The U.S. national team will wrap up its September friendlies Tuesday with a game against Saudi Arabia in Spain. It will be the team’s final time together before they assemble in Qatar just days ahead of the World Cup opener against Wales. Several players are on the edge of the pool and trying to build a case to secure a spot on the roster that will head to 2022 World Cup.
Sam Vines, 23, fits that mold. Last summer in 2021, Vines had only distant hopes of being in contention for the World Cup. But he ended up playing the most minutes at left back for Gold Cup-winning team – outplaying George Bello. Then he moved to Royal Antwerp, one of the top Belgian teams, and has since secured a starting spot there.
His rise has given Coach Gregg Berhalter more options a left back. Fulham’s Antonee Robinson is the unquestioned starter at the position when healthy. But Robinson is currently battling an ankle sprain and other left backs options haven’t been appealing. Bello has since faded from the national team picture and younger options like John Tolkin, Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez are not ready yet.
“I think these games will be good for building a chemistry with the team and your teammates," Vines told Soccer America from the national team camp. “All of us want to do as best as we can. We're also trying to build a case for the World Cup. But I think first is just to play well and, you know, kind of control what we can and focus on the game.”
“These guys, they've been with the national team every camp,” Vines added. “I've been in and out a little bit in the past year or so, but it's been good. It's been good to be back and around the guys.”
What has improved Vines’ chances of making the team and being in contention has been what has been happening in Belgium. Vines has played every minute of Antwerp’s league season and the team is off to an eye-opening start. In nine games, it has a perfect 27 points.
Royal Antwerp is flying on all cylinders and Vines has been a consistent contributor. One reason for the team’s surge has been Coach Mark van Bommel. The legendary Dutch defensive midfielder did not have a great start to his coaching career with his first stint at PSV lasting less than 18 months and, more recently, a brief tenure at Wolfsburg that lasted less than six months.
But Antwerp has been a completely different story. The team is garnering headlines for its start and Vines is quick to point out the upswing since Van Bommel took over last summer to replace Brian Priske.
“I think no one really expects nine wins out of nine to start the season,” Vines said. “But as we started winning games, we were thinking, we're going to be a tough team to beat if we keep playing like we are. I think we're gelling as a team. And I think having all the preseason together and bringing in a few new guys have really helped the team. And obviously we've got a new coach in Mark van Bommel who has helped the team as well. I think he's definitely been a top coach for us, and he's done really well with managing the players.”
“That's what's been good about our team is as we take it game by game by game,” Vines added about the team’s approach under Van Bommel. “And I think we're always focused on the next game rather than, oh, we have this many points. I think most the guys, if not all the guys, think the same way. We're just focused on the next game.”
It's a far cry from how things started off last season. After helping the U.S. team win the Gold Cup in August, Vines was sold by the Colorado Rapids to Antwerp. Vines is a native of Colorado Springs and signed a homegrown deal with the Rapids in 2018.
Vines was never considered a top prospect within U.S. Soccer as a young player. He was part of the 2019 U.S. U-20 cycle but was eventually cut in favor of Chris Gloster (the starter at the U-20 World Cup) and backup Matthew Real.
But Vines has been able to benefit from consistent playing time and taking advantage of American soccer's player development avenues. During his first year, he was loaned to the Charlotte Independence in 2018. Then in his first full MLS season, he played 2,148 minutes for Colorado. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he played a significant amount in 1,638 minutes. In 2021, he played so well for Colorado that he forced himself onto the Gold Cup team.
After he was sold to Antwerp, it was tough. He started his first few games but suffered a broken collar bone that stifled his integration into the first team. He returned in November and still managed to make 21 starts (over 24 appearances) in a season where Antwerp finished fourth. The start to this current season has been far smoother.
“Having a full preseason with the team and working with them has I think helped with me starting the season,” Vines said. “It's not easy to come into a team without a preseason and just try and play. It is difficult. Last year that was kind of difficult for me to start the season.”
Berhalter himself has been impressed with Vines and singled him out last Thursday ahead of the friendly against Japan. Before camp, he even indicated he has been in contact with Antwerp’s staff for feedback – all of which has been good.
“He looks sharp,” Berhalter said of Vines. “What I've noticed from him is the speed of his decision-making has improved. He looks a lot more sure of himself — aggressive and attacking down the wing. He's been coming inside a bit with his club team. That helps give him flexibility. I see a confident Sam Vines, a guy who has been embracing 1v1 duels, getting the ball in pressure and being able to play out of pressure. Overall, he's been a guy I've been really, really pleased with in this camp.”
“One of the things we're preparing for if Antonee Robinson can't go or he gets injured or suspended in the World Cup is who can fill his shoes? Could Sammy Vines?” Berhalter explained before camp. “I think this is a great opportunity to look at him. He's a guy that is in the form of his life. I've been speaking with his coaching staff and they've been very impressed with him.”
Vines played the full 90 minutes in the friendly against Japan in a 2-0 loss in which the entire team struggled. He was far from the team’s biggest problem on the day but still has plenty of work to do in order to book his ticket to Qatar. While he remains the top left back in the pool after Robinson, Berhalter still has other options at the position — most notably shifting right backs Joe Scally or Sergino Dest to the left side.
Vines' chances of a landing a World Cup roster will depend on how Tuesday's Saudi Arabia friendly goes, how players continue to perform this season, Robinson’s recovery, and other injuries.
But history has shown that Vines has generally prevailed. Whether it was in Colorado, Antwerp, or with the U.S. team at the 2021 Gold Cup – he emerged as the top option. When Vines moved to Antwerp after starting regularly with Colorado, he came to understand the nature of battling for positions.
“It's a fight pretty much every day for your spot,” Vines said of his initial move to Antwerp. “Every day you have to work your hardest and you have to show every time and it's just a grind every single day. That was probably the biggest shock.”
As Berhalter has said, a lot can change between September and Nov. 9 when the World Cup roster is named. Vines has worked hard over the 18 months against expectations to put himself into solid contention. Work remains, but the size of the opportunity is not lost on him.
“I'm sure most players, if not all players, dream of playing in the World Cup, and that's definitely one for me,” Vines said. “It's just a big opportunity and especially being this close to the World Cup. It's a huge opportunity for a lot of guys.”