The United States Men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the third consecutive time prior to the 2020 Tokyo Games. That came on the heels of an embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago that dashed the team’s hopes of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in 2022 as well.
But a slow burn in the program’s development is beginning to pay off. More than a handful of young players are now playing at the highest levels in Europe. After decades of average play and shamefully failing to qualify for the world’s biggest tournaments, the USMNT is finally being recognized on the world stage.
The U.S. beat rivals Mexico twice to win two cups in 2021
Concacaf is a soccer confederation consisting of North and Central America and the Caribbean. The U.S. and Mexico are often the two best teams, but Mexico has been the top dog as of late.
Things changed (or are at least beginning to change), however, this summer. The U.S. beat Mexico to win the Concacaf Gold Cup, the confederation’s biggest tournament, on Aug. 1. The best American players were back with their respective European clubs in preparation for their regular seasons, so the Gold Cup squad was made up of what was essentially the U.S. B team. Still, the Americans won.
The inaugural Concacaf Nation’s League Tournament Final was played earlier this past summer on June 6, again between Mexico and the USMNT. The almost three-hour-long match was one of the most dramatic games the U.S. has played in at least a decade. Christian Pulisic, widely considered the country’s best player, converted a penalty kick in the 111th minute. Backup keeper Ethan Horvath was called on due to injury and saved a Mexico penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time in the second period of extra time (the 124th minute of the match). It was an incredible night that put U.S. men’s soccer back on the map.
The USMNT brought its best team to the tournament and came home with hardware. Realistically, is a Nation’s League Championship a big deal to most countries? No. To this team? Absolutely.
After the past few years, any trophy is a good trophy.
The U.S. has a handful of players at the highest levels of World soccer
Pulisic is just one of several USMNT members playing in the biggest leagues in the world. The 22-year-old plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League and became the first American to win the UEFA Champion’s League — the most prestigious soccer tournament in Europe. Zack Steffen was the backup keeper for Manchester City, whom Chelsea beat in the Champion’s League Final, giving the U.S. two players on the biggest stage in European soccer. Ten USMNT players age 25 or younger played in the 2020 Champion’s League.
Midfielder Weston McKennie, who played a big role in the Nation’s League win over Mexico, plays for another one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Juventus, alongside Christiano Ronaldo. 18-year-old attacker Gio Reyna, son of former national-team star Claudio Reyna, plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany. Sergino Dest is a fullback for one of the biggest clubs in the world in Barcelona. Twenty other U.S. players are currently in Europe.
The U.S. program continues to develop and the world is taking notice
Americans are infiltrating the biggest clubs in Europe, forcing doubters to think twice about the U.S. men’s program. Young players are showing they have the talent, skill level, and drive to play alongside the best.
Coaches around the world weighed in on the state of men’s soccer in America in an article published by Fox Sports:
“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.”Jesse Marsch, current manager of Germany’s RB Leipzig and former USMNT assistant
And in another testimony:
“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.”Tony Lepore, director of talent identification at U.S. Soccer
It’s not an overnight fix. But the talent coming up through the youth system, coupled with the talent already making waves at soccer’s highest levels, proves the USMNT program is on the right track. Finally.