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The U.S. begins its World Cup action against Wales

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

U.S. soccer fans have been waiting eight years to cheer on the men's national team at a World Cup, and that day has finally arrived.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After missing the last World Cup, the U.S. men play Wales today in their opening match of the 2022 tournament. It's happening in Qatar. There's a whole lot of excitement but a lot of questions, too, about a young, talented, yet inexperienced American team.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Tom Goldman is in Doha, Qatar, covering all things World Cup. Tom, this would have been a field interview I would have gladly joined you on, but since I'm not there, you are. U.S. versus Wales - what are we expecting from both teams today?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I have no idea.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: I have traveled all this way to tell you that. And anyone who tells you they do, they're lying, OK? Because both these teams are so new to this, we really don't know what's going to happen. Wales is in its first World Cup since 1958, although this current team has done well in recent years at the European Championships, so it is battle tested in major events. For the U.S., only one player of the 26 on the roster has played in a World Cup. That's defender DeAndre Yedlin. America is the second-youngest team in this tournament, although a number of players play for top European clubs and have international experience.

One among many questions, A, marks who scores the goals up front. Usually it's the task of a forward striker, such as Wales' best player and top scorer, veteran Gareth Bale. But throughout U.S. World Cup qualifying, of the 18 goals scored in 14 matches, only four of those goals were from a forward-slash-striker. Will star Christian Pulisic assert himself - Haji Wright, Gio Reyna to name a few? Of course, the U.S. wants goals scored regardless of where they come from.

MARTÍNEZ: You must score to win. Now, it's being said the group that the U.S. and Wales are in is the toughest of the eight four-team groups in this tournament. Does that make this first match even more important?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it's considered the toughest because the average FIFA ranking for the four teams - U.S., Wales, England and Iran - is 15th, and that's the highest average of all the groups. There certainly are better teams in other groups, but statistically speaking, Group B is it. Now, England is considered the best in B. So if England beats Iran today - favored to do so - and gets the three points for victory, yes, that puts pressure on the U.S. and Wales to come out with a win today to keep up or at least the one point for a draw.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this is actually Day 2 of the tournament. It started yesterday with Qatar facing the country of my parents, the country of my grandparents and their parents, Ecuador. Things have not gone well, though, for the host country on and off the pitch.

GOLDMAN: And congratulations to all of them because they beat Qatar 2-0, and Ecuador pretty much cruised. It was a disturbing scene for organizers. The number of Qatar fans who left early by the end of the match, large parts of the stadium were empty. Qatar had done so much to prepare its team because that team is very much the public face of this country's success or failure at this event.

They brought in top coaches, developed players, top training facilities, and it all went pfft (ph) in 90-plus minutes yesterday, with the criticism still being directed at Qatar and FIFA on so many fronts, from LGBTQ rights to migrant labor abuses to no beer in the stadiums and the newest controversy, A, Euro team captains reportedly abandoning the plan to wear rainbow armbands supporting diversity because they might receive a yellow card as punishment. With all that, the egg laid by Qatar's national team yesterday seemed to reflect the mess this World Cup is, at least at the start.

MARTÍNEZ: It's only Day 1. It's only Day 1 - or Day 2, I guess. NPR's Tom Goldman in Doha, Qatar. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.