For The USMNT, The Future Is Now
Photo Credit: Laurie Skrivan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
When the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 2018, it sent shock-waves across a nation where soccer had finally become mainstream.
Fans who had considered qualification a foregone conclusion had to deal with the harsh reality that this team couldn’t even accomplish the bare minimum. Outrage was swift and vicious, but what followed was the fear of the unknown. What do we do now? How will this team be fixed?
After the resignation of Bruce Arena, it was clear that the USMNT needed to go in a different direction when it came to picking a manager. They needed someone who could facilitate the philosophical change necessary to ensure that they wouldn’t suffer from the same embarrassment in four years’ time. Their choice for the job was Gregg Berhalter.
Berhalter had become an established manager in Major League Soccer as the head coach for the Columbus Crew, and before that, an assistant with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Berhalter also had playing experience for the national team, where he made 44 appearances. However, none of that could be compare to the pressure of being the man tabbed to fix the USMNT. What was his plan?
Over the course of this past international break, Berhalter and U.S. Soccer’s plan has become apparent: embrace the youth. In the team’s first match vs. Mexico, Berhalter put together a starting 11 with an average age of 24 years, 150 days. That number didn’t increase by much in their next match vs. Uruguay. It’s all part of the overall vision for this latest group of young, talented players to begin contributing to the national team now.
“For us, it’s great that we can put these guys on the field, and they can perform to a certain level,” said Berhalter at a press conference the day before the match vs. Uruguay. “When you think about our group, in particular, Sergiño Dest, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Josh Sargent, you’re talking about a number of young players who could easily be the core of this team for the next eight years.”
While MLS has seen improvements to their academy system and an increase in producing young talent, the success of Americans playing football abroad has grown exponentially over the years. A decade ago, you would be hard pressed to name more than one or two American players making waves in Europe or elsewhere. Now, those types of players have become the backbone of the national team.
Pulisic and McKennie have recently played in the UEFA Champions League. Dest has broken into the first team at Ajax. Tim Weah has impressed with multiple teams in France. Zack Steffen, currently on loan with Fortuna Düsseldorf in Germany, could one day be stopping shots for Pep Guardiola and his parent club Manchester City. These players aren’t waiting for opportunities, they are creating them.
This youth movement isn’t lost on the other members of the national team. Jordan Morris, who was a part of a similar crop of young players years ago, likes what he sees from this current group.
“I think they are all very mature for their age and mentally strong as well,” said Morris. “I try to give advice when people need it, but they are all here for a reason, and I think they’re doing a great job.”
At 35 years old, goalkeeper Brad Guzan has seen a lot of players come and go with the USMNT. Having played in England for most of his career, he understands the benefits of having young players currently excelling abroad.
“When you look at some of our guys playing in Europe and pushing themselves against some of the best competition in the world, that’s ultimately going to make our national team better,” said Guzan.
While Pulisic and McKennie are the more proven commodities, another player who is receiving a lot of hype is Sargent. The 19-year-old forward, who currently plays for Werder Bremen in the German Bundesliga, burst onto the national scene in 2017 when he scored four goals for the U.S. at the U-20 FIFA World Cup. He believes his time spent playing with other up and coming players at the youth levels will lead to success for the senior team.
“Since a lot of us have played together at the youth level, there’s very good chemistry, and there’s a good blend of younger guys and older guys on this team,” said Sargent. “It’s good to have youth with energy and power, and when you mix that with experience, it’s a good combination.”
Only time will tell if U.S. Soccer’s embrace of its youth players will lead to success in World Cup qualifying and elsewhere, but the fact of the matter is they are fully committed to this philosophical change.
They have assumed the role of the dad passing off the car keys to their 16-year-old child for the first time. If they want a successful future for these players, they must trust that now is the time for them to grow up.