Gold Cup preview: USMNT v. Qatar (semifinal)

After winning Group B, The USMNT’s Gold Cup reward is a matchup with… a Jamaica team that’s pretty good! However, barring disaster, this Jamaica shouldn’t defeat even a C-team USMNT.

The essentials

Opponent: Qatar
Time, Location: Thursday, July 29, 6:30 p.m. CDT • Austin, Texas
Watch party: TailGate Music Row with AO Nashville • Club & Country unofficial watch party at Midnight Oil in The Nations
Watch: FS1 (national) • Univision/TUDN (nacionál)

The FIFA rankings: USA 20, Qatar 58
Competition: 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup Semifinal

The competition

We’re getting very deep into the 2021 edition of the Gold Cup: with just the semifinals and final remaining, the Americans are guaranteed at least third place (there is no match between semifinal losers to pick between third and fourth). Obviously, the hope is for a continental title. That… probably went without saying.

Canada and Mexico square off in the other semifinal, and your personal views of the respective rivalries (wanting Mexico knocked down a peg, wanting Canada to remain out of the “perennial contender” category, wanting either an easier path or more rewarding payoff, etc.) probably has more to do with your rooting interest than anything. I’m personally a “see Mexico lose, and play a slightly weaker team” partisan this evening, myself.

The Maroon

This is an exclusively domestic team, which means good (plenty of chemistry and familiarity) and bad (the Qatar Stars League is not the world’s strongest!) things for this side. Obviously the former seems to be paying more dividends than the latter is taking away from the team’s overall quality to this point in the tournament.

12 of the call-ups play for Al-Sadd (the club that has won two of the last three Stars League titles, which isn’t as dominant as you might expect given the abundance of players on this squad), seven play for Al-Duhail (which has won all but one of the other championships since 2010), three for Al-Gharafa (dominant before and including 2010), and one for Al-Rayyan (the 2015-16 champion, breaking the Sadd/Duhail duopoly in the past decade).

Qatar has been a pure 5-3-2 throughout the tournament, with goalkeeper Meshaal Barsham the lone goalkeeper used, and the backline almost entirely unchanged throughout: Homam Ahmed at left wingback, Abdelkarim Hassan at left CB, Boualem Khoukhi at middle CB, Bassam Al-Rawi at right CB, and Ró-Ró (a naturalized Portuguese/Cabo Verdean) at right wingback. Ahmed, Khoukhi, and Ró-Ró have each gotten a rest, but the only pure rotation was Al-Rawi taking a rest in the final group-stage game. Ahmed and Al-Rawi are the only players in that back six breaking up an all-Al-Sadd unit – so it’s worth noting that the team gave up 14 goals in 22 games during the last domestic campaign. It’s also worth noting that this unit has shut out Honduras and Grenada, but gave up two goals to El Salvador and three to Panama.

That’s been OK, because Qatar has survived on being a high-scoring team. Their nine group=stage goals led the Gold Cup, and only Mexico matched the three-goal output in the quarterfinal round.

Striker Almoez Ali has four goals (two against El Salvador, one in each of the Panama and Grenada matchups), midfielder Abdulaziz Hatem has three, and four other Qataris have found the back of the net. Interestingly, they’re two of the non-Al-Sadd guys – one could comfortably say that the defense comes from the league champs, and the attack is where the other sprinkles of contribution come from. They’re also both naturalized Sudan natives – naturalizing talented players from throughout North Africa and the Middle East has been a priority for Qatar in the run-up to its hosting gig in the 2022 World Cup – though Ali has the broader range of experience including time in multiple European academies, while Hatem moved to Qatar at 17 and has only played domestically.

All told, your level of worry about their scoring prowess probably boils down to how much you think a short-handed US is comparable to… not exactly a murderer’s row thus far.

The Americans

We’ve seen traditional 4-3-3 and some 3-4-3 tactics from Gregg Berhalter in this tournament, and the final group-stage game even saw Canada come up against a (largely ineffective) 3-5-2 with Daryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes both starting.

Given what we’ve seen in looking at Qatar above, the priority is largely going to be shutting down the strike duo while still having enough in the attack to stretch (“disorganize with the ball” in Berhalterese) what is not really a backline that should be able to hold up against the talent the Americans provide.

With the dearth of winger options on this roster… probably the best you can ask for is the 3-4-3. That allows Matthew Hoppe to play a striker-like attacking midfield or halfspace merchant that allows him to be effective in a wing-style role. The other winger, for me, is Cristian Roldan (barring a fully-healthy Paul Arriola). He may not be the most exciting player in the world, but Qatar probably doesn’t have the defensive chops to force him into being turnover-prone, and that allows him to play the role well. Kellyn Acosta as the other 8-type is probably the safe bet, Eryk Williamson the more-exciting but potentially-disastrous-due-to-adventurousness option.

James Sands in the middle CB/hybrid 6 spot both plays him in a way that’s most effective, and also allows Gianluca Busio (who appears locked into the starting lineup) to be a little less crucial defensively, and gives him passing outlets for the inevitable backpasses. Miles Robinson and the dread spectre of either Henry Kessler (a player I like a lot in MLS, but maybe not up to the level) or Donovan Pines (pretty much same) as the true CBs is not the most inspiring.

…but at least Matt Turner has been nigh-unbeatable in this tournament, giving up only a Martinique penalty.


United States 3, Qatar 1

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