The U.S. men’s national team has overcome every obstacle put in its way so far through the Concacaf Gold Cup, but a tricky semifinal test against an unfamiliar opponent in Qatar will present a new and welcomed challenge for Gregg Berhalter and his squad.
A spot in the Gold Cup Finals is at stake on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1) at Austin FC’s Q2 Stadium as the Americans face off with Qatar in the first-ever competitive meeting between the two teams.
Qatar, hosts of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has impressed during the tournament so far, winning three of its four matches, and riding an 11-match unbeaten run all the way to back to November. Felix Sanchez’s squad has scored two goals or more in every match at the Gold Cup so far, conceding only five goals over that span. Led by the trio of Almoez Ali, Akram Afif, and Abdulaziz Hatem, Qatar has delivered against some of Concacaf’s best, and the USMNT isn’t doubting its opponents one bit.
“The first thing is they’ve been scoring goals, but they’ve also been conceding goals,” Berhalter said in a conference call Wednesday. “They have a good model for offensive transition, they haven’t had the majority of possession in three of their games, but they are dangerous on the counter.
“The other thing is they’ve basically been represented by two club teams, they almost operate together in between their club schedule, it’s a unique model,” Berhalter said. “They have a good blueprint by playing in other competitions like the Copa America and Gold Cup. They’ve really gotten a good sample of the entire world.”
“I think their offensive transition is the key and for us it’s about stopping those moments,” USMNT winger Paul Arriola said. “They have quality up front and in the second lines to be able to do things in the offensive third. We need to be able to stop those chances and to be able to finish our chances tomorrow for a chance of advancing.”
Qatar hasn’t backed down from anyone so far in the Gold Cup, defeating Honduras 2-0 in its group stage finale while rolling to a three-goal lead against El Salvador in the quarterfinals before hanging on for a 3-2 victory. The Qataris have scored one more goal than the USMNT through four matches, but have also conceded four more over that same span.
The Americans enter the semifinal on a run of four consecutive tournament wins, with their young squad stepping up to the challenge of what is the first international tournament for many of them. Matthew Hoppe played the hero in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Jamaica, while others like Miles Robinson, James Sands, and Gianluca Busio have also logged important minutes in their overall development.
“This is exactly why we did this, I hear a lot in regards to the roster not being the best or the performances not being the best and that doesn’t concern me at all,” Berhalter said. “What concerns me is the output and the energy and commitment that the guys are playing with.
“We’ve conceded only one goal, we’re in the semifinals, and the relentlessness and commitment they’ve played with is a great example to the whole entire player pool,” Berhalter said. “We want to step on the field and win games and the guys have been doing a good job.”
While the two national teams currently sit 38 places apart in the FIFA rankings, Thursday’s showdown in Texas will surely bring out the best of both squads with a spot in Sunday’s final at stake. Both teams have posted unbeaten runs during their four matches so far and have plenty of underrated talents at their disposal.
“It’s been great preparing against a team that we are not familiar with,” Berhalter said. “It would’ve worked either way because you’re either preparing for a team who we will likely see in the Octagon or a team that is a new challenge. We have a gameplan set up and I think it’s a great learning experience, we know Qatar will be in the next World Cup and if we make it there, then we could have the chance of playing them. It’s a great experience.”
“It’s been no different scouting them and it’s no different on how we want to play,” Arriola said about preparing for Qatar. “Most of the focus is always on us and for us it’s about breaking down opponents and defensively stay organized. This is a semifinal and a must-win and we believe that we can win this game tomorrow.”