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‘Oh captain, my captain’: Breaking down World Cup quarterfinals unconventionally

Over the course of the past 2 years, there have been countless breakdowns and predictions for the 2022 world cup. So, approximately two weeks ago, my sister and I decided to get what the people really want: a ranking of the Fifa World Cup’s Men’s Soccer Captains. We created a google form with pictures of every world captain and asked people to rank them from 1-10. We also gathered everyone’s age (on average, 27), as well as if they wanted to add any comments on the form. While I did collect data on every captain, I will only be creating a bracket for the final eight. 

Now, before I go into the final predictions, I need to set some things straight: there are clear biases in my data. One friend submitted the form ranking every world cup captain a “1” except for Tyler Adams, who he ranked a ten. He then resubmitted the form, with the same rankings, this time with the comment “ADAMS SO NICE, HAD TO TAKE THE SURVEY TWICE.”  

When this was created my sister, who put the form together, did not know how this data would be used. Thus, there are not always the most equally representative photos from one team to another, and this definitely had some effect on our data. Also, our top-ranked captain Simon Kjaer was ranked a whopping 7.97, while the worst-ranked captain, Uruguay’s Diego Godín came in at 2.60. While that is a big gap, the 10th-ranked player to the 22nd-ranked player are only separated by 0.83, meaning that there are some very close matchups in the greater picture.

So, with that in mind, if we were to look at the attractiveness of the Fifa world cup Final eight, here’s who would win! 

Croatia vs. Brazil: Friday, Dec. 9, 10 a.m. EST on FOX

Croatian captain Luka Modric against Brazil’s Thiago Silva is a tough first match. Modric has some key components that give him an edge; specifically his blond flowing hair that he has to pin back for games. Modric is on the smaller side but uses that to his advantage through the brackets. While Modric was ranked in the top half, he ultimately fell in the middle of the pack at 15. However, we have seen underdogs come on top in these tournaments. 

However, Modric is up against a heavy hitter in Thiago Silva. Silva comes in at 5-foot-11 and 174 pounds. He is large, with a strong square jawline compared to Modric’s thinner profile. Also, Silva is a favorite, coming in at fifth in the total pre-tournament rankings. 

Ultimately, Silva wins this matchup with 6.70 to Modric’s 5.30. 

Netherlands vs. Argentina: Friday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m. EST on FOX

The Netherlands is represented by defender Virgil Van Dijk. Standing at 6-foot-5, Van Dijk is on the larger side of this tournament. He is typically seen with his hair pulled into a slick bun with a strong jawline. However, Van Dijk is going up against a tournament favorite, Lionel Messi. Although Messi’s attractiveness might not be his calling card, his memorability (especially with an American audience) definitely pulled some weight. 

But, his name was not enough, and the Netherlands will pull ahead with a slight advantage of 5.04 over the eighth worst Argentina’s 5.00. 

Morocco vs. Portugal: Saturday, Dec. 10, 10 a.m. EST on FOX

Portugal, again, has a big name to help them in this tournament in Christiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is not only known for being one of the best soccer players of all time, he is also an international heartthrob. But, as we have seen in this tournament, a name is not always enough to pull you ahead. 

Ronaldo is going against Romain Saïss. The 32-year-old has quickly become a favorite in the tournament, assisting Morocco in becoming the first African team to win a penalty shootout and make it to the final eight. But, we retrieved this data before Morocco’s victory, and sadly he does not get this edge against Ronaldo. 

Ronaldo ranked seventh heading into the tournament, he takes the win with a 6.39 to Saïss’ 5.14. 

England vs. France: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2 p.m. EST on FOX

Probably one of the most anticipated matchups of the world cup: Harry Kane against Hugo Lloris. Kane has some recognition within American soccer fandom, although not comparable to Messi and Ronaldo. It is also interesting to see how his being British will affect the final results. 

Kane has spiked blonde hair and striking blue eyes, but ultimately he still looks British (if you catch my drift). Lloris has a dark set of hair and a dark beard to cover his face. But, Lloris looks drastically different from photo to photo, and that might have had an effect on his rating had respondents known him beforehand or not. 

The tenth-ranked Englishman at 5.87 wins against the Frenchman at 4.99. 

The Remainder of the Bracket 

Now knowing how each round of eight plays out, we will look toward the rest of the tournament. 

The Netherlands will then face the Brits, followed by a highly contested Brazil vs. Portugal match. 

The Dutch in Van Dijk will not be able to surpass the tenth place Kane, and England will move on to the finals.  On the other side of the bracket, seventh-ranked Portugal represented by Ronaldo will lose to fifth-ranked Silva of Brazil. 

Finally, my bracket predicts Silva taking Brazil all the way, dominating Kane and the rest of the Brits in the final. 

Not the best (but not the worst) metric

While I had a lot of fun collecting and sorting through this data, it is clear that this is not the best way to create a world cup bracket. Out of my top ten six did not make it past the group stage (No. 1 Simon Kjaer of Denmark, 7.97, No. 3 Ehsan Hajsafi of Iran, 7.74, No. 4 Dusan Tadic of Serbia 6.8, No. 6 Enner Valencia of Ecuador, 6.53, No. 8 Eden Hazard of Belgium, 6.26 and No. 9 Atiba Hutchinson of Canada 6.19).  And, No. 2 Tyler Adams (7.74) only took his team to the round of sixteen. 

However, even with all of this, the remaining three of the top 10 are representing their teams as they fight to bring a trophy home to their country.  So … maybe it isn’t the worst way.

Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu.

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Sports

Breaking down the World Cup quarterfinals

We are well past the halfway mark of the World Cup, and the field of 32 has been narrowed down to the final eight. This is the absolute cream of the crop. Some giants have fallen already — I’m looking at you Belgium, Germany and Spain — and some teams have over-performed (shoutout Morocco). With that being said, here’s how I see the World Cup quarterfinals playing out.

Croatia vs. Brazil: Friday, Dec. 9 at 10 a.m. EST on FOX

This matchup pits Croatia, the 2018 World Cup finalists, against the pre-tournament favorites and five-time champions, Brazil. When you look at it like that, it seems like a fairly even matchup. Digging deeper, maybe not so much.

Brazil are phenomenal and have looked every bit the favorites to win this tournament. So much so that their scintillating first half in a 4-1 victory over South Korea had a fellow Observer Sports writer texting me, “That honestly might be the best half of footy I’ve ever watched.” They are young, fast, exciting and endlessly creative. Neymar Jr. sits deeper than he has in the past, playing the creative No. 10 role behind the electric attacking trio of Richarlison, Vinicius Jr. and Raphinha. They score a lot, play beautiful football and defend well (only two goals allowed in four games).

On the other side, Croatia have gotten older since 2018 and lost some key players, even if their talisman in the middle, Ballon d’Or winner and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić, remains. Regardless, at 37 years old, Modrić’s age is starting to show, and he was even subbed off in extra time during his team’s win over Japan in the Round of 16.

I am also concerned about Croatia’s lack of goals. In four games they’ve scored just five times, with four of those coming in a 4-1 win over a weak Canadian side. They played two goalless draws in the group stage and needed a heroic penalty shootout from goalkeeper Dominik Livaković to beat Japan in the first knockout game.

Prediction: Brazil 2 – 0 Croatia

Netherlands vs. Argentina: Friday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. EST on FOX

This game is fascinating. Netherlands have played better than I expected coming in, and Argentina bounced back from a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia to reach the quarterfinals.

The Oranje have been led by 23-year-old forward Cody Gakpo, who scored three goals in the group stage and brought some thrust to an otherwise unimpressive Dutch performance in the group stages. Regardless, Netherlands remain unbeaten at the World Cup and seemed to find another gear against the United States in the previous round. In particular, left back Denzel Dumfries had a game for the ages against the United States, tallying two assists and a goal in the 3-1 victory.

However, likely their most important player ahead of the Argentina match is captain and central defender Virgil van Dijk. The Liverpool man will be under increased scrutiny because of the player he’s tasked with stopping: Lionel Messi.

The diminutive Argentinian is, in my humble opinion, the finest footballer in the history of the sport, and this is his World Cup swan song. It’s also the first World Cup since the passing of the legendary Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to their second — and last — World Cup triumph in 1986. This all gives Argentina some serious “team of destiny” vibes, but still, the games need to be played and won on the field.

Nothing showed this more than their group stage opener. La Albiceleste entered the tournament on a 36-game unbeaten run, having not lost a game since 2019. They were clear favorites to run the table and win the tournament. Instead, they conceded twice in five minutes and lost to Saudi Arabia, who snapped their unbeaten streak.

Despite this, they bounced back with some strong showings against Mexico and Poland to top their group and progress to the knockout stages. The game with Australia was maybe a little closer than expected and they missed some crucial chances, but with Messi looking like he’s back at the peak of his powers, Argentina is not to be underestimated.

Prediction: Argentina 3 – 1 Netherlands

Morocco vs. Portugal: Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. EST on FOX

This game has very interesting storylines on both sides. Morocco were not supposed to be here, but after topping a group with fellow quarterfinalists Croatia and world No. 2 Belgium, then beating European power Spain in the knockouts, they certainly look the part.

Then you have Portugal; the Iberian side looked solid in the group and then looked incredible in their round of 16 game against Switzerland after benching Cristiano Ronaldo, the player widely considered the greatest in their nation’s history.

On the Moroccan side, you have two exceptional players leading the team: right back Achraf Hakimi and winger Hakim Ziyech. Hakimi was a great storyline in the last round, as the 24-year-old Madrid-born defender scored the winning Panenka penalty to eliminate Spain. Hakimi is also part of a stingy Moroccan defense that has only allowed one goal in four games and just held Spain scoreless for 120 minutes and penalties. They will need more of that to overcome Portugal’s offensive prowess and become the first African nation to reach a World Cup semifinal.

Portugal are similar to the Netherlands in that they topped their group somewhat unimpressively. Their opening 3-2 win against Ghana benefited from a suspect penalty decision, and then they lost to South Korea in the final game. They took care of any doubts, though, as they blew Switzerland out of the water, beating them 6-1 in their opening knockout round game. The most remarkable thing about that victory was the hat trick from Gonçalo Ramos, the man tapped by manager Fernando Santos to replace the benched Ronaldo. It’s hard to know if Santos will bench Ronaldo again, but Ramos’ hat trick — and the dominant 6-1 result —certainly suggests that he should.

Prediction: Portugal 3 – 1 Morocco

England vs. France: Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. EST on FOX

In my opinion, this is the most exciting of the four quarterfinals. It’s a World Cup final-caliber matchup, and I believe the winner should be considered a favorite entering the semifinals. Both teams cruised through their groups and then comfortably handled business in the first knockout round, where France dominated Poland 3-1 and England won 3-0 over African champions Senegal. These are two absolutely stacked and in-form teams going up against each other.

France are the reigning world champions and they have the tournament and possibly the world’s best player: 23-year-old forward Kylian Mbappé. The PSG star has scored five times and assisted two more goals in the first four games of the World Cup. France have suffered injuries to several key players (N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Presnel Kimpembe) and somehow look just as dominant as anyone could’ve expected. They seem poised to become the first nation to repeat at the World Cup since Brazil did so in 1958 and 1962.

On the other side is England. Much of their strength comes from their depth; eight different players have scored for the Three Lions and that only includes 1 goal from their captain and striker, Harry Kane, who won the Golden Boot with six goals at the previous World Cup in Russia.

The star of England’s side so far has been midfielder Jude Bellingham, whose brilliance doesn’t show up on the stat sheet like Mbappé’s. Regardless, the 19-year-old wonder kid has been the undroppable lynchpin in England’s midfield, even when playing alongside Champions League and Premier League winners who are many years his senior.

Bellingham has excelled in the attacking third just as much as the defensive one, and his composure on the ball is astonishing for such a young player. England’s chances rely as much on him controlling the middle of the field as they do on their ability to contain –— or at least, somewhat limit — Mbappé’s impact for France.

Prediction: France 3 – 2 England AET (after extra time)

Contact José Sánchez Córdova at jsanch24@nd.edu.

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From the Archives: Notre Dame soccer stars and the World Cup

Though the U.S. men’s national team bowed out of the 2022 World Cup over the weekend, football fever remains strong around the globe as the “world’s greatest sporting event” continues. It wasn’t the case this year, but Fighting Irish fans often have an extra reason to pay attention to the World Cup, as Notre Dame soccer stars have historically been well-represented on both men’s and women’s national teams.

This week, From the Archives looked back at some of Notre Dame’s past World Cup participants. Starting with MLS and USMNT standout Matt Besler, we then highlight the extraordinary success of Notre Dame women’s soccer in the 1990s, which led to many Fighting Irish soccer players entering the international stage. While we lament this year’s disappointing finish for the American men, perhaps a return to the historical success of the women’s national team — in which Notre Dame alums have played a central role — will bring hope for the Women’s World Cup coming next summer.

Matt Besler: From a game-winning penalty kick to a World Cup appearance 

Nov. 3, 2005 | Kevin Brennan | Dec. 4, 2008 | Matt Gamber | Nov. 1, 2012 | Joseph Monardo | Sept. 24, 2014 | Alex Carson | Researched by Lilyann Gardner 

There is no doubt that soccer star Matt Besler left a mark on Notre Dame’s men’s soccer program. The defender from Overland Park, Kansas, was a standout player and student from 2005 to 2008 and racked up several awards during his time at the University. 

“Besler, who made 73 starts and 90 appearances as a defender in his Notre Dame career, was a two-time team captain, three-time member of the All-Big East team and an All-American his senior season,” wrote Joseph Monardo (‘14). 

Besler’s storied career got off to a fast start. His first goal for the Fighting Irish occurred during his freshman year and was the fifth and final shot of an intense penalty shoot-out against Syracuse to advance to the second round of the Big East Tournament. 

“It’s definitely exciting. I probably couldn’t have asked for a better first goal of my college career,” Besler (‘09) said. 

Matt Besler (right) playing in a 2-1 win over Georgetown during his senior season. Observer archives, Dec. 4, 2008.

Besler and the Irish appeared in the NCAA Sweet 16 three years in a row before losing in a season-ending match against Northwestern his senior year. Despite this disappointing end, Besler managed to lead the team to the Big East regular season title for the second straight year. 

The leadership and success Besler found in college resulted in his eighth overall selection in the 2009 MLS draft by the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City). Just two years into his professional career, Besler was recognized as a 2011 MLS All-Star.

Shortly after, Besler joined the U.S. men’s national team and represented his country from 2013 to 2017, making an appearance in the 2014 World Cup. 

“Defender Matt Besler started every match for the United States at this year’s World Cup and just recently signed a Designated Player contract to remain reigning champion Sporting Kansas City’s captain for the long haul,” Alex Carson (‘17) reported in a 2014 Observer article. 

Besler played twelve years with Sporting Kansas City before finishing his professional career with FC Austin in 2021. Besler now serves as an ambassador for the Blue KC Sporting Samaritan program and remains an inspiration to Notre Dame players and fans around the country. 

Irish women’s soccer in the 1990s: Future World Cup stars shine 

Sept. 18, 1995 | Joe Villinski | Nov. 20, 1995 | Joe Villinski | Dec. 4, 1995 | Dave Tyler | Sept. 1, 1997 | Allison Krilla | Researched by Cade Czarnecki

The 1990s was a seminal decade for women’s soccer at Notre Dame. After becoming a varsity sport in 1988, few could have predicted its rapid rise to prominence.

In 1994, the young Irish team would make its first big splash of the decade. Three freshmen — Holly Manthei, Kate Markgraf (née Sobrero), and Julie Maund (‘98) — all found their way into the starting lineup and led the team all the way to the national title game, although the game resulted in a blowout loss to North Carolina.

Kate Markgraf (née Sobrero) dribbles down the field during a Notre Dame soccer game. Observer archives, Aug. 25, 1998.

The spark from 1994 carried over into the following season, and once again it was a freshman at the forefront of the effort. Taking advantage of the opportunity to replace injured All-American midfielder Cindy Daws (‘97), future Irish legend Shannon Boxx (‘99), a freshman, scored seven goals during the season.

Boxx’s efforts in 1995 were epitomized by her performance against Wisconsin. Head coach Chris Petrucelli said he knew the day felt different going in: “At the beginning of the game I looked over and they [Wisconsin] were very excited about playing. The difference was we were a lot more excited. We were very prepared to play today.” Boxx was easily the most jubilant player on the field after tallying a hat trick in Notre Dame’s shutout win.

Shannon Boxx (center) and teammates celebrate Notre Dame’s victory over the University of Portland in the 1995 national championship. Observer archives, Dec. 4, 1995.

The 1995 season was capped off in dramatic fashion as Notre Dame trounced the University of Portland in a third overtime period to secure the Fighting Irish’s first national championship in women’s soccer. Cindy Daws put it best: “I’ve heard some people say we won ugly. It doesn’t matter though because we’re national champions.”

Notre Dame would make it back to the national title game in 1996 and 1999, finishing as a runner-up on both occasions. While the soccer program as a whole achieved outstanding success in the 1990s, the star power on Notre Dame’s roster during this decade would also translate into individual glory on the international stage moving into the 2000s.

 Notre Dame women in the World Cup

Strong of Heart: Profiles of Notre Dame Athletics | Aug. 25, 1998 | Joe Cavato | Sept. 6, 1999 | Brian Kessler | Aug. 22, 2012 | Matthew Robison | Sept. 8, 2015 | Renee Griffin | Researched by Thomas Dobbs

Following her graduation from Notre Dame, Kate Markgraf (‘98) prepared for an extraordinary opportunity to compete for a World Cup. After appearing in 97 games and scoring seven goals while donning blue and gold, Markgraf accustomed herself to an unfamiliar role on the national team: the bench.

However, Markgraf quickly cemented herself as a strong contributor to the national team, helping the United States claim the 1999 World Cup after a 5-4 shootout victory against China. Markgraf would ultimately appear in 12 matches across appearances in three World Cups. She ended her soccer career in 2010 after 201 international appearances, becoming only the 10th woman in FIFA history to eclipse the 200 game mark.

Monica Gonzalez (right) plays for Notre Dame shortly after returning from the 1999 World Cup, where she represented Mexico. Observer archives, Sept. 6, 1999.

Markgraf, however, was farm from the only Notre Dame woman to compete on the international stage. Only a college junior at the time, Monica Gonzalez (‘01) competed at the 1999 World Cup for the Mexican national team. Gonzalez, too, achieved a distinguished international career, competing in 83 games and scoring 10 goals for Mexico.

Perhaps no international match more prominently featured Notre Dame soccer legends than the 2012 Olympics semifinal matchup between Canada and the United States. Representing Canada were former Notre Dame standouts Melissa Tancredi (‘05) and Candace Chapman (‘06), while Shannon Boxx (‘99) represented the Stars and Stripes.

Then-Notre Dame women’s soccer coach Randy Waldrum commented on the matchup, stating that “[the game] was great for women’s soccer and … great for Notre Dame to have that kind of representation.”

Shannon Boxx (center) celebrates after a teammate’s goal in the 2011 World Cup. Observer archives, Aug. 22, 2012.

Boxx has become perhaps the most decorated Notre Dame soccer player of all time, winning a gold medal in three straight Olympic Games from 2004-2012. Boxx also helped the U.S. win the 2015 World Cup, the American’s first victory since the 1999 victory featuring Markgraf. In January 2022, Boxx was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Reflecting on her storied career, Boxx shared that sacrifices of others “pushed [her] to want to be successful” and that Notre Dame offered her the “first time [she] represented something bigger than just a little club team or myself.”

While Boxx, Markgraf, and Gonzalez have all retired, perhaps the Notre Dame women’s trip this fall to the NCAA quarterfinals, their first since the 2012 season, is a sign that the next generation of Irish talent is once again primed to play on the international stage.

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Schatz: The 6,500 souls that built the 2022 Fifa World Cup

The World Cup is back, and most soccer fans all over the world are excited for its return. For the first time in FIFA history, an Arab nation is hosting it. However, with this feat comes a very dark turn. Qatar won the bid over several other countries such as the U.S., Japan and South Korea. 

Before I discuss what occurred in the years leading up to the World Cup, I would like to start with the atrocities Qatar has consistently committed. In their 2022 freedom house report, the country was deemed “not free” with a score of 25 out of 100. For comparison, the U.S. has a score of 83 and Tunisia 64. 

How did Qatar get such a low score? Well, despite having some of the wealthiest citizens in the world, Qatar has a large number of migrant workers and refuses to protect the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people. Qatar, like many other Gulf countries, lives under the guardianship system. In this system, women are treated as property to their male guardian. Women thus need permission from their male guardian (whether it be husband, brother, father or other male family member) for certain activities. LGBTQ+ members are constantly harassed, and Qatar legally prohibits sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage. 

So with these examples, and countless others, Qatar should not have even been eligible for the bid. Even though FIFA’s then-chairman Sepp Blatter supported the original bid, he has since admitted it was a mistake. 

Even with the global spotlight on Qatar, they have yet to make changes. As I stated previously, a majority of Qatari workers are migrants and noncitizens. According to multiple reports, over the course of the ten years since Qatar received their bid, over 6,500 Southeast Asian migrants from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have died building the stadiums and hotels that guests will stay in. This is not including the thousands of migrants that work in Qatar from other parts of the world. 

The death toll is not the only issue with the migrant workers in Qatar. These workers are noncitizens, which means they are not granted the same rights as Qatari citizens. These workers would work 18-hour days, were subject to extreme heat and dangerous conditions and were sometimes imprisoned for what appeared to be no reason. 

With the stadiums and hotels lying on the bones of those who built them, you can’t help but wonder why there aren’t more protests on the event. Sure, many newspapers have reported on the atrocities, and there has been plenty of buzz on the human rights abuses. But soccer teams and countries that are protesting the World Cup are doing it in a very superficial way. Cities in France join London in stating that they will not be hosting public screening of the events. Yet, both countries sent their team as representatives. And many have pointed out the hypocritical response from France as Paris Saint-Germain F.C. is owned by a Qatari company. Australia posted a video against human rights in Qatar, and Denmark has released a statement that they will be wearing more subtle jerseys to protest. However, and I know this is a shock to every individual reading this, all of these countries will still be attending the world cup and bringing hundreds of fans, and thousands of dollars, into Qatar.

Qatari organizers have tried to mitigate the issues by stating that “everyone is welcome.” But many do not feel that this sentiment is real. With statements of welcome from Qatar come very damaging ones. Like a Qatari ambassador saying that homosexuality was “damage in the mind” and that members of that community should respect their culture and accept their rules. 

As the first game on Sunday roles around, millions of fans across the world will be tuning in to support their team. There will be thousands of fans there who will spend their money to continue to contribute to Qatar’s government that is flooded with corruption and human rights offenses. I am not blaming the fans. In fact, I will probably be turning on multiple games over the course of the series. Rather, I hope that it will make people think just a little more than they did previously on the graves that the World Cup is built on. 

Contact Olivia Schatz at oschatz@nd.edu.

The views of this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Post: Improve your criticisms of Gregg Berhalter

Let me preface by saying this: I am no fan of Gregg Berhalter. From the start of his tenure, I have maligned his implementation of positional play and often conflicting ideals. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where he is the best possible coach the USSF can muster to coach the USMNT.

With that being said, so much of the criticism of the USMNT’s current manager as the team gears up for its first World Cup in eight years is misplaced.

If you want to take shots at Berhalter’s tactics, so be it. I, for one, don’t think much of what he has tried in terms of structure fits the current roster. But critiques of the players he’s bringing to play (or lead, given this is the youngest USMNT roster since any of its current players were alive) miss the mark.

Take current first-choice center-back Aaron Long, for instance. Over the last year and change, criticizing Long has become something of a stand-in for criticizing Berhalter. The case against Long makes sense in a vacuum. He is by any definition a flawed player. He doesn’t boast an expansive passing range, he doesn’t excel in 1v1 defensive situations and there are still questions about how much of his game was affected by a season-ending injury suffered at the start of the 2021 season. 

But using starting Long as a building block for a “fire Berhalter” case is ridiculous. Because, as flawed as Long may be, he absolutely makes the most sense from a tactical perspective for the current USMNT. Most USMNT fans would agree that Walker Zimmerman is, given the current injury status of Miles Robinson and Chris Richards, the best option for the team in their first match against Wales.

And Zimmerman’s consensus status as a starter is why Long is his partner. Zimmerman, for all his aerial prowess, is, simply put, slow. Throughout qualifying, the USMNT has played a high defensive line. And such a line would struggle if Long was removed from the rotation because no other center back in the current fold complements Zimmerman like he does. Tim Ream offers experience at the highest club level in the world and an underrated passing range. But Tim Ream is 35 years old and even slower than Zimmerman. 

Just because Ream plays in the Premier League (and at a high level at that), means that he’s an automatic fit to start for the USMNT. One of the reasons Ream has excelled for Fulham is the fact that they play a deep block, where the veteran center-back is tasked with being dominant in the air. This system fits his skillset, and as such enhances his performance. The opposite is true for how he would fit into the USMNT lineup.

The reason we know this? Ream was himself in Long’s position just a few years ago, the whipping boy of the USMNT picked on as a consequence of continued faith from Berhalter despite poor performances. Perhaps most notably, in what would go on to be an iconic 3-2 statement victory against Mexico, Ream spent most of his 82 minutes on the field being toyed with by quicker players like Hirving Lozano. On Mexico’s second goal, Diego Lainez was isolated directly with Ream and beat him with a cut inside. 

And this performance came in a defensive structure that offered Ream even more security (he was the left center back in a back five) than the current 4-3-3 high line would. While Ream will certainly be an important factor in the squad for Qatar. It may be merely offering a veteran presence in the locker room of one of the youngest teams in the tournament. Or it could be as someone who can help close out a lead when teams are sending long balls into the box at every chance. He’s not fit to be the starter. Berhalter is making the right choice rolling with Long. 

And on the note of the USMNT being one of the youngest teams in the tournament, that fact also helps to explain some of Berhalter’s more heavily criticized roster decisions. Christian Roldan, for instance, is perhaps the player heading to Qatar that has drawn the most questions from USMNT fans. Sure, the wide midfielder is a reliable MLS starter who brings versatility to the table. But there’s not much in his pure skillset that excites anyone as a game-breaker on the international level.

For one, at 27, Christian Roldan is basically an old man by USMNT midfield standards. The oldest expected starter in the center of the park for the United States in Qatar will be Weston McKennie, at the ripe old age of 24. He’ll likely be accompanied by Tyler Adams (23) and Yunus Musah (19) to help lead a lineup that won’t be much older in average age than McKennie, if at all. It’s easy to see why veterans of both club and country such as Roldan (who also consistently has been praised for his tactical acumen and ability to act almost like a player-coach at times) and DeAndre Yedlin made the roster over some of their more exciting counterparts.

The USMNT is entering the World Cup knowing the odds are stacked against them. Just one player on the roster (Yedlin, who’s likely to be used in a rotational role if at all) has played in a World Cup before. Just about every team they face will be more battle-tested on the global stage. Berhalter knows this and knows he needs to add reliability and veteran know-how wherever he can. 

And in his eyes, that means starting a flawed center-back he knows fits the system and filling his depth spots with experienced options even if they lack upside. Many fans see such decisions as weakness. Berhalter likely sees them as insurance. And if the USMNT is able to put together a run in spite of their collective youth, that insurance will almost certainly be invaluable.