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Kyle Franko: For young United States stars, time to earn their stripes at World Cup

The Trentonian logo The Trentonian 11/18/2022 Kyle Franko, The Trentonian, Trenton, N.J.

Nov. 18—When the United States men's national team steps on the pitch to begin its World Cup campaign — one four years in the making following its infamous failure — there will be something distinct about this group.

It's young.

Like very young.

The U.S., average age 25.1 years, will be the second youngest team in the tournament. In fact, that number would have been even lower if it had not been for injuries the necessitated the return of 35-year-old center back Tim Ream, the squad's oldest player, from the international wilderness.

But four years on from that 2018 debacle, just how much better is this team? And is it ready to compete against the world's elite?

Well, we'll find out beginning on Monday when the U.S. starts Group B play against Wales at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar.

(Quick sidebar: There's a lot to be said about this World Cup being in Qatar. You have accusations of bribery, human rights violations, climate concerns, schedule congestion, the list goes on and on ...)

But it's here. Unconventional as it is that means the eyes of the world for the next month will be on the beautiful game.

For the U.S. squad, those youngsters will have to earn their stripes in a group that also includes England and Iran.

It was an up-and-down redemption project for Gregg Berhalter's side as it qualified automatically as the third-place team in Concacaf behind Mexico, and, yes, Canada. It won just one of seven road games, but went 6-0-1 at home, including another Dos a Cero against arch rival Mexico, which at the time was a third consecutive competitive victory over El Tri.

The friendly games in the build up to the World Cup — a 2-0 defeat to Japan and a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia — didn't inspire much confidence. When this team gets in trouble, evident in the those two warm ups, is when it gets sucked into playing overplaying of the back — too much sideways and backwards passing in its own half — and turns the ball over in bad spots.

Despite all that — don't hit up Twitter (if it still exists past the weekend) if you want to keep your sanity —when the lights come on this team is going to show up.

It has to.

There's its talisman, Christian Pulisic, the best player, who at 24 is already a Champions League winner with Chelsea.

There's Tyler Adams, 23, a media-friendly defensive midfielder with the lungs of two men.

There's Weston McKennie, 24, a two-way midfielder from Italy's Juventus with a knack for popping up inside the box at just right the time to use his noggin for a goal.

There's Yunus Musah, 19, a rising star midfielder at Valencia in Spain, who is on the radar of all of Europe's big clubs.

There's Brenden Aaronson, 22, who has burst onto the scene at Leeds with his club teammate Adams and can change a game with his relentless pressing.

There's Giovanni Reyna, 20, the Borussia Dortmund player, son of U.S. soccer royalty — his parents both played for the national team — who, if he can stay healthy, brings a touch of class.

There's Sergiño Dest, 22, a mercurial talent playing at AC Milan, who scares you defensively but can produce a moment of quality (see his goal against Costa Rica in qualifying).

Then there's Matt Turner. He's old compared to these guys at age 28, but he's the starting goalkeeper, and what a story he has. He didn't start playing soccer until he went to high school at St. Joseph Montvale in North Jersey as a way to stay in shape for other sports. He went on to play at Fairfield (yes, we have MAAC-tion at the World Cup) and then the New England Revolution before earning a move to Arsenal in the Premier League.

This is an incredibly diverse and likeable group to boot.

It's exactly what you want a team representing the United States to look like.

All that's left is to go and do it.

Time to earn those stripes.

For more from Kyle, follow him on Twitter @kj_franko and reach him at kfranko@trentonian.com

(c)2022 The Trentonian, Trenton, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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