For the United States men’s national team, injury anxiety surfaced last weekend before the European seasons even started.
Midfielder extraordinaire Weston McKennie dislocated his shoulder in training and missed Juventus’ friendly against Real Madrid on Saturday. According to Italian reports, the first of La Gazzetta dello Sportthe USMNT star will miss at least a month.
And so began three and a half months of worry in a World Cup year unlike any other.
Qatar 2022 looms in November, right in the middle of the European seasons. While past World Cups offered month-long buffers between those seasons and kick-off, this one offers a lonely week. Most of the 26 players who will make up the USMNT squad will play high-intensity matches eight or nine days before their World Cup opener, and once a week or every two weeks until then.
So with each passing day, the severity of any injury will increase – for Americans and for others. McKennie’s Juventus team-mate Paul Pogba limped out of a training ground last week after tearing his right lateral meniscus. He will travel to Lyon this week to meet Dr Bertrand Sonnery-Cottet, orthopedic specialist. Together they will decide if surgery is necessary – and not just how to optimize Pogba’s long-term recovery, but how to optimize his condition in mid-November.
For McKennie, the outlook is rosier, but fan anxiety is no less intense. It peaked on Sunday morning when Gianluca Di Marzio, an Italian insider with 1.7 million Twitter followers, tweeted a link to an article that included an unsourced paragraph with general recovery timelines. A Reddit user translated this to: “[Di Marzio] Weston Mckennie could be out for 3-4 months after a shoulder dislocation.
There is no verified indication that McKennie’s prognosis is actually troubling. Juventus doctors ‘reduced’ the dislocated shoulder immediately after the 23-year-old suffered it. When he dislocated the same left shoulder while playing for Schalke in 2019, he missed a month. The average recovery time of professional footballers in Germany, according to injury analysis website Fussballverletzungen, was about two months, but with high variance. It’s unclear if McKennie might need surgery this time around.
In a normal season, such an injury would be damaging, an unfortunate setback. In this one, however, it’s a high-stakes cry of alarm. November is the inflection point of any timeline. For the USMNT hopefuls, only two of whom have ever played in a World Cup, any injury that lingers beyond October will jeopardize the lifelong dream.
And players know that, which is perhaps the hardest part. The surest way to lose a starting spot, they also know, is to play hesitantly. According to some coaches and coaches, the surest way to get injured is to actively try to avoid it.
Still, the idea – of prioritizing November over the present – has entered some minds. Typically, “you always think, ‘Oh, I’m going to practice, I’m going to compete with no worries,'” USMNT center back Walker Zimmerman said in late May. This spring, “for one of the first times in my career, those thoughts crept into my head.”
“I think a lot of people are going to want to be healthy so they can go to a World Cup,” midfielder Tyler Adams admitted in May. “It’s just the reality of the sport.”
Some players would be hesitant to even address this reality. Zimmerman felt it was important to confront it and “really deal with it.” He and other USMNT players worked with coaches, including their “mental coaches,” to achieve this.
Their takeaways? “Hey, that’s not the way to go,” Zimmerman said of any potential hesitation. “The way of thinking is, ‘How can I be the best player I can be by November? And to do that, you have to train hard, play hard, keep pushing yourself, because that’s what got you here in the first place. … You can’t change what you’ve done.
“You have to focus on where your club is going until these months roll out,” Adams said of November and December. “And you have to hope that when that time comes, you can compete at a high level.”
Then they will rely on chance, and chance can be cruel. He has already hit Miles Robinson, a future starting centre-back who tore his Achilles tendon in May. This has left the United States without key players at times for the World Cup qualifiers and ended McKennie’s 2021-22 season months early. He had recovered from a broken foot and looked set for a strong start at Juve, only for misfortune to strike again.
In fact, in their young careers, McKennie, Adams, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Sergiño Dest, Tim Weah and Antonee Robinson each missed dozens of games due to ailments. All of them were more or less prone to injury.
Together they form a young and ambitious team that will aim for a deep run in the World Cup.
Statistically, it’s far less likely for many fans to realize that everything will be okay on November 21.