A record of four games, just three goals and a solitary win hardly screams progress but, despite a disappointing display in exiting the World Cup at the last 16 stage to a slick Netherlands side, the US men’s national team should leave Qatar more confident than ever.
Twenty years on from the US’s best modern run at a World Cup, which ended in quarter-final defeat to Germany, and 92 years after a high watermark semi-final appearance in Uruguay back in 1930, losing 6-1 to Argentina, the current squad is both the highest quality and most promising group of players the USA have produced since either of those tournaments.
The US squad’s average age of 25.2 years old was the second youngest in the tournament and, having missed out in 2018, only right-back DeAndre Yedlin had previous World Cup experience. Despite being outclassed by the Dutch, a trio of mature, organised and unbeaten group stage displays, were more than encouraging, especially given the squad’s early stage of development. With key players such as Yunus Musah, Giovanni Reyna, Sergiño Dest, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie all 24 or under, this team’s ceiling remains high.
Most importantly, the profile of this squad is unprecedented for the US. That 2002 team was defined by graft, athleticism and efficiency but the USA are now producing technically gifted, creative, dynamic players in nearly every position. Although that talent is still maturing, players with Reyna and Pulisic’s guile, grace and vision have never been produced before now, making this 2022 squad the Americans’ most gifted, versatile and intelligent World Cup party ever. Crucially, despite their failure to qualify in 2018, the proliferation of these types of players have been growing over the last decade and continues to do so.
As well as producing more skilled players from an early age, more of them are getting meaningful European experience earlier too – 48% of the aging 2002 squad were US-based compared to 35% this time around while five of the starters against Germany in Ulsan were playing in the MLS but just two of the eleven that started against Holland in Qatar played at home. In 2002, Bruce Arena’s leading youngsters, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both 20 at the time, also played in MLS while their 2022 equivalents, Reyna (Dortmund) and Musah (Valencia), 20 and 21 respectively, have been with major European clubs for some time.
The more gifted and intelligent players produced by stronger, more technical coaching, both in the US and in Europe across their development combined with typical American athleticism is a winning combination. Although they still have some way to go, boasting that new breed of player, the 2022 team would easily outthink and outplay the 2002 vintage. When the 2026 tournament arrives, the hosts are likely to be a major force.