‘We can be giants eventually’

DOHA, Qatar – Frustration crippled Tyler Adams in the early minutes of the next four years. It brought him to his knees at the Khalifa International Stadium shortly after the final whistle ended his World Cup dream. The Netherlands kneeled him as he celebrated a 3-1 win over the United States. Finally he pulled her to the grass.

But as he bowed his head and gazed mournfully, his heart turned to the future and his mood changed.

“It was the first time in a long time that people thought, ‘Wow, there’s something special about this team,'” Adams reflected, later speaking about the U.S. men’s national team and the public’s perception of it. “Potential is just potential, but if we maximize it in the right way, we can see that it can be a good thing.”

He was speaking, but after a familiar World Cup result, a familiar round-of-16 failure like in 2014 and 2010 and 1994. So I asked Adams: Why is this different?

“Uh, I guess you can judge that for yourself,” he said. He was right.

“With the players on our team compared to previous teams — I wasn’t on the 2010 team, the 2014 team, so I can’t sit here and judge the potential of those teams,” he continued. “But I mean, to be the second youngest team in the World Cup and to have the same result, that speaks for itself.”

Their starting four were, in fact, the youngest four ever at the World Cup. They are still full of rising stars who have already surpassed many of their USMNT predecessors. Adams, perhaps out of respect for those predecessors, can’t claim his team is more talented than theirs. But it will be clear.

His current talent isn’t the only reason for unprecedented optimism. Talent, as the vast majority of football-playing nations can attest, tends to reach high levels through happenstance and ebb and flow.

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But the hope in American soccer is not the golden generation that will shine on its soil in 2026; it’s the start of a carefully crafted trend and a sign of even better generations to come.

Soccer Soccer - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Netherlands - United States - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - December 3, 2022 United States players applaud fans after the match as the United States are eliminated from the World Cup REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

The United States players applauded the fans after the match, and the United States was eliminated from the World Cup. (REUTERS/Annegret Hilse)

The USMNT is still a work in progress

The seeds of change and the 2022 USMNT were planted in the mid-2000s, when the men running US soccer realized that their model of youth development, as former US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports, had “turned completely upside down.”

He was left behind. The children played more than practiced and took more tests than lessons. In a sense, longtime FC Dallas academy director Chris Hayden told Yahoo Sports, “We developed players by accident.”

So in 2007, just as Major League Soccer was ramping up investment in youth programs, U.S. Soccer opened its controversial Development Academy. The DA, as it was known, was a nationwide league that pitted America’s best teenagers against each other on a weekly basis. He also taught three, then four study sessions a week. He was spurred on early, ruffled feathers, and angered some young football directors around the country. But he reformed the “broken” system and, especially in the last decade, it expanded and began to produce.

That helped produce 17 of the 26 players on this year’s World Cup roster, including Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKenney, Joe Reyna and Brenden Aaronson. US Soccer shut it down in 2020, but before then, MLS was poised to take control of the kids’ soccer pyramid. The Pro League’s 29 clubs spend more than $100 million annually on local player development. They maintain reserve teams, spanning the youth to professional ranks, and field their own first teams as well as the US men’s national team.

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They increasingly attract European scouts and send youngsters to top European clubs. There are flaws, of course, many flaws, but “quality [American] players have increased significantly in the last five or 10 years,” Bayern Munich academy head Jochen Sauer told Yahoo Sports in 2018. Many believe it has continued to increase since then and that the country’s development systems are “just scratching the surface.”

By extension, so is the USMNT. His 2022 World Cup has ended as expected, but several people interviewed for a pre-tournament story on youth development cautioned against giving up on four games. Better evidence, many believed, would emerge in four years and beyond.

“We will see the final result in five to 10 years,” said Sebastian Dremmler, another Bayern youth coach. “[In 2026]you will have a very strong national team.”

Weston McKenney (R) comforts midfielder Tyler Adams (4) after the United States lost to the Netherlands in the round of 16 of the World Cup at Khalifa International Stadium on December 3, 2022 in Al Rayyan, Qatar.  (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)

Weston McKenney (R) consoles midfielder Tyler Adams (4) during the United States’ World Cup round of 16 loss to the Netherlands on December 3, 2022 at Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)

“The American public should be optimistic”

The 2026 World Cup seemed a long way off on Saturday night. Reyna declined to be interviewed. Pulisic’s voice sounded weak and pained. Tim Ream was overcome with emotion as he realized that, unlike many of his teammates, he may not have another shot at this stage at age 35.

But beneath the gloomy faces there was perspective.

“The future is bright,” Ram said selflessly. “I mean this core group, and when I say core group, these are 22, 23, 24-year-old guys who haven’t reached their level yet – the potential to get into that next cycle is huge. The program is in the hands of these guys. Good characters. Good players. Good people. … I’m excited to see what they can do on the world stage.”

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“I think it’s a step forward,” said DeAndre Yedlin, one of the 2014 team, when asked if it was a step forward or a step to the side.

“There’s a lot of potential, if you haven’t seen it,” Matt Turner said without thinking, he doesn’t know what to tell you. “We played England, we played Holland and we had a tough, tough time for both teams.”

And, perhaps most importantly, they did it proactively rather than reactively. They wanted the ball. When their rivals won it, they wanted it back. They were physical and tactical against England. They fielded a top 10 team in the world, the Netherlands, who basically decided that their best hope of beating the USA was possession and resistance.

“They have to believe that we can play with anyone in the world the way we want to play,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s the important thing.”

This does not mean that the USMNT has reached Dutch or English level. There is a gap in quality that was revealed on Saturday night in the decisive moments.

But with experience and age, the quality improves. The youth system should provide more of it.

“To take the youngest teams to the World Cup four times in a row and still be able to play like we did – the American public has to be optimistic,” Berhalter said.

As McKenney reiterated Saturday night, he and his players as a team set out four years ago to “change the way the world views American football.” “I think we’ve done some of that in this World Cup,” McKenney said. Berhalter thought they were “partially successful.”

But the holy grail has always changed America’s view of American men’s soccer. They do it almost exclusively by winning. Although they have won only once here in Qatar, they have shown that they will surely win more one day.

“I think this tournament really restored a lot of confidence, restored a lot of respect for U.S. Soccer and for soccer in our country,” McKenney said. “I think we have shown that we can become giants over time. “Maybe we’re not there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way.”


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