At 9:35 p.m. ET on January 2, Tom King, U.S. Soccer’s managing director of administration, was two hours into a 14-hour flight from Chicago to Doha on Qatar Airways Flight 726 when an unsettling email landed in his inbox. The subject line was “Latest News from Iraq,” and it contained a link to a news story that would shake the world. The U.S. had killed Iranian general Qassim Suleimani, the nation’s second-most powerful figure, in a missile strike in Baghdad.
The possibility of a new war in the Middle East had just increased dramatically, and it meant that King had a problem, too. For the last 25 years, the genial Brit has been in charge of scheduling games and arranging all travel aspects for the U.S. national teams. It’s a job that requires the skills of foreign diplomacy, large-scale logistics and, in this case, crisis management. The USMNT was set to begin a three-week training camp in Doha, with players arriving less than 48 hours later, and now news reports were saying that Americans in the Middle East could be targets for reprisal.
King, who was joined on the flight by team administrator Sam Zapatka and equipment manager Kyle Robertson, digested the news and got to work. “We were aware of the protest situation outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad [starting December 31], so we knew there were some issues going on in the area,” King told SI.com in an interview. “So for the preceding 24 hours before departure we were already in contact with the embassy in Doha to discuss that and make sure from a security standpoint there were no concerns. But as soon as the [Suleimani] attack had happened, I immediately contacted our primary security contact at the embassy and arranged to meet him as soon as we landed.”
King’s plane landed in Doha at 4:40 p.m. local time (8:40 a.m. ET) on January 3. By 6 p.m., he was sitting down with officials from the U.S. embassy at his hotel to discuss the situation in detail. The meeting lasted three hours.
Security is a big thing when it comes to the U.S. national soccer teams. They’re a symbol of America in the world’s most popular sport, after all.
Much of the security around U.S. teams is not conspicuous, but some is. At World Cup 2002 in South Korea, less than a year after 9/11, the USMNT had even more guards than usual, including an armed officer next to the bench during games. Four years earlier, European law enforcement made more than 100 arrests and broke up a terrorist plot backed by Osama bin Laden that planned to attack three locations during World Cup ’98 in France: The USMNT at its hotel in Paris, the England-Tunisia game in Marseille and a nuclear reactor in central France.
“On every single international trip we take, not only the men and women but every single youth team, we interface with a regional security officer in the embassy of the country that we’re going to,” King explained. “The security plan is taken care of in conjunction with local authorities based on any concerns they may have.”
By 9 p.m. in Doha on January 3, King concluded his meeting with U.S. embassy officials. Next came individual phone calls to U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, sporting director Earnie Stewart and Brian Remedi, the acting chief administrative officer of U.S. Soccer. Then came a conference call with the senior leadership of the federation, including president Carlos Cordeiro.
They were following a process to reach a decision as quickly as possible. But on the ground in Doha, King had a sense in his gut. “It didn’t feel right to me to keep the camp [in Qatar],” he said. “It just didn’t feel right.”
Gregg Berhalter woke up in Chicago on the morning of January 3 and saw a missed call on his cell phone from Stewart. Berhalter was planning to leave for Doha that evening with several other staff members, a day before the players were set to do so. Now he got Stewart back on the phone. “The first call with Earnie was, ‘O.K., what’s the situation?’” Berhalter said. “’What does it mean for the team? And what do we need to do?’ To me, the most important factors were if there’s going to be a change, how quickly can we get information and make new plans?”
The plan for having a three-week training camp in Qatar, the host of World Cup ’22, had been a sound one, Berhalter said. In the past, the U.S. has taken trips to World Cup hosting countries before the event, including to South Korea before 2002, to Germany before 2006, to South Africa before 2010 and to Brazil in January of 2014. “The idea of Qatar was a great idea, I think,” Berhalter explained, “to let the guys see what the environment is, to give them a goal to reach to make the World Cup and become familiar with the environment.” Several club teams like Bayern Munich and Ajax also spend their winter breaks in Doha, and the U.S. was planning to have some closed-door games, including one against Red Bull Salzburg.
When Berhalter spoke to King on the phone, though, it became clear that the circumstances had mitigated the benefits of the trip. “It was due to the uncertainty of the situation,” he said. “There was no longer an upside. We felt like we wouldn’t be able to get the most out of training.”
When U.S. Soccer had its conference call with senior leadership at 10:30 p.m. Doha time, there was no disagreement among the participants. They decided to change the site of the January camp. King said: “If you put the best interest of the players and staff in the center of the decision and balance that with the uncertainty of everything going on in the region … it really is important to draw the distinction between the region and Qatar itself, because the security issues within Qatar are extremely buttoned-down. But when you look at what’s going on now within the region as it relates to flight paths and things of this nature, even before the tragedy in Tehran [of a Ukrainian airline being shot down], just within the region it didn’t feel right. Even though we knew that the Qatar authorities would have done an admirable job in making sure every aspect of our stay was safe and secure, as they will in 2022 [if the U.S. qualifies].”
Cordeiro made the final decision on the conference call to move the training venue from Qatar, and then they followed a strict protocol sequence to communicate the news internally and externally. First, Cordeiro called his counterpart at the Qatari Football Association, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al Thani. Then they contacted staff members who were set to fly to Qatar that day to tell them plans had changed. Next came the U.S. players and their union, teams that U.S. Soccer had been making plans to play in Doha and the MLS clubs of the players.
More calls were made, and within two hours they had secured a new January camp location at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. More than 4,000 pounds of team gear had already arrived in Doha, including balls, training gear, medical and high-performance equipment and the mannequins you stick in the ground to form a wall in training. Now all of that had to be shipped to Miami, then put on a truck and taken up to Bradenton.
The final shipment wasn’t set to arrive on the Gulf Coast—from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico—until midnight on Friday. But U.S. Soccer staffers always have contingencies in place if customs don’t work on time, and so they had enough gear to start training sessions last Tuesday morning with the players.
“To me, it’s incredible that our first session was going to be on Monday afternoon in Doha, and we ended up training Tuesday morning in Bradenton,” Berhalter said.
Before he left Qatar, King—ever the diplomat—made sure to visit with four entities and leave on good terms. “I wanted to meet personally with the QFA, with the Aspire Academy, with the hotel and with the State Department and just make sure those four entities understood why we took the decision we did,” he said, “and just to make sure we left Qatar with everybody understanding how much we appreciated the incredible support they had given us setting up the camp. And we certainly plan on coming back before too long.”
Quite likely, he said, in January 2022.