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The USMNT is about to be OP. I’m not joking.

It’s been seven years since the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) became overachievers during their magical run at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. A Jurgen Klinsmann-coached group of budding European-based talent combined with 2010’s era MLS stars (minus one Landon Donovan) managed to escape the “Group of Death” that contained a Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal, European powerhouse Germany, and occasional rival Ghana. The reaction to the unfortunate draw paralleled the sadness on people’s faces during the last World Cup when the same Ghanaian side bested the US in the Round of 16. Through extensive group cohesiveness and sheer luck, the US was able to avenge 2010 by defeating Ghana 2-1 with a John Brooks header in the 86′ minute. Six days later, The Yanks almost caused another upset in a tight match with Portugal that saw Clint Dempsey score in the 81st minute to give America a 2-1 lead, only for their defense to crumble in the 5th minute of stoppage time to give 1 point each to the dueling sides. A 0-1 loss to Germany soon followed, which the score being that low is remarkable in itself, but the 4 points total earned in the toughest group in Brazil was enough for the USMNT to earn a spot in the knockout stage.

To mark the occasion, US Soccer hosted events throughout the nation, including a massive tailgate & watch party inside Soldier Field. Riding a Metra train to Chicago on July 1st, 2014 was no different than the atmosphere on Memorial Day, as fanatic groups like the American Outlaws and Sam’s Army were joined by their fellow neighbors who only watched soccer every four years. In this country, I’ve never experienced such an exuberant atmosphere for a highly defensive game, as the match with an up-and-coming squad in Belgium went to extra time without any goals scored. Of course, Everton legend Tim Howard showcased that he was still a world-class keeper by making some miraculous saves against future stars in Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne, all to the delight of the crowd back home. In the late minutes of regular time, Chris Wondolowski missed a seemingly wide-open shot that could’ve sent the overachieving Americans to the quarter-final. I’ve never felt a bigger roar of mortification in my entire life. Eventually, Belgiums attack was too much for just one mortal man to defend against, and the tiny European nation went up 2-0 in extras. Julian Green, Donavon’s de facto replacement on the team, proved his worth by volleying a goal for the US in the last moments. A compelling comeback in the last 10 min of play was ceased with a last chance free kick opportunity that Thibaut Courtois was able to squash, and the USMNT left Brazil on a 2-1 defeat.

Even through defeat, the mood surrounding the team’s performance was overwhelmingly positive. When the team returned, they were greeted with a hero’s welcome typically reserved in our culture for champions. That World Cup cycle created new fans in a sport that probably ranks 5th in popularity in the USA. Over time, many of the then European-based players opted for moves to MLS clubs to increase the level of play domestically and capitalize on a newfound popularity in the country. Dual-national players, who had primarily grown up in Europe, decided to take the opposite route and remain in their leagues. This divide might’ve gone unnoticed by casuals, but longtime fans were puzzled on why our best players would either come back to play in America or never leave during their prime years. Even Klinsmann had his doubts on the future direction for his side. And while the sport has never been more popular than it is nationwide, that momentum has little to do with the growth of MLS but expanded TV & streaming rights of the top leagues in Europe.

Those who felt frustrated by the players were eventually justified, as the national team’s performance felt like it lost quality overnight, as 2015 saw the US fail to medal in the Gold Cup, CONCACAF Cup, and Copa America competitions. Klinsmann was sacked shortly after a terrible start to World Cup Qualifying (WCQ), only to be replaced by previous USMNT coach Bruce Arena, whose lineups steered heavily into picking MLS talent over those abroad. This did absolutely nothing for improving the team’s performance in WCQ, as the USMNT were able to accomplish the unimaginable: not qualify in one of the weakest confederations in the entire world.

The US slipped throughout qualifying and had its World Cup hopes dashed in the end by a mediocre Trinidad & Tobago side. To make matters worse, the loss wasn’t expected to eliminate the US entirely from the tournament picture. In the “Hexagonal,” the 4th place team has a playoff opportunity against a team from another confederation, who turned out to be Australia. Nobody thought that Mexico losing to Honduras and Panama upsetting Costa Rica was a possibility, but that’s exactly what occurred. The shock results catapulted the small nations past the American side in the table and left the USMNT to join older teams like 2014 runner-ups The Netherlands, Italy, Chile, and even Ghana in watching the 2018 World Cup from home. That meant no watch parties downtown, no summertime buzz, or even casual fan interest. Fox won the rights from ESPN prior to the tournament, which meant fewer games on TV and more on streaming services with paywalls attached. It was simply the most hollow-feeling World Cup period in this nation’s history.

As the finger-pointing amongst US soccer circles continued, the most popular excuse for the shortcomings of the men’s side came down to one thing: our best male athletes are not playing soccer. “If LeBron played soccer then we would be the best,” “If Odell chose to pursue soccer rather than football we would be the GOATs.” Every time I hear quotes like this I absolutely lose my mind. It’s not sheer athletic ability that is holding the USMNT back, it’s infrastructure. Soccer at the developmental level has never been given the same attention and urgency as those in European or South American countries, despite the game being introduced to the world around the same time back in the late 1800s.

Luckily, this information might’ve been just what the USMNT needed to inspire the next generation of players to want more not only for their country but for themselves. What I’ve recently seen is a large amount of talent opting to make the move to Europe as early as humanly possible to learn and play with the best. How player development typically went in the US was through playing 2-3 years for a college soccer team before entering the MLS SuperDraft. This mode still exists, but younger players are now given the chance to sign senior team contracts in their high school years. With major teams hiring more scouts worldwide, players could get sold in their developmental years and continue their growth abroad. Combine that with dual-national prospects who’ve only wanted to play one sport and you create a young, talented player pool across the globe.

John Dorton/ISI Photos

Costing a wonder kid in Christian Pulisic and the rest of the lost generation a shot at World Cup glory meant that the federation had to reform from the top down. The USSF elected a new president, hired Earnie Stewart as general manager, and the most controversial change of them all, the December 2018 hiring of Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter (pictured above). The fear in the hiring of Berhalter was that older MLS players like Michael Bradley (whose dad used to coach the USMNT back in 2006) and Jozy Altidore would still get starting roles simply based on what they accomplished way back in 2014. Instead, younger, talented players have been breaking into leagues back home, in Mexico, Brazil & Europe. The deep pool of new talent has surprisingly made the legacy players who launched the USMNT’s initial success period obsolete. A change in personnel comes with a new formation, as Berhalter quickly left the popular 4-3-2-1 setup for a loose 4-3-3 that asked more of the midfielder than ever before.

With FIFA and the rest of the soccer world reeling from the ongoing COVID pandemic, this year’s fixture slate is busier than usual, which sees the Yanks compete in U-23 Olympic Qualifying, Summer CONCACAF competitions like Nations League and Gold Cup, and then the big one, World Cup Qualifying. Multiple competitions call for an expanded national team pool, with players in the MLS benefitting from European clubs’ typical non-compliance of releasing players for every competition. Take the January friendly vs 2018 Dreamcrusher Trinidad & Tobago. The all-MLS side featured a mix of vets with rising young domestic talent doing all they can to impress Berhalter for a roster spot. Scorecard alone, a 7-0 win looks cool, but consider that everyone not named Jesus Ferreira or Sam Vines looked pretty average against the Soca Warriors’ B-side.

September will be upon us sooner than we think, and this time calls for us to finalize our strongest XI. The next FIFA window is in a month, as the USMNT facing off against Northern Ireland on March 28th gives us a good chance to evaluate our players against strong competition. So without Freddy Adu (IYKYK), I give you my full strength USMNT for World Cup Qualifying:

Zack Steffen – Goalkeeper, Manchester City (ENG), 25

Action Images / Reuters

Oddly enough, American goalkeepers have always been in demand in the Premier League. Longtime USMNT standouts like Brad Guzan, Brad Friedel, and Tim Howard would play weekly in the best league in the world and perform well. Zack Steffen continues the American tradition in the EPL by playing for arguably the best professional team on the planet, despite riding the bench for Brazilian keeper Ederson.

Steffen does see the pitch fairly often for FA & League Cup competitions, but with a defense as strong (and expensive) as City’s, the keeper rarely breaks a sweat. When looking at positioning, reacting to back passes, and overall foot skills, there’s still is a major gap between Steffen and other keepers in the pool. Plus, I’d rather have someone behind the posts who regularly trains with the best every single day, than plucking in someone who primary fields shot against lower-level talent (MLS, LIGA MX, etc).

Antonee Robinson – Left Back, Fulham (ENG), 23

@FulhamFC

Robinson had been on an absolute tear while playing in England’s second division before Wigan looked to sell him on. Unfortunately, the left back had a move to AC Milan blocked due to a failed deadline day medical but managed to secure a move from Wigan to EPL side Fulham. Robinson has already become one of the most reliable fullbacks in the entire league, yet on the international level, he has put on some horrid performances for the USMNT in the past, most recently against Wales. With time I see the young fullback creating a solid pairing with our defenders in the future by taking a more defensive-minded role for the US instead of his free-flowing nature in Fulham.

John Brooks – Center Back, Wolfsburg (GER), 28

vfl-wolfsburg.de

The lone survivor from that 2014 dream team, Brooks is by far our best defender and looks to make the left center back position his home for the next two WC cycles. He uses his large frame to deter attackers from trespassing his box. His long-passing and heading strength can also become an offensive force on free kicks and corners. Brooks is currently anchoring a solid defense for Champion’s League-bound Wolfsburg and finally might just taste trophy success in Europe.

Chris Richards – Center Back, Hoffenheim (Bayern) (GER), 20

@eastmamba

This is definitely my boldest choice in the XI, as Richards has had little experience with Bayern Munich’s first team and mainly played for the reserve side. That changed with a short term loan deal to mid-level Bundesliga side Hoffenheim, who are led by Richard’s former Bayern reserve coach. Neat. Chris has already been planted in the starting lineup and instantly feels like a natural fit. One thing Berhalter absolutely loves from Richards is his ability to execute Quarterback-Esq, line splitting crosses down the pitch. Although he doesn’t fit into the Bayern squad right now (this is a loan deal with a NO BUY CLAUSE), Bundesliga minutes with have Richards ready to compete alongside Brooks for years to come.

Sergiño Dest – Right Back, Barcelona (ESP), 20

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The first elite prospect on the list, Dest had always been one of the most promising talents from the very prestigious Ajax academy in Holland. After a breakout Eredivisie campaign with the Dutch giants, Dest moved to Spain to become teammates with Messi and Piqué. Adjusting to the Barça way has been admittedly challenging on the defensive side, but when Dest gets into the final third, his crossing and dribbling are too filthy to defend against and become deadly quick. The injury bug has kept him off the pitch for a while, but once fully fit, the American will slide back in his STARTING ROLE FOR BARCELONA. OMG AN AMERICAN IS IN THE BARÇA LINEUP.

Tyler Adams – Midfielder, RB Leipzig (GER), 22

Miguel A. Lopes/Pool Photo via AP

Berhalter’s vision of a dominating midfield contains three box-to-box titans who are tasked to press opponents, play defense, win balls back, and distribute to the wingers. Fortunately for the US, Tyler Adams can do all of these tasks on an every game basis. If needed, the versatile Adams can also slot into a defensive position on the right side of the pitch. The only true downside of Tyler’s game is scoring. I’m not expecting him to be putting balls in nets anytime soon, but rather establishing himself as a midfield general to kill fast breaks for the opposition and create chances for the wingers.

Weston McKennie – Midfielder, Juventus (Schalke 04) (ITA), 22

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Arguably having the best season out of anybody in the roster pool, McKennie started 2020 on a struggling Schalke side before scoring a shock loan to one of Europe’s most beloved clubs. Even more surprising, he wins a starting midfield role over players with much heftier price tags. Weston can do everything Adams does, but with an extended offensive range. This season, McKennie has scored 4 times for Juve, including a wonderful dream volley against Barça in Champions League play. Juventus has let him at times start games in the right attacking mid position, giving him more offensive license to roam around the box for crosses and headers. As Juventus has already confirmed that they will be purchasing the 2020 U.S Soccer Player of the Year for an absolute robbery price of €18,5 Million, it’s up to McKennie to continue performing like one of the best midfielders in Serie A.

Yunus Musah* – Midfielder, Valencia (ESP), 18

Valenciacf.com

Berhalter sees Musah as a box-to-box playmaker, which works fantastic for the type of revolving 4-3-3 that allows the midfielders to swap positions in the middle when it calls for it. The glaring issue with Musah is simply if he’s ever going to play for us long-term. Yunus previously played for and captained several England youth teams, most recently the under 18’s. That is until Musah accepted a call-up and starred in two November friendlies with the USMNT. Our power move hasn’t gone unnoticed by Three Lions gaffer Gareth Southgate, who is on record of being fond of the New York-born footballer and hopes that Musah will commit to playing for England in the future. Although Musah is also eligible to suit up for Ghana and Italy, it looks like the only two realistic possibilities lie between the anglophone nations.

Due to several FIFA rules, Musah isn’t “cap-tied” to the Yanks until he shows up in a competitive fixture like Gold Cup or World Cup Qualifying. In the end, Musah’s decision, which many in the know report that an announcement will come sometime next month, might come down to playing time on the senior level. Personally, I don’t necessarily think Musah is ready to start for either National teams right now, but with his skill set and continued experience in La Liga, The USMNT must do everything in its power to keep the talented footballer in its grips, which might require him being a straight starter.

Christian Pulisic – Left Wing, Chelsea (ENG), 22

Julian Finney/AFP/Getty Images

The legend himself. The man who wears number 10 for both USA and Chelsea. Captain America. Christian has already proven himself as a leading winger in the Premier League, as his pace and dribbling skill becomes unguardable in the final third. Unfortunately, the injury bug has bit Christian in the worst possible times, as a nasty injury after scoring in the FA Cup Final interrupted his MVP performance during the restart of the EPL season. Pulisic being healthy is an absolute necessity for the USMNT to accomplish any of its lofty goals for the future, as replacing a player like that will take years. I’m sure Christian is sick of seeing that image of him hiding tears with his jersey after that fateful night in Trinidad. He now has the gargantuan task of potentially captaining this team out of the dark period and into stardom.

Josh Sargent – Striker, Werder Bremen (GER), 20

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Berhalter is hell-bent on playing with a striker in the “False 9” position, which would allow a player to drop back in the midfield and create chances from there. None of our strikers are really equipped to excel at that role — no cap, the position sucks and I wish we’d drop it already — except for one. Sargent normally plays the elusive post for Bremen in the Bundesliga, which leads to mixed results. The striker has shown his exceptional scoring ability in every competition he plays except for the Bundesliga, but the fault mostly lays with his team. Bremen might have the worst offensive in that league, and Sargent’s role as a deep playing forward is more akin with a box-to-box midfielder than an all-out target man. Still, until one of the other strikers plays so well that ignoring him is not a possibility, this is Sargent’s position to lose.

Gio Reyna – Right Wing , Borussia Dortmund (GER), 18

Jul 19, 2019; South Bend, IN, USA; Borussia Dortmund midfielder Giovanni Reyna (38) warms up before the  pre-season preparation soccer match between the Liverpool and the Borussia Dortmund at Notre Dame.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The most recent elite prospect to emerge in the player pool shares a few similarities with Pulisic, as Reyna naturally inherits the golden boy role for both club & country. Like Pulisic, Reyna left the US early to join Dortmund’s academy and broke out with the senior team at age 17 after impressing then manager Lucien Favre. The young American has been a standout performer in the Bundesliga ever since making his league debut in January 2020 and has been chasing various club records that Pulisic set only a few years ago. When positioned at the 10, Reyna has the capacity to thread rapid through balls past defensive lines. As Dortmund’s attack is spearheaded by Jadon Sancho and Erling Haaland, Reyna doesn’t need to be a target man, but in tight spaces on the wing, he can either draw fouls in dangerous positions or dribble past anyone and create a change for someone waiting inside the box. For now, I have Reyna on the wing for the US, but depending on Musah’s decision, the Dortmund star would definitely fit best in an attacking midfield role. Reyna’s passing skills are already considered elite, and his strong showings in Germany has him listed as one of the most talented teenagers in football.

The Bench

Goalkeepers: The most suitable replacement for Steffen that comes to mind is Club Brugge keeper Ethan Horvath, a natural shot-stopper, who unfortunately lost his starting job over the summer when Former Liverpool and Belgium #1 Simon Mignolet returned back home. Alternatively, New England Revolution star Matt Turner just made his international debut vs Trinidad and looks to secure the starting gig for a mid-size competition like Gold Cup.

Defenders: Additional Center Backs for the primary national team include Mark McKenzie and Matt Miazga, who join Horvath and others as Americans in the Belgian First Division. Fullback Reggie Cannon has been nothing short of impressive for Portuguese side Boavista, and Colorado left back Sam Vines has a chance to secure the backup spot for Robinson. Cannon’s replacement at FC Dallas, Bryan Reynolds, recently completed a move to Italian club AS Roma but is likely to miss out on camps due to tough competition at the right back spot.

Midfielders: Berhalter loves his MLS midfielders, as San Jose’s Jackson Yueill and LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget tend to perform well for the national team. Other names that catch the eyes of fans are Brazilian based Johnny Cardoso and FC Salzburg gem Brenden Aaronson. Richie Ledezma, Owen Otasowie, and Paxton Pomykal all get shout-outs from me as well.

Forwards: The attacking pool is a part of the team that fans are mostly divided on, as many of the talent coming up are equally matched with each other and don’t necessarily stand out from the pack. Berhalter favorites include Swansea’s Jordan Morris and Lille striker Timothy Weah — son of Ballon d’Or winner and current president of Liberia George Weah. Recently, Matthew Hoppe broke through Schalke’s senior squad and became the first American to score a hat-trick in the Bundesliga, while Daryl Dike and Sebastian Soto both snubbed their respective families’ lineage in hopes of a USMNT call-up. I almost forgot to mention Barcelona’s other American, Konrad de la Fuente, who’s been training with the first team for some time now. If you want to extend the embarrassment of riches, convincing Efraín Álvarez to rejoin the USMNT after pledging to represent Mexico would be a tough ask, but not impossible.

Observations from the lineup:

Kids of America – The average age of this XI is 21.6, which is an aggressive difference from the 2014 squad’s average of 29. One of the blunders from the qualifying cycle for 2018 was a heavy reliance on the same players from 2014. Everybody from that story building run besides Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, and Julian Green are either retired, out of their primes, or completely out of the picture for the national team. The fact that Green and Yedlin are still playing for high-level clubs in Europe and nowhere near the player pool is a testament to the elevated standards the next generation is establishing.

Holy s*** dude, these teams are big – Not only do we have Americans consistently playing in the top leagues in Europe but for storied clubs like Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester City. Besides Howard playing for Manchester United before moving to Everton, I don’t remember any point in time where American players were starting for large clubs. Dempsey’s role at Tottenham was mainly a super-sub, Bradley didn’t really fit in at AS Roma during his short stint in Italy, and Donovan failed to take advantage of a loan to Bayern in 2009.

MLS representation has never been more scarceOnly two players (Adams & Steffen) have ever played in an MLS game. This would be inconceivable a decade, let alone 4 years ago. In Pulisic’s case, not only did he not play in MLS, but never sniffed one of their academies, as Dortmund managed to loot Hershey PA’s Classics academy of the star before any of the local teams. I still believe that having a strong domestic league is useful for growing the game of soccer in the States, But I’m not quite sure the main focus on recruiting players, especially international ones, in their late 30’s is erasing the league’s unfavorable nickname of being a “retirement league”. nowadays, there is a large influx of skillful players with international experience coming over from Latin America, which is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. MLS becoming a “selling league,” like the ones in Portugal or Belgium, will influence youth coming up in academies to step up in hopes of landing a big-money transfer abroad while inciting audiences by showcasing the future of the sport.

Final Thoughts

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With all this hype, can the USMNT win the World Cup in 2022? Much like every year, the answer is still a loud & resounding F*** NO. This team is way too young and inexperienced to take the coveted title of the best team in the world. Remember, due to our never-ending “panoramic,” most of these guys have yet to play with each other during a major tournament, so rotation issues will be a given. Realistically, I’m not expecting my lineup to be the starting squad in Qatar at all, as the player pool is full of young and old talent that could strike hot out of nowhere and land a starting job. On top of all that, there are extreme doubts from the fan base in the job of Berhalter, as most supporters don’t see his CONCACAF success translating to other nations with much, MUCH stronger confederations. Two American names constantly floating around — Jesse Marsch and Pellegrino Matarazzo — are excelling in their managerial positions for European clubs and could instantly take Berhalter’s whistle with the quickness.

I’m still very keen on next year’s tournament, assuming we do the bare minimum and qualify. Once the US accomplishes the easy part, World Cup fever should make a comeback, hopefully as life returns to a smidgen of normalcy. Stamping a place in the Quarter-Final is a more realistic goal for 2022, as reaching it with this squad would cement the Yanks as having a true golden generation for the future. The real question most should be asking is does the USMNT have what it takes to win it all on home soil? The 2026 World Cup is jointly shared with Canada & Mexico, but most fixtures will be played stateside, including the Final. If this generation of talent can develop, and most importantly, believe in themselves to become the world-class players most expect them to be, 2026 could mark a new era of dominance.

Thank you for reading!!! Follow me on social media at:

ig: @carpizzy

Twitter: @CarpIzzy

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