By Michael Lewis
So, you think your favorite soccer team has a chance of winning the World Cup, huh?
Well, take a gander at these points.
I call it the DATES method to determine if a team has a chance of going far in the tournament.
D for depth
When teams are forced to play as many as seven games in a month, or even four or five during a short time, they better have suitable replacements because of injuries and suspensions.
Qatar 2022 is the most unusual World Cup in modern times in which most players will go from their club teams to their national sides and play within a week. That is ridiculous. In previous World Cups, there have been several weeks, sometimes a month to give players to catch their collective breaths and recover from whatever injuries or knocks they may have incurred.
Not this time.
As for suspensions, two yellow cards in any number of matches mean a one-game ban.
In 1990, head coach Carlos Bilardo was forced to manipulate his roster through injuries and suspensions just to get Argentina to the final (which it lost to Germany). The same goes for Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy squad at USA ’94.
When everyone is healthy and in form, the U.S. has a solid Starting XI, but the depth can fall off at certain positions, especially on defense, if injuries pile up.
Even though teams will be allowed five substitutions a game, everyone’s depth will be tested.
A for age
There is no one formula how to put together a successful international soccer team. But teams tend to use
more experienced players in goal (30 plus) and on defense (late 20’s and early 30’s), a mixture at midfield and players in their mid-20s at forward.
That’s not an absolute, but it can go a long way towards a team’s success.
That’s one of the reasons why U.S. coach Steve Sampson’s decision to use 34-year-old Roy Wegerle at France ’98 was a disaster.
In 2002, a 30-year-old Brian McBride proved an exception to the rule, scoring twice for the USA to the exception to the rule. McBride, the U.S. men’s national team general manager, scored in both American victories in South Korea, the 3-2 stunner over Portugal and the dos a cero result against Mexico in the Round of 16.
T for team
Just take a look at the rosters of the best teams. Where do the majority of players from the favorites play for?
In some of the top European leagues and usually for the leading clubs such as Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, Arsenal, etc. etc. It will be intriguing to see how host Qatar and Saudi Arabia fare. Their teams are dominated by domestic-based players, but since they will be playing in climates to which they are accustomed and enjoying home continent advantage, that might cancel that out.
More and more USMNT players are competing in the leading leagues in Europe, some for top sides such as Chelsea (Christian Pulisic), Juventus (Weston McKennie) and A.C. Milan (Sergino Dest), among others. And sometimes it’s not only playing for the best clubs, but it is competing in the same league against them.
Over the years, more and more U.S. players have found their way to Europe to hone their skills. Seventeen players on the 26-man roster compete across the Atlantic Ocean, while nine perform in Major League Soccer.
There is nothing wrong if you play in your domestic league, as long as the competition level is high.
For the U.S. that is a huge jump from previous World Cups and a promising sign for the future.
E for experience
The pressures and demands of a World Cup are so enormous, it is vital to have players who have been there before, so they understand what it is all about and let their teammates know what to expect. The 1990 U.S. team, the first side from this country to play in the World Cup in 40 years, was a bunch of college graduates and didn’t know much about the pressure.
Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002 were rare exceptions.
As for this USA squad, defender DeAndre Yedlin was the lone player with World Cup experience, performing at Brazil 2014.
While the Americans might lack World Cup matches, many have performed in the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and the Europa Conference. They are top competitions that demand the best of players, sometimes more than a World Cup match.
S for speed
It’s effects can devastating on both sides of the ball. Why do you think the Italians have been so successful?
They traditionally put their fastest players in the back, so even there is a rare mistake, they can compensate.
Before you go crazy, yes, I know. Italy has failed to reach Qatar 2022. But in previous tournaments, the four-time champions used their speed on both sides of the ball to make life miserable for many an opponent.
A fast forward can create havoc.
The Americans have a few speedsters. That includes right winger Tim Weah, who, when in form was devastating during Concacaf World Cup qualifying, left back Antonee Robinson, who can motor down that side, Dest at outside back, and Pulisic.
Many times all a player needs is getting a step on his marker to run down the flank and send a cross into the middle to set up a goal-scoring opportunity.
And there is another version of speed – speed of thought. How to make the correct decision in a milli-second. The great ones, like Franz Beckenbauer, had it. He knew when to keep the ball, when and where to pass it and even shoot it in a blue moon.
That is something that cannot be measured by a stopwatch, only by wins and championships.