Experts weigh in on what's behind the USMNT's young talent explosion
By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
Before the United States’ catastrophic failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, the program’s first miss in 32 years, the lowest moment in modern USMNT history probably came on March 29, 2016.
On the same night that then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior squad staved off an even earlier and more embarrassing elimination by beating Guatemala to close the semifinal round of qualifying, the U.S. under-23s lost to Colombia, ensuring that the Americans would sit out a second consecutive Olympics.
It was a warning sign for the trouble ahead.
Christian Pulisic had made his USMNT debut against Guatemala, but beyond the fantastically gifted 17-year-old, there were huge doubts about the quality of the next generation of players. It was a vexing problem considering that MLS and U.S Soccer had been pouring money into its Development Academy for close to a decade at that point.
Where was the U.S. talent-wise? Where was it going? Those were questions I asked 10 experts from across the American game a half-decade ago. Today, one quote in particular sticks out. "I think in the next five to seven years," said then-Columbus Crew coach and now USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter, "there's going to be a lot of really good players coming out of the U.S. in world soccer."
He was spot on. In May, Chelsea’s Pulisic became the first American male to play in and win the Champions League. Weston McKennie (Juventus), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Sergiño Dest (Barcelona) are key contributors with some of Europe’s leading clubs. Adams, McKennie and Pulisic are 22. Dest is 20. Reyna, entering his third season in Germany’s Bundesliga, is still just 18.
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The players behind them are coming on strong, too; a roster of mostly MLS-based U.S. reserves just beat a full-strength Mexico to win the Gold Cup. On Thursday, FIFA ranked the USMNT 10th in the world, its highest mark since 2006.
How did the U.S. program get here? Is this a one-off golden generation or the start of a trend? Here’s what the experts are saying now.
What’s behind the USMNT’s talent explosion?
Jesse Marsch, current manager of Germany’s RB Leipzig and former USMNT assistant:
"One of the most underestimated talents in football is personality. There is an inherent mentality to these young American talents, where they almost thrive in situations where they constantly have to prove everybody wrong. And so now that our development academies have improved, you’re starting to get more developed talent combined with the kind of mentality we Americans have, where we will do anything it takes to be successful."
Tab Ramos, three-time World Cup midfielder for the USMNT, former U.S. U20 and current Houston Dynamo coach:
"You started to see a big difference when MLS academies became free. The moment players can play for free, you’re always going to get the best ones. That was the game-changer.
"That said, you can only dream of a Christian Pulisic. It’s one thing to have a good generation of players, it’s another to have one really special player who’s different. Christian is almost like a gift from the gods. Manchester City is the Disney World of youth development, and even they can’t produce a Christian.
"But a lot has changed. I wanted to pull my hair out when I couldn’t pick Brenden Aaronson and Richy Ledezma for the  U-20 World Cup. They were already playing professional games, but other guys were ahead of them at that moment. Compare that to 2011, when I took over the U-20s, and I was pretty much taking anyone who was on a pro team just because of their experience. Now we’re cutting professionals."
Jim Curtin, Philadelphia Union head coach:
"The success of soccer in this country still relies on how the national team does. Hitting that rock bottom of not qualifying for the World Cup, the focus on youth development got expedited.
"But coaches still have to have the courage to put those young players on the field. I didn’t expect [former Union midfielder] Brenden Aaronson to go from a good, young prospect to starting games for the national team to getting sold for $9 million within six months. One of the things I’ve learned is that most of the time, these kids don’t let you down."
Jochem Sauer, director of Bayern Munich’s youth academy:
"The [soccer] education that young players get in the States is completely different now. The quality of the coaches is better. Combine this technical and tactical improvement with athletic ability, and these are the reasons some players are performing on the highest level.
"The level of MLS clubs has grown extremely since, say 2010. When MLS players came to train in Germany 10 years ago, the speed of play — how fast the ball goes from player to player, how quickly you have to anticipate what to do next — was too much for them. Now we’ll get FC Dallas players here on trial, and they need only two or three training sessions to adapt."
Oscar Pareja, Orlando City coach, former Colombian national team player:
"The fact that the U.S. did not qualify for the World Cup or the Olympics forced everyone involved to do things better.
"Young American players now feel like they can play anywhere, and they have that confidence because they’ve been prepared. I’m a little surprised that our players were able to go to Barcelona, Juventus, Dortmund and Chelsea and have that impact immediately, but as a coach, the players surprise you every day.
"Sometimes we doubt these kids. It’s a good lesson. We have to allow them to surprise us."
Luchi Gonzalez, current FC Dallas manager, coached McKennie and Bayern prospect Chris Richards at FCD’s academy:
"Everyone connected to soccer in the country was crushed when we didn’t qualify for the World Cup, because we expect to be there. But it needed to happen to reevaluate where we are and where we’re trying to go.
"U.S. soccer gets criticized a lot and they haven’t been perfect. But I feel like they deserve a lot of credit because they knew we needed a highly competitive youth league.
"Now, by the time a U-19 player has gone through our system, he’s played 60-to-70 games against international clubs. Our U-10 teams go to Brazil, Spain. That’s huge in their development. Dan Hunt [FCD’s owner] had the balls to hire Oscar Pareja out of the academy, and then do the same with me. He’s always asking who’s the next U-12 or U-13 kid coming through and what the plan should be for them. That’s the culture at FC Dallas."
Tony Lepore, director of talent identification at U.S. Soccer:
"Top footballing nations like Germany, Spain, France and Belgium invest in the youth. There’s a higher level of development overall in the U.S. now than there used to be, an improved pathway, and it was based on sound philosophies and sticking to a plan. That investment is a credit to the clubs.
"But the players deserve the most credit. I’ve known some of them since they were 12. They’re focused and determined, and they worked hard to get where they are. They took ownership of their learning, and they had to overcome adversity along the way. Failure is an important part of growth. Not only are these players inspiring the next generation, they’re inspiring their own to take the next step. When a player sees someone they played with on a youth national team make it, they believe that it’s possible, too."
Caleb Porter, coach of MLS champion Columbus Crew:
"Development comes down to two things: environment and time. We’re starting to see the benefits of creating good infrastructure and professional environments.
"I used to get asked why I’m not playing an academy player. My answer was always, ‘Give me one who’s good enough.’ Today in MLS, young players are getting opportunities, but not because they’re young. They’re earning it."
Is this a golden generation or a sign of things to come?
Curtin: "This is the start. I think it’s going to get crazy. The European market is seeing just how good these young kids are. We know we have a lot of work to do, but I can go to academy games now and see kids doing things that I didn’t learn until I was 28.
"Anecdotally, I have a 10-year-old in our academy who Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are talking about. We’re fighting off those kinds of clubs for 10-year-olds now. That’s the way it’s moving, and that’s just in Philadelphia."
Sauer: "I think it will continue. If MLS clubs keep bringing young players of 17-18 into the first teams like [Canadian star] Alphonso Davies in Vancouver or Tyler Adams in New York, the country will have an excellent national team in the future. If things keep going the way they are, the U.S. will have a very competitive team in 2026."
Gonzalez: "I don’t think we’re there yet, not even close. But we’re showing some good signs."
Lepore: "When we look at the next few generations of youth national teams, I think we believe that this is a trend that will continue."
Pareja: "From early ages now, kids see what’s possible. The confidence of young players has increased —not just the ones who’ve already had some success as pros, but the ones coming behind them."
Porter: "There was a perception that American players aren’t savvy enough or don’t come from an environment where they’re ready. Those were the perceptions in Europe even five years ago.
"But when one player gets an opportunity and does well, it brings credibility and respect, and European teams start looking at players developed in America differently. There’s more scouting in the U.S. now. The perception now is that we produce players. Nobody wants to miss out on the next Pulisic.
"Are we going to go win the World Cup now? We’re still light years away. We’re still way behind other countries on time. We’re catching up, but we need more time."
Ernst Tanner, former Hoffenheim and current Philadelphia Union sporting director, former head of youth development at FC Salzburg:
"I would say [the U.S.] is in the first stage, where we are now harvesting our first fruits. There’s a lot more to come in the future.
"The only danger I see is, look how many players from MLS academies went to Europe for free. That needs to change. I don’t want to speak against our league, but there are better leagues in Europe, as we know. It’s OK that players go over there and improve. But at the same time, MLS clubs must be rewarded for the development we’re doing, and that’s not always the case."
Ramos: "We have this generation of fans who sort of either think we’re great or we’re terrible. There’s no in between. We literally go from being the worst team in the world to, ‘We’re going to win the World Cup.’
"It’s not that easy. We continue to inch forward. I think we can legitimately say that in terms of talent, we’re one of the top-25 countries in the world. Once you start pushing a little higher than that, it gets tough.
"But our fans think if we don’t go to the quarterfinals of the World Cup we’re a failure. Is that realistic? Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland. That’s eight teams right there. Before you know it you’re up to 20.
"With the players that we have, and especially looking towards 2026, we can hope for everything. But we have to look honestly at where we are. We’re still probably a couple decades away from being a title contender. That’s the reality.
"With Christian, Weston, Tyler Adams, we have a chance to win everything. We do. But there’s a big difference between having a chance and actually knowing you’re the best."
One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.