped them in their curtailed preparations for the first match. Nor did Al-Gharafa, for that matter, as the club publicly confirmed that it was a 6-0 scoreline in favor of the Yanks.

Its value might go double for the MLS-based players who haven’t played a game in weeks.

“It was a great scrimmage. We definitely got a lot out of it defensively, offensively. Finishing attacks was great. Obviously we had a couple goals in there, get the guys confident in front of the net,” said defender Aaron Long, who appears to be competing with Tim Ream for the left-sided center back role next to Walker Zimmerman.

“I think the staff has done a really good job of keeping us prepared. We had a mini-camp in Dallas [in October] where we got a ton of scrimmages, a lot of 90-minute games; we had another 90-minute game last night. That's great to get the rust off and get the group together, playing together again, in a competitive match. So yeah, it's definitely great for us to get that scrimmage. And we don't feel rusty at all.”

Sergiño Dest sat next to McKennie during their phase of the media availability, and while the Dutch-American fullback showed some nerves in front of the cameras and microphones, he sought to put to rest concerns that he, too, might be unable to start vs. Wales as he nurses a nagging adductor issue.

“Personally I’m feeling good. Of course after the last [AC Milan] game I had a little bit of fatigue [but] right now it’s going well,” said Dest. “I'm ready to play. With the team, you know, we’re really high for the game, we’re all really concentrated. Yeah, the game against Wales is really important, so we've got to get everything out of it on the pitch.”

For a range of reasons, controversy has swirled around FIFA’s unconventional choice of tiny Qatar as a World Cup host nation since those rights were awarded more than a decade ago. That discourse grew even more contentious on Saturday, when FIFA president Gianni Infantino launched a defiant broadside against the critics in a lengthy, outspoken press conference.

But the USMNT maintain that they’ve got their eyes on the prize in Group B and beyond.

“We know that we're a strong team and inside of our bubble, we try not to let anything inside,” said Long. “So just limiting distractions from the outside as much as we can and focusing on ourselves and focusing on this first game against Wales.

“We understand that this is a dream of ours and to live in the moment and to not take it for granted. But to also know that we're not playing for just ourselves or our team or our coaches or our families – we're playing for a whole nation. So we have that responsibility on us.”