The Golden Age of U.S. Men’s Soccer
By Martin Rogers
The day after the United States Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, condemned to failure by a humiliating and dismal defeat in Trinidad and Tobago, the American sports media could scarcely talk about anything else.
There was an inquisition about how it could be possible that a country of 300 million could surrender so tamely to an opponent that had lost its past eight games, and in doing so, toss away the opportunity to get back to the most-watched event on the planet.
"This is an embarrassment to our culture," Colin Cowherd said, on The Herd. "Less arrogance, please, and more accountability."
Fans were up in arms. Sports talk shows were all about it. Even those with little interest in soccer pulled in. The criticism rained down. A lot of it, especially that directed at coach Bruce Arena and the man he replaced, Jurgen Klinsmann, was justified. For all the wrong reasons, the United States team was the talk of the town.
They’ve barely registered a blip on the radar since. Now, with just over two years to go before the next World Cup, it might be time to start talking about them again.
On Thursday, 21-year-old American Tyler Adams, playing for RB Leipzig, scored the winning goal vs. Atletico Madrid to propel his team into the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League against French powerhouse Paris St. Germain.
While his strike was widely celebrated and is certainly the most significant club goal a U.S. player has scored in Europe, things have reached a point where such an outcome was not a monumental surprise.
Since that bleak night in Trinidad, a core of young Americans have not just ventured overseas, but have found serious success at a truly elite level upon getting there. Great individuals do not guarantee a winning squad, but one thing is without question: the national team has more top class talent driving it forward now than at any time in its history.
Christian Pulisic is shining at Chelsea in the English Premier League and Adams has shrugged off injury problems to be a key contributor at Leipzig. Gio Reyna - still just 17 - has been electrifying at times for Borussia Dortmund, while Schalke’s Weston McKennie has established himself as a top level performer in the German Bundesliga.
"I’m bullish about this generation more because of how they play than where they play," FOX Sports soccer analyst and former U.S. captain Alexi Lalas told me. "I think this group carries a powerful sense of responsibility to right past wrongs, a recognition of an opportunity to prove they are different and worthy of our belief in them, and an undeniable level of talent, the likes of which we haven't seen for years."
Pulisic is one of the best youngsters in the world, and narrowly missed out on the EPL’s Young Player of the Season award on Friday. His example - first starring at Dortmund before being snatched up by Chelsea for a fee approaching $100 million - in some ways laid the groundwork for the others.
"Pulisic deserves a lot of the credit for leading the way and showing these guys in a similar age range that it can be done," Yahoo Sports soccer writer Doug McIntyre told me, via telephone. "It gave a lot of these guys confidence. Weston McKennie was the best player at Schalke after the restart. Adams, whenever he’s played, has been excellent.
"The U.S. team has always been able to punch above its weight because of the fight and camaraderie, and that’s what they got away from last time. These guys, for me, in addition to being very good players, they seem to have the fight and the drive. This is unprecedented. We have never seen this many young players from America be this good."
Regional governing body CONCACAF recently announced its qualifying procedure, but the U.S. is looking for more than simply getting to Qatar in 2022. The group wants to make some waves when they get there.
However, winning back the soccer fan base will take some time. Capturing a foothold among a wider sports audience is even more difficult, but if there is a group that can do it, it's this one.
"Honestly, when it gets to the point where guys like me get interested in the team again, that's when some real progress is being made," said Eric Maze, a casual soccer fan from Anaheim, Calif. Maze got into soccer during the 2010 World Cup, enjoyed the U.S. Team's run to the knockout stage of that tournament and the 2014 rendition, and was strongly considering journeying to Russia to watch the 2018 campaign before the U.S. flopped.
"In truth, I haven't thought much about the national team since," he added. "I watch club soccer and the U.S. program just became something that led to disappointment. But then you hear about Pulisic and everything he is doing, and these other youngsters, and you think ‘hey, we might have something worth noticing here.’"
There are still two years to go, a qualifying format to navigate and the emergence from the strange realities of the current situation to deal with before we get to the next World Cup. Success at such global events can never be certain, even for the most prestigious of soccer countries.
But the more world class players the U.S. continues to produce, and the stronger and more confident the current crop gets, the more there will be a genuine cause for hope. It starts with the team getting itself talked about again - this time for the right reasons.