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US Battles Injuries, Idleness Ahead of World Cup Opener

By RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A World Cup jammed into the middle of the European season isn’t ideal, especially for the United States.

Injuries and idleness run throughout the roster ahead of Monday’s match against Wales.

Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest and Luca de la Torre missed time, and Christian Pulisic and Matt Turner are among those struggling for playing time with their clubs. Defenders Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long enter the Americans’ first World Cup match in eight years on layoffs of more than a month after the ends of their Major League Soccer seasons.

A friendly was held Thursday against Al-Gharafa, the Qatari club hosting the American training base at Thani bin Jassim Stadium, but the level of intensity figures to be exponentially higher against Wales.

“This is going to be a dogfight,” McKennie said Saturday. “When everyone’s on all cylinders and fighting for each other and you see little fights on the field and everybody’s just fired up and ready to go, those are the times that I think we’ve played at our best.”

Absent from soccer’s biggest stage since the extra-time loss to Belgium in the round of 16 in Brazil, the Americans take a new-look roster into the game — only right back DeAndre Yedlin remains from 2014. FIFA said the Americans’ average age of 25.2 years is the second lowest among the 32 teams, higher than only Ghana’s 24.7.

With youth comes inconsistency.

“Every athlete in every single sport has an off day,” McKennie said. “And the thing about soccer, it’s such a team sport that even if one player has an off day, it can throw off everything, and all of us have had an off day at some point. Obviously, we know when we come to the national team, everyone wants us to be 100%, everyone wants us to be focused and everything, which we are. But at the same time we’re humans and can we have faults, as well, so I think those are the times whenever we haven’t gotten the results maybe we want and haven’t been at our full potential.”

McKennie last played a competitive match for Juventus on Oct. 29 because of a thigh injury.

“I came in, did a couple days of just maintaining and keeping it under control,” McKennie said. “We played the friendly the other day and I felt good, ready to go.”

Dest, battling an adductor issue, has not played 90 minutes since Oct. 5. He returned from the injury to play 35 minutes for AC Milan on Nov. 13.

“After the last game, I had a little bit of fatigue,” he said. “Right now it’s going well. I’m ready to play.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation did not let media watch the friendly against Al-Gharafa.

“We got a lot out of it defensively, offensively,” Long said. “Finishing the attacks was great. Obviously got a couple goals in there, get the guys confident in front of the net.”

Players expect Wales to play five in the back. When asked about his ability to join the attack, Dest started to answer, then halted and said: “One second.” He paused to consult with McKennie, sitting next to him, and McKennie giggled as his teammate whispered, apparently wanting to make sure he didn’t divulge too much.

“We know Wales like to go forward a lot, so they leave spaces behind,” Dest said. “I think we can take advantage from that, especially from the sides, and whoever plays that position, right or left back, has a lot of space.”

Abdulrahman Al-Jassim of host Qatar will be the referee for the match and Abdullah Al-Marri will be the video assistant referee. Al-Jassim was a video assistant referee at the 2018 World Cup and worked the United States’ 1-0 win over Panama at the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Dest did not respond to criticism from former Netherlands international Rafael van der Vaart, who told Dutch TV station Ziggo Sport “he can be very good, but he always takes too much on his plate. He thinks he is much better than he is.”

“I know my abilities. Of course I’m going to improve and learn some more things,” Dest responded. “I don’t know what he said.”

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