Tyler Adams called it a brotherhood when he spoke to the media on a zoom call ahead of the United State heading to San Jose, Costa Rica. That brotherhood now has a great chance to book a ticket to the World Cup in Qatar (you can catch the action on Paramount+ and CBS Sports Network. As long as the United States men’s national team avoid a six goal loss in Costa Rica, they’ll be heading to the World Cup Additionally, they can also become the first USMNT side to go to Costa Rica and defeat Los Ticos, which given this team’s current form, coming off of a 5-1 victory over Panama, should be the expectation.
It’s too soon to call this a golden generation as the USMNT is just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential, but this is clearly a team that enjoys playing for one another. And this hasn’t always been the case as Tim Howard pointed out during MLS media day in 2017.
When speaking about the player’s pride for the shirt slipping and what Bruce Arena would change coming in and replacing Jurgen Klinsmann, Howard said, “I think it slips away because you bring in …,” Howard began, before pausing for thought. “Jurgen Klinsmann had a project to unearth talent around the world that had American roots. But having American roots doesn’t mean you are passionate about playing for that country.”
Howard’s comments about dual nationals missed the mark. Looking at a player’s pride in playing for the country veers dangerously close to questioning which kinds of Americans are the most American, a sentiment that has no place in or around analysis of a soccer team What he was trying to get at, though was the reality of the lack of cohesion among the squad, the idea that in 2017 this was not a group of players invested in playing for each other.
Klinsmann set himself a difficult task, that of unearthing talent and bringing it together, and he ultimately failed at the second part. These players, with their different backgrounds, disparate soccer experiences, and far ranging paths to playing for the USMNT were never melded together into a cohesive unit by Klinsmann. Ultimately they ended up significantly less than the sum of their parts.
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Things are different under current coach Gregg Berhalter. The current team still boasts many talented dual nationals in players like Sergino Dest, Jordan Pefok, Antonee Robinson, and Yunus Musah among others, some of whom are important starters with this group, but the core of the team (including other dual nationals like Ricardo Pepi) either began in Major League Soccer or has logged plenty of years together at with youth national teams.
While ten current players on the roster play in MLS now, 16 of the initial 28 called up got their start either in the league or team’s youth systems. This leads to partnerships like James Sands and Gio Reyna at New York City or Paul Arriola assisting his new FC Dallas teammate Jesus Ferreira which goes a long way towards building the mentality needed to qualify successfully. It also speaks to the rise in quality within MLS as the quality in domestic academies improves raises the technical level of young players closer to the rest of the world. A similar phenomenon is going on at the youth level, where despite some disappointments (like missing the Olympics) players are logging minutes together in ways they weren’t a generation ago. The U-20s this week just pulled off a 2-2 draw with Argentina in a friendly as Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi watched on.
All of this is to say that while many young Americans will still go on to play in Europe, and many dual nationals will always be a part of the USMNT, they are now more frequently being integrated into the America’s soccer program well before they have to go and take the field in high stakes USMNT senior level matches.
International teams don’t have as much time to develop a culture, it’s not like club soccer where you’re with someone every day. The fact that the team has built these connections that mean something, even when players aren’t there, is notable. Adams spoke about his discussions with Weston McKennie before the match at the Azteca saying, “Three hours before the game in Mexico, I was on facetime with Weston, and he was wishing me good luck, and he wanted us to take care of business and to tell everyone good luck”
Things like that help drive the team as they want to ensure not to let players who haven’t been there this window down. Missing Brenden Aaronson, Matt Turner, Dest, and McKennie, even without them being on the pitch, they’re still with the team just from a bit further away which was also something Gio Reyna spoke about when he was out with an injury of his own for most of qualifying.
But it didn’t stop at one call as McKennie made sure to check in before the Panama match.
“We’re very connected, this goes deeper than football.”, said Adams, “We’ve created friendships and relationships with guys that translate completely onto the field. So we really miss those guys and they’re important pieces to our team. But again, it’s good to have more guys that are able to come in and play pivotal roles in our team.”
As this young team plays together and gains more shared experiences, hopefully the comradery will only continue. It’s true that this team is as talented as they’ve ever been, but it’s not just the talent that’s leading towards success. Berhalter has turned this team into a cohesive unit, and he’s done it with help from a U.S. soccer system, alongside MLS, that’s better than ever at finding talent and funneling into a national team program before the bright lights start shining. When the U.S. missed the World Cup it was during an era that took one of the nations greatest strengths, diversity of talent and turned it into a weakness on the field. The current generation of players are showing that, with the right soccer infrastructure in place, diversity translates into a talented, cohesive unit on the field. While the pains of 2017 still linger, this is a team that can wash those memories away and begin to put the United States on the map as a true soccer power.