Ask any USMNT fan where they were when they found out that the U.S. would not be qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and chances are they have a story to tell you. This isn’t a memory that they look back on fondly but it is rather something that was so shocking and so unexpected that it sticks with them. Fans haven’t forgotten that moment of knowing they wouldn’t be going to Russia to watch the Stars and Stripes play.
That game marked the beginning of a very odd time for American soccer. After crashing out of World Cup Qualification there was a push for change within the USMNT. While there were several major moves publicly to change the organization and structure by adding Brian McBride as General Manager and Gregg Berhalter as Head Coach the results didn’t really change. An uneven Gold Cup performance led to a trouncing by Mexico in the final in 2019. That, coupled with flat performances against Cuba and a loss to Canada in the CONCACAF Nations League, really threw into question whether the 2022 World Cup Qualification run would be any different from 2018.
What the USMNT needed, it turns out, was a break. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USMNT largely took off 2020 with a domestic only friendly against Costa Rica and friendlies against Wales and Australia serving as the lone games for the side. This pause in the World Cup cycle seems to have finally put the USMNT into rebuilding mode.
Now normally when one mentions ‘rebuilding mode’ that may set off alarms. But for the United States it is actually a good thing as this year has been an incredible year of advancement for multiple young players, both in Europe and in Major League Soccer. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams have found homes with Chelsea, Juventus, and Red Bull Leipzig respectively becoming consistent starters for sides that have major Champions League ambitions. Meanwhile, Gionvanni Reyna has taken over Pulisic’s spot at Borussia Dortmund as their American wonderkid becoming an assist machine for Erling Haaland. Then there is of course Sergino Dest, who after one season at Ajax signed a major deal with FC Barcelona.
They aren’t the only ones. Whether it is goalkeeper Zack Steffen close to breaking through with Manchester City, forward Josh Sargent starting for Wolfsburg, or youngsters like Chris Richards and Konrad de la Fuente cracking the eighteen for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, American players are breaking through the European club system at a rapid pace. At home, Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Brendan Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas) and Chase Gasper (Minnesota United FC) are making their cases for why they too need to be in the mix.
What’s scary to think is that those players are just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past three years, club soccer in the United Soccer has finally created a divisional structure that although far from perfect provides players in the 15-19 age group to develop. U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy and now Major League Soccer’s Youth Development Platform has created a pathway not just for players to grow, but to be scouted by clubs from abroad. This, coupled with the strength of the United Soccer League in the second and third divisions, has helped create a bridge between the promise that has been shown in youth soccer for decades and the ability to make it. It is telling that Pulisic, McKennie, Reyna, and Adams were all products of the current system and that perhaps the grassroots are finally on the right path.
So the question is now: how does US Soccer take this energy and turn it into a team? Perhaps the most difficult part will be getting everyone together. With COVID cancelling almost all friendlies and tournaments this year it has left coach Gregg Berhalter with a very short window to organize his side. World Cup Qualification for the US is slated to begin next June leaving very few matches for Berhalter to organize what will be a very young side. What players he chooses to bring in for veteran leadership will also play a key role in how bumpy qualification will be. The level of competition has certainly improved with Mexico, Jamaica, and Honduras all revamped and Canada, should they make it to the final round, also a very serious threat.
For the time being, there are still many questions around this U.S. side and with so few games between now and qualification it will certainly make some fans uneasy. Nonetheless, after many years of waiting, it finally seems like US Soccer has a young group of players that they can build around and to once again begin to dream big with.