For the first time in eight-plus years, the US men’s national team are back in the FIFA World Cup.

Just like fans and media members, MLS coaches are anxiously waiting to see how this youth-driven squad performs at Qatar 2022.

To understand how they’ll be viewing the USMNT’s Group B games (and possibly beyond), MLSsoccer.com connected with a small handful of decision-makers around the league. Here are their perspectives as soccer's biggest event arrives in the Middle East.

Which USMNT player will make the difference?

Sporting Kansas City manager and sporting director Peter Vermes wasted little time in selecting a player that could be the USMNT’s X-factor. He highlighted Borussia Dortmund attacker Giovanni Reyna, a one-time New York City FC academy star who jettisoned early for the German Bundesliga.

Reyna, often plagued by injuries, featured in only four of 14 World Cup qualifiers as the USMNT placed third in Concacaf’s Octagonal. But fresh off his 20th birthday, Reyna is healthy and could be a true breakout player.

“If Reyna can stay healthy, he can be very impactful. He's a player the team needs to be in great form and at times has to be a game-changer, almost has to be a little like Landon Donovan was in 2002,” said Vermes, referring to when a 20-year-old Donovan, arguably the USMNT’s greatest-ever player, earned Best Young Player Award honors at the South Korea/Japan co-hosted World Cup.

“If he can find that kind of influence for the US team, then it would be a tremendous asset – not only getting out of the group stage but then having the ability to really surprise some people in the knockout stages. When Gio is on top of it, you need players who can change things.”

Gio Reyna
Gio Reyna has four goals in 14 USMNT caps. (Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago Fire FC head coach Ezra Hendrickson, who grew up in the US though represented Saint Vincent and the Grenadines internationally, praised what’s traditionally a position of strength for the Americans.

He singled out now-Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner, who joined the Premier League leaders from the New England Revolution this summer. Turner is the presumptive starter after manager Gregg Berhalter didn’t name ex-Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen, his previous No. 1, to the 26-man squad.

“Goalkeeping has always been a strong point for the US team when it comes to these tournaments. It's no different this year,” Hendrickson said of Arsenal’s No. 2, behind England’s Aaron Ramsdale.

“Matt has shown his shot-stopping ability to be very, very good. That's going to be incredibly useful for this current squad.”

As for Real Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni, he selected Leeds United midfielder Brenden Aaronson as the USMNT’s potential difference-maker in Qatar. The Philadelphia Union homegrown product has only been in Europe for two years, yet quickly rose from Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga to commanding a club-record fee in the EPL.

“He really drives a group forward and is also crafty enough to create and to score goals,” Mastroeni said of the 22-year-old. “I don't think he's a sleeper by any stretch. He's a top player for this team, but if he has a good start to the World Cup, he can be super influential and dictate things.”

The other unanimous pick? Aaronson’s Leeds teammate Tyler Adams, a 23-year-old defensive midfielder whose MLS roots are traced back to the New York Red Bulls. Mastroeni, a two-time USMNT World Cup veteran (2002, ‘06), called Adams the “guy who makes it tick.” Vermes, part of the USMNT’s 1990 World Cup squad, dubbed Adams the “ultimate competitor” and an “unsung hero” who links the whole 4-3-3 formation.

Which Group B game is most important?

First, some facts about Berhalter’s squad being drawn into the World Cup’s strongest on-paper group, per the FIFA World Rankings.

The USMNT are guaranteed three games in Qatar: Nov. 21 against Wales, Nov. 25 against England and Nov. 29 against Iran. Only the top two teams reach the knockout stages (Round of 16), chasing a spot in the Dec. 18 final at Lusail Stadium.

So, what’s the best path to advancing? It all starts with facing Wales.

“It's always that first game because it sets the tone and it creates a narrative outside of the group that also propels the group with confidence. For us in 2002, that game against Portugal really instilled a sense of belief in our team, being in a difficult draw with the hosts,” said Mastroeni, referencing the USMNT’s infamous 3-2 win over Luis Figo-led Portugal that helped sparked a quarterfinal run.

“That's the game that really sets the mindset, really sets momentum in play. … Getting a good result against Wales will then make the other games a bit more manageable where the US understands their identity, how they go about their work.”

Hendrickson came to a similar conclusion, not just because of what a three-point start does.

“If the assumption is England will win the group, then it means you must beat Wales,” he said. “If you don't win it, then it becomes a little sketchy going forward.

“If you win that game and you go into England with three points in the bag, then maybe you tie and you're likely looking at at least second place going into the Round of 16. But if you don't come out with points in the Wales game, it can be a very, very difficult task to now try and get four more points after and get out of the group.”

The USMNT and Wales drew 0-0 in a November 2020 friendly. (Reuters/Matthew Childs)

Vermes applied a similar logic, that LAFC star Gareth Bale and Wales are beatable and England pose an incredibly difficult challenge. It could all boil down to the final matchday against Iran; the Asian qualifier is one of the tournament’s biggest wildcards amid protests at home and a stronger squad than most perhaps realize.

“The game against Iran is a much more difficult game than it appears,” Vermes said. “I think Iran gets after it from a physical perspective. When they play us, they are always incredibly charged up. That game winds up being more of who wants it more as opposed to the other ones, where I think it's more a tactical game against England.”

What’s a realistic finish in Qatar?

At the bare minimum, the expectation seems to be getting into the knockout rounds. Only four points might be what’s required to make that happen.

“As a fan I'd like to say winning two of three, but that's easy to say at this stage,” Mastroeni said. “Also knowing the countries they face, you don’t know who will be that team. Is Wales a Cinderella team that pulls it all together at the moment and goes on this crazy run? Is it the US? There are so many variables that go into it that it's impossible to say.

“So I think a real neutral way to predict is a win, a loss and a draw. Hopefully you get through on a tiebreaker and can squeak through.”

The USMNT have reached the knockout stages in six of their past 10 World Cup appearances, including Round of 16 trips during both South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. They didn’t qualify for Russia 2018.

Historical context aside, Hendrickson sees a viable path forward amid the Three Lions being clear favorites.

​​”They can definitely get out of the group,” said Chicago’s coach. “A realistic expectation is Round of 16. When I look at it, it's England first and USA second. That Wales game is very, very important. If you get maximum points in that first game, then it becomes more realistic that you're going on.”

Gregg Berhalter
Gregg Berhalter is coaching at his first World Cup. (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)

Vermes echoed similar sentiments, partially rooted in this unconventional World Cup occurring in November and December. The tournament was moved from June and July due to extreme heat in Qatar; several of the stadiums are air-conditioned, though the climate is expected to still have a considerable impact.

“This team could make a push into the knockout stages and I think the youth component will be a huge asset based on the play, recover, play, recover element with the heat,” Vermes said. “That could be a big, big advantage.

“There's a good nucleus of guys who already have that in coming from MLS, and then some guys playing overseas are doing the same. It's a psychological aspect with the heat almost. If you've done it and gotten through it, you can figure it out. You remember psychologically that you got through it. But if you haven't, then you're questioning yourself all game long, especially in the second half.”

Should the USMNT advance, they’ll play a Round of 16 match on Dec. 3 or Dec. 4 against a to-be-determined Group A foe. The Netherlands are the favorite in Group A, with Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar all in the mix as well.

What’s a strength or weakness of the team?

Pre-tournament buzz is a time for optimism and concern. That balancing act, from our conversations with MLS coaches, often centered around the youthful nature of Berhalter’s squad.

The USMNT will be the second-youngest team in Qatar (25 years, 175 days), with only African powerhouse Ghana beating them in that category. They’ll have just one player with past World Cup experience: Inter Miami CF right back DeAndre Yedlin, who was part of the Brazil 2014 team.

That dynamic could go both ways.

“When you're youthful, your eyes are wide open,” Mastroesni said. “It's a new experience, younger players are more adaptable to different circumstances versus older players that are set in their ways and need things to be a certain way.

“ … But it's the old adage that your greatest strength is sometimes your greatest weakness as well,” Mastroeni added. “Being a youthful team or one with not a lot of World Cup experience, that poses a challenge as well. If you don't start well, how do you manage those moments? How do you deal with guys who maybe get disgruntled?”

Vermes highlighted both sides of the same coin.

“The number of players that are playing either on a regular basis in MLS or abroad at big clubs in very good leagues is a huge positive,” Vermes said. “So although the team really doesn't have much experience because we didn't make the prior World Cup, the fact all those guys are playing at a high level, it's a tremendous asset. That's why I don't think the guys will be in awe of the World Cup.”

Soon, we’ll learn if it’s an issue half the USMNT’s roster is 24 or younger. Only three players – NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson, Fulham center back Tim Ream and New York Red Bulls center back Aaron Long – are 30 or older.

“On any given day they could do well, and if you look at their group, it's not the toughest group,” Hendrickson said. “So the inexperience is a bit of weakness going into it, but once these guys get their feet grounded and the nerves are out, they'll be fine.”

Millions at home and abroad are hoping that holds true.

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