MURCIA, Spain — When the U.S. men’s national team takes the field against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, it will mark 43 days until manager Gregg Berhalter names his 26-player roster for the 2022 World Cup. For the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams — assuming they’re healthy — their spots are secure. There is no drama as it relates to their World Cup fate.
But for those players on the bubble, those final days — as well as Tuesday’s match — will see them engage in an awkward dance. After all, they’re feeling the pressure that comes when lifelong dreams are within touching distance of becoming reality but could just as easily slip away.
For most of those bubble players, the approach centers on the well-worn player adage of “controlling the controllables,” though there are some different flavors to that strategy. U.S. defender Sam Vines opts for being hyper-focused on the present in the hope that the soccer gods — well, and Berhalter — will bequeath him with a roster spot. “It’s a dream to go to a World Cup. I’ve been dreaming of it since I was born,” Vines told ESPN. “But you can only control so much, and you just have to work as hard as you can and hope that’s enough to get you on the squad.
“I just try and focus on the day-to-day. Today we have training, next day we have training, next day is a game. I just try and take it day by day and not overthink anything.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. While it might be easy to focus during training or a game, pushing out any negative thoughts when you’re away from the field is tougher, and this is a reality that teammate Mark McKenzie acknowledges.
“Of course it’s always in the back of your head. Every player knows the World Cup is coming,” he said. “So although you can say, like, ‘Yeah, I blocked it out,’ no, you sit and you go home and you’re like, ‘We’re weeks away at this point,’ you know? Before this, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s ticking down.’ That’s something that everybody is aware of. But you can’t really focus too much on the future because you don’t know what it has in store. So the biggest thing is being present, being in the moment, using this opportunity here in the camp.”
It’s open to debate just how much the Nov. 9 roster announcement is impacting the performances of certain players. In Friday’s 2-0 defeat to Japan, the U.S. was let down the most by players whose roster spots seem most secure. And while Vines struggled as well, he said the overriding vibe he felt was the trust of Berhalter and the rest of the coaching staff.
“Especially if you start the game, [Berhalter] puts trust in you, so you’re not worried about making mistakes,” he said. “You’re just more focused on how you can help the team.”
For McKenzie, the fact that he’s even here with the U.S. is a bonus. The KRC Genk defender was initially left off the roster, only to be added when Crystal Palace‘s Chris Richards and Celtic‘s Cameron Carter-Vickers were both forced to withdraw because of injury. He did his prospects no harm in a solid 45-minute stint against Japan.
McKenzie added that the spirit within the team is still positive, regardless of a player’s likelihood of going to Qatar. The focus now is on how to make amends for what was clearly a poor teamwide performance against the Samurai Blue.
“I don’t feel like there’s that tension within the team where you feel like you’re walking on pins and needles, where guys are so edgy to the point of collapse,” he said. “I think it’s the business end of the World Cup buildup and I think everyone realizes that and understands that you need to learn the lessons from Japan and take that forward to Saudi Arabia and end this period together on high.
“The group is still tight-knit, the group is still together. The group is still focused on making sure we prepare all facets of the game.”
Passes completed in the attacking third thus far:
Japan 35#USMNT 4
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 23, 2022
There’s another reason to not view the current camp as an all-or-nothing enterprise, too. The fact remains that after Tuesday’s match, players will have around seven matches to play with their clubs before the roster announcement, which amounts to one last-ditch effort to impress Berhalter and prove that they deserve to be on the plane.
The weeks might feel like an eternity in terms of waiting for Nov. 9, but they’ll also flash by as each game is played.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen in between now and then,” said McKenzie about the roster announcement. “Crazy things happen, where guys who were anticipated to be for-sure locks end up going off form and aren’t really considered anymore. Also, guys who are sleepers end up coming into the tournament. Guys who are expected to be there get injured before — there are all these different factors and variables that play into it.”
This brings up another awkward element for players during the run-up to the roster announcement: that of staying healthy and how that affects a player’s level of aggressiveness. There was a notable lack of bite by the U.S. against Japan, as evidenced by the fact that the Americans committed just three fouls to Japan’s 16. One would hope that the U.S. will play with more assertiveness against the Saudis.
McKenzie, if he sees the field, isn’t one to worry about his health.
“If you think about injury, it’s probably going to hit you,” McKenzie said. “And if you start thinking about how, ‘Well, I’m not going to get into too many tackles here,’ then it may hurt your game in the long run. If you’re only playing at 70% because you’re thinking already about three, four weeks down the line for roster selection, it’s not going to benefit you to start pulling back from your game.”
Granted, a player in McKenzie’s position has no choice but to go full throttle, and given how he has secured a starting spot at club level after some extended periods of struggle, he’s not going to back down now. Tuesday will reveal how the rest of his U.S. teammates manage the moment, as well as the weeks and games that follow.