I’m going to preface this article with a word of advice for readers: if you ever have the chance to go to an international soccer game featuring your home country, do it. This was my third time seeing the United States play, and it never disappoints. There’s just something about sporting red, white, and blue with fifty-thousand random fans who simultaneously feel like your best friends. The atmospheres of international soccer games rival the most electric of any other sporting event I’ve attended.
I was at the USMNT’s Copa America group stage game in Philadelphia on June 11th, and it was awesome. Following a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Colombia and a 4-0 blowout win over Costa Rica, the Americans had everything to play for in their last group match, which reflected in their dominant performance. Playing a man down for almost all of the second half, the Yanks were able to score first and hold off a second half charge from Paraguay. The day got even better for the Americans when Costa Rica defeated Colombia 3-2 in the nightcap, a result that sent the U.S. into the knockout bracket as the winner of Group A.
While I was at the pre-game tailgate, I surveyed a few friendly USMNT fans about the state of the team. Reviews were mixed; some thought the team was trending upwards, but others were not as encouraged about the squad’s trajectory. One person was fairly pleased with the job head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has done with the USMNT, but another fan didn’t see how Klinsmann’s resume through eighty games was any better than former coach Bob Bradley’s. The overarching feeling surrounding the team seemed to suggest that there’s certainly room for improvement, but there’s also still a large amount of hope for the future.
An analysis of the USMNT must always begin by tempering expectations. You’re sadly mistaken if you think this team will compete for major tournament titles in the near future; the player pool just isn’t talented enough. The expectation should be that the U.S. consistently hangs with top teams, keeps big games competitive, and dominates CONCACAF (the North American and Caribbean international soccer federation). In the summer of 2015, the USMNT went on a six game winning streak that included consecutive friendly victories at home versus Mexico, at the Netherlands, and at Germany, so they have been able to compete at somewhat of a high level under Klinsmann. Their success didn’t last for long, though, as the U.S. disappointingly finished fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup following the promising winning streak.
A concern is that although the USMNT has improved its form from last summer, it won the Copa America group fairly undeservingly and with aging veterans in key positions. The U.S’s leading scorer in the Copa is thirty-three years old, the average age of the USMNT’s three-man starting midfield is over thirty years old, and their three substitutes from the Paraguay game are thirty, twenty-nine, and thirty-four. Although the rest of the starting lineup is pretty young, the USMNT’s heavy reliance on players ages thirty-plus is certainly unsettling in terms of player development.
A fan named Dominic Grotti made a great point about the USMNT. He said, “…the problem is not that there is no young talent. The problem is that the young talent that exists is being marginalized at the expense of mediocre short-term results”. Klinsmann has only himself to blame for this dilemma. His philosophy towards meaningless friendlies has been to try older, more experienced players at new positions instead of giving younger, more promising players chances to work themselves into the squad. By the time the USMNT gets to more competitive tournaments like the Copa, some young guys have not had the chance to settle into established roles, so Klinsmann is forced to resort to filling the roster with older veterans.
Nonetheless, there are still many reasons to be optimistic about the USMNT’s future. Twenty-three year old John Anthony Brooks was stellar in the Paraguay game and looks like a budding world-class central defender. Seventeen year old winger Christian Pulisic (the kid is so young that he left USMNT camp earlier this month to go to prom) and twenty-three year old striker Bobby Wood will be playing in the Bundesliga’s first division for the foreseeable future. Twenty-two year old right back DeAndre Yedlin is making huge strides for Sunderland in the English Premier League, and twenty year old Chelsea defender Matt Miazga looks like a promising candidate to tandem at center back with Brooks. But, there are also reasons to be pessimistic; the U.S.’s U-23 team had a host of solid talent but failed to make the Olympics. Despite the U-23 team’s promise, we have not seen many of their players crack the senior squad, which is both disappointing and concerning from a player development standpoint.
The USMNT has an incredible opportunity in front of them; they won their Copa group and will now face the cozier knockout round draw (Ecuador) that comes with a group victory. Brazil and Uruguay have been eliminated, and the U.S. would not see top contenders Mexico and Colombia until the final if they advance that far. In terms of short-term goals, expectations have surely increased due to the USMNT’s early Copa success and favorable knockout draw. The long-term will take more time to judge; will all of the United States’ promising young players turn into something, or will they more closely resemble the failed career of Freddy Adu? Only time will tell.