For the U.S. men’s national team, injury anxiety kicked in this past weekend before European seasons even began.
Weston McKennie, box-to-box midfielder extraordinaire, dislocated his shoulder in training and missed Juventus’ Saturday friendly against Real Madrid. Italian media reported Sunday morning that the USMNT star would miss at least a month. Juventus said Monday that McKennie had undergone tests at the club medical facility, where doctors confirmed a "capsular" injury. "The player will begin rehabilitation," Juve said in a statement, and "three weeks of differentiated work will be required."
And thus began three-and-a-half months of worry in a World Cup year unlike any other.
Qatar 2022 looms in November, smack-dab in the middle of European seasons. Whereas past World Cups offered month-long buffers between those seasons and kickoff, this one offers a solitary week. Most of the 26 players who’ll comprise the USMNT squad will play high-intensity games eight or nine days before their World Cup opener, and weekly or biweekly between now and then.
So, with every passing day, the gravity of any injury will heighten — for Americans, and for others. Paul Pogba, McKennie’s Juventus teammate, limped off a training pitch last week after tearing his right lateral meniscus. He’ll reportedly travel to Lyon this week to meet with Dr. Bertrand Sonnery-Cottet, an orthopedic specialist. Together, they’ll decide whether surgery is necessary — and not just how to optimize Pogba’s long-term recovery, but how to optimize his condition come mid-November.
For McKennie, the outlook is rosier, but the anxiety among fans is no less intense. It spiked 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 timetables. A Reddit user translated that to: “[Di Marzio] Weston Mckennie could be out for 3-4 months after a dislocation in the shoulder.”
There is no verified indication that McKennie’s prognosis is actually that troubling. Juventus doctors “reduced” the dislocated shoulder immediately after the 23-year-old suffered it. When he dislocated the same left shoulder playing for Schalke in 2019, he missed a month. The average recovery time for professional soccer players in Germany, according to injury analytics website Fussballverletzungen, was roughly two months, but with high variance. Juventus' Monday update seemed to indicate that McKennie's dislocation would not require surgery. (A Juventus spokesman did not immediate respond to an email seeking clarification.)
In a normal season, such an injury would be damaging, an unfortunate setback. In this one, though, it’s a high-stakes wail of an alarm. November is the point of inflection for any timeline. For USMNT hopefuls, only two of whom have ever played in a World Cup, any wound that lingers beyond October will imperil a lifelong dream.
And the players know this, which is perhaps the most difficult part. The surest way to lose a starting spot, they also know, is to play tentatively. The surest way to pick up an injury, some coaches and trainers say, is to actively try to avoid one.
Yet the thought — of prioritizing November rather than the present — has entered some minds. Typically, "you're always thinking, ‘Oh, I'm gonna train, I'm gonna 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 have seeped into my head.”
“I think a lot of people are gonna have on their mind wanting to be healthy so that they can compete in a World Cup,” midfielder Tyler Adams acknowledged in May. “It's just the reality of the sport.”
Some players would shy away from even addressing that reality. Zimmerman felt it was important to confront it and “really process it.” He and other USMNT players worked with coaches, including their “mental coaches,” to do just that.
Their takeaway? “Hey, that's not the way to go,” Zimmerman said of any potential hesitancy. “The way to think is, ‘How can I become the best player I can be by November?’ And in order to do that, you have to train hard, play hard, continue to push yourself, because that's what gotten you here in the first place. … You can't change what you've been doing.”
“You need to focus on your club situation until those months roll around,” Adams said of November and December. “And you have to hope when that time rolls around, you're able to compete at a high level.”
So they’ll leave it to chance, and chance can be cruel. It already struck down Miles Robinson, a would-be starting center back who tore his Achilles in May. It occasionally left the U.S. without key players for World Cup qualifiers, and ended McKennie's 2021-22 season months early. He'd recovered from a broken foot and looked primed 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 have each missed dozens of games due to ailments. All have been varying degrees of injury-prone.
Together, they comprise a youthful and ambitious team that will take aim at a deep World Cup run.
Statistically, it is far less likely than many fans realize that all will be healthy come Nov. 21.