DeAndre Yedlin will be the first to attribute his recent performance, maturity and success to one person: Seneca, his daughter who was born September 2021.
“Being a father now has really changed my perspective on life and the way I go about things,” the USMNT defender says. “Honestly, I’d say that’s the biggest difference. It’s changed my performance a little bit just in how I look at the game of soccer. It’s a game and at the end of the day there’s more important things than soccer and it’s helped me relax a little bit on the pitch and honestly I think has made me a better player.”
The United States Men’s National Team will rely on the maturity and experience of players like Yedlin (29), Tim Ream (35), Walker Zimmerman (29), Sean Johnson (33) and Aaron Long (29) as a young and inexperienced roster heads to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter announced his 26-man squad for the quadrennial tournament on November 9 as the USMNT returns to soccer’s grandest stage for the first time in eight years with only Yedlin having prior World Cup experience.
“Over the past four years I’ve tried to show the leadership that I have and take on more of a leadership role,” says Yedlin, who signed a four-year deal with Inter Miami FC in February. “Just kind of be the guy who’s there for the team no matter what that is—on the field, off the field, in the stands, whatever that is. I really want the best for this team and this federation.”
Berhalter’s boys will be the youngest squad in Qatar by far. Through 14 qualifiers, the USMNT Starting XI boasted an average age of 23.82 years, almost two years younger than the next closest nation, Ghana (25.67). The other 31 participating teams in this year’s World Cup averaged a Starting XI age of 27.5 years through qualifying, nearly four years older than the U.S.
This American team ties the 1990 side for most U-23 players on a USMNT World Cup roster with nine players: Tyler Adams (23), Brendan Aaronson (22), Sergiño Dest (22), Josh Sargent (22), Tim Weah (22), Jesús Ferreira (21), Yunus Musah (19), Gio Reyna (19) and Joe Scally (19).
“We know how important this moment is in our lives and careers and we know a lot of people are saying that we’re a young group and this is their first World Cup, but we don’t look at it like that,” says Ferreira, an FC Dallas forward who has seven goals in 15 national team caps. “We look at it as we’re a team that’s hungry to win things and prove people wrong.”
The pressure to perform isn’t lost on America’s new generation, many of whom sat and watched in disbelief as the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia following a 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017.
The failure resulted in wholesale changes throughout U.S. Soccer from the top down on and off the field as head coach Bruce Arena stepped down and federation president Sunil Gulati announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Berhalter, who was named head coach in December 2018, sought to write the next chapter of U.S. Soccer history with its next generation led by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Adams, Dest and Reyna.
Of course there were growing pains during this World Cup cycle, but the young USMNT was able to answer the call when the lights shined brightest by defeating rivals Mexico 3-2 in extra time to win the inaugural Concacaf Nations League in 2020, and topping El Tri again 1-0 in extra time to hoist the 2021 Gold Cup.
The USMNT also set a program record for wins in a calendar year by going 17-2-3 in 2021.
“People see positives and negatives,” says Antonee Robinson, a 25-year-old defender at Fulham. “Some people look at it as inexperience and things like that, but as I’ve said, this group has been together for a good part of four years now. We have a lot of good experience with each other and individually during that time to develop.
“When you look at this team and see younger talent playing so well at so many different levels across so many different leagues, the only thing I see is hunger, determination, intensity and energy that are all sorts of things we can bring into this World Cup.”
While many fans and pundits have November 25 circled on their calendars when the U.S. meets Euro 2022 runner up England, USMNT players aren’t looking past Wales, their opening opponents on November 21. The U.S. finishes play in Group B against Iran on November 29.
A positive performance against Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and The Dragons can go a long way for a young USMNT squad experiencing the pressures and excitement of a World Cup for the first time.
“Staying present I found is the best way to be successful and not really get too far ahead because if you can put all of your energy and focus into one point in time, it gives you the best chance to go forward and succeed,” NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson says. “I think that’s what we’ll do. Getting to Qatar was the first step. Getting on the training pitch and preparing for Wales I think is where everyone’s heads are at.”