With a 1-0 victory over Jamaica, the United States Men’s National team reached the semifinals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The next challenger on the road to a seventh title is Qatar, an invited guest from the Asian Football Confederation and the host of the 2022 World Cup. The match is set for Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, the second international fixture hosted by the brand new venue.
Qatar is managed by Félix Sánchez, a long-time coach with the program who was promoted to the senior team position in July of 2017. The 45-year-old Spaniard has previous experience at La Masia and the Aspire Academy. Attempting to prepare his country for a World Cup debut, he has compiled a 28-12-8 record, competing in multiple competitions and an aggressive slate of friendlies.
This is the first all-time meeting between the two nations. Qatar was added to the Gold Cup after being forced to exit the latest Copa América due to scheduling issues related to COVID-19. The Maroon finished atop Group D with seven points, gradually improving as the tournament progressed. The first match was a 3-3 draw against Panama, followed by consecutive shutout victories over Grenada and Honduras. The quarterfinal round was a 3-2 battle with an on-the-rise El Salvador, racing out to a three-goal lead before weathering a fierce comeback.
“We played a good match in which we dominated for the first 60 minutes where we were the best in all parts of the pitch and scored three goals,” Sánchez said after the match. “After that, El Salvador attacked in an intense manner in which they managed to score two goals. They were able to form battling resistance and this made the match difficult for us.”
Sánchez named a 23-player squad for the Gold Cup, with the entire group competing in the Qatar Stars League. Local power Al-Sadd has an incredible 12 representatives, while Al-Duhail contributed seven call-ups. Few players are missing, as this team has largely remained together for each international window. Veteran defender Al-Mahdi Ali Mukhtar appears to have been phased out of the program since last year.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Saad Al Sheeb (Al-Sadd), Yousef Hassan (Al-Gharafa), Meshaal Barsham (Al-Sadd)
DEFENDERS (8): Ró-Ró (Al-Sadd), Abdelkarim Hassan (Al-Sadd), Tarek Salman (Al-Sadd), Ahmed Suhail (Al-Sadd), Musab Kheder (Al-Sadd), Homam Ahmed (Al-Gharafa), Bassam Al-Rawi (Al-Duhail), Boualem Khoukhi (Al-Sadd)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Abdulaziz Hatem (Al-Rayyan), Mohammed Waad (Al-Sadd), Karim Boudiaf (Al-Duhail), Abdullah Al-Ahrak (Al-Duhail), Assim Madibo (Al-Duhail)
FORWARDS (7): Akram Afif (Al-Sadd), Ahmed Alaaeldin (Al-Gharafa), Mohammed Muntari (Al-Duhail), Hassan Al-Haydos (Al-Sadd), Ismaeel Mohammad (Al-Duhail), Yusuf Abdurisag (Al-Sadd), Almoez Ali (Al-Duhail)
Sánchez has used the 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 formations during the tournament, hoping to clog the middle of the field. While there could be some rotation after the quarterfinal, expect the same lineup as the first and third matches in the group stage. The USMNT may attempt some pressure, but the extra defender will provide a release valve and help to maintain possession. Once the ball reaches the fullbacks and forwards, Qatar can wield a quite imposing and creative attack. There is a certain freedom to the playing style, with players appearing to hold general responsibilities but not being locked into specific positions or areas on the field.
Meshaal Barsham started every match at the competition, receiving his opportunity to unseat Al-Sadd teammate and long-time number one Saad Al Sheeb. The 23-year-old is an adequate shot stopper and unafraid to step off his line, but handling crosses has been a bit of an issue. A little undersized at 6’, the USMNT could have the opportunity to capitalize on set pieces.
Left back Homam Ahmed is the team’s young star, almost singlehandedly winning the final group match against Honduras with a goal and an assist. He possesses good speed and makes the correct overlapping runs to trouble opponents. On the other side of the field is his Al-Sadd teammate, Pedro Miguel Correia, also known as Ró-Ró. The 30-year-old was born in Portugal and moved to Qatar in 2011, making his international debut in 2016. His quick turns escape pressure and enable moves into space, an impressive display of technical ability leading to the attack.
Homam Ahmed made no mistake with this highlight reel goal for Qatar in their final group stage match at the #GoldCup21 .— Gold Cup (@GoldCup) July 21, 2021
Ahmed scored the Goal of the Day ⚽ presented by @ToyotaLatino #ThisIsOurs pic.twitter.com/JYK5QhdbT7
Boualem Khoukhi is the leader of the center backs, having raised his level while working with manager Xavi at Al-Sadd. The native of Algeria is also a relatively productive goal scorer, a common theme throughout the squad. Born in Iraq, versatile defender Bassam Al-Rawi is dangerous from long range and on set pieces. With over 100 caps, Abdelkarim Hassan is one of the squad’s most experienced members, capable of playing on the wing and in the hybrid central position. He’s dangerous when pushing into the final third, a highly accurate crosser of the ball.
The preferred holding midfielder pairing provides a balance to the formation. Karim Boudiaf is more of a defensive player, stepping into the back line when necessary. He is reliable in possession and physical with his tackles. At times, the 6’2” Al-Duhail star will push into the attack and be a target for crosses. His partner, Abdulaziz Hatem of Al-Rayyan, is more of a threat moving forward, scoring five international goals in the past two years. The Qatari strategy is focused on getting numbers into final third and overwhelming opponents, with his speed and link-up shuttling helping to tilt the balance.
We can watch this goal again, again, and again! ⚽— Gold Cup (@GoldCup) July 25, 2021
Abdulaziz Hatem scores this beautiful long distance shot and it’s the Goal of the Day presented by @ToyotaLatino!#GoldCup21 #ThisIsOurs pic.twitter.com/V4obCFPiDq
The attacking trio is one of the best in the tournament, with over 80 combined international goals. Born in Sudan, Almoez Ali was named the MVP of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup after scoring nine times. The 24-year-old fox in the box displays the preternatural ability to be in the right place, always managing to slip past even the most attentive of defenders. The elusive and dangerous Akram Afif has been on fire at this Gold Cup with two goals and four assists. He’s a fairly complete player, an equally capable dribbler, distributor, and shooter. Hassan Al-Haydos is entering the back nine of his career but has remained a key presence for Sánchez. The Al-Sadd veteran is an opportunistic finisher, making well-timed runs behind the back line.
This match presents the unique and unexpected opportunity for the USMNT to play a team from outside of CONCACAF, an opponent that is already guaranteed of a spot in the next World Cup. The American defense is dealing with injury issues, a group that must now face the challenge of the dynamic Qatari attackers always looking to break forward. While the tournament started on the wrong foot, the guests have steadily improved with each successive round. This is a potentially unfavorable fixture, requiring an innovative coaching performance from Gregg Berhalter.
The match is scheduled for Thursday, July 29th at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, 4:30 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include Fox Sports 1, TUDN USA, Univision, and FUBO TV (free trial).