Why There is Real Hope for US Soccer
On January 9, I lazily scrolled through the weekend’s soccer matches on the ESPN app when an odd thing caught my eye.
On January 9, I lazily scrolled through the weekend’s soccer matches on the ESPN app when an odd thing caught my eyeA little-known American teenager had scored a hattrick for German Bundesliga bottomfeeders FC Schalke 04. His name? Matthew Hoppe, a 19-year-old Major League Soccer (MLS) academy reject without any US youth national team appearances to his name. Hoppe’s three goals displayed a variety of astute finishes and in the process he ended Schalke’s 30-match winless streak, making him a hero in Gelsenkirchen and the third-youngest player to ever score a hattrick in one of Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, France, Italy, and Germany). I may have done a double take when I looked up Hoppe’s nationality, but beyond my initial shock, Hoppe’s accomplishment didn’t feel surprising. Young American players taking Europe by storm has become commonplace, giving US Men’s National Team (USMNT) fans a reason to be optimistic about the future, a far cry from the doom and gloom of that fateful loss in Trinidad and Tobago in 2017.
Prior to the disastrous 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, one would have to go back to 1986 to find the last time the US missed a Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. From 1986 until 2014, though, the US competed in each tournament, reaching the knockout stage on a respectable four occasions. With the national team consistently playing Round of 16 games on the international stage, and MLS’s tremendous growth from 2002 onwards, a period in which the league added 21 teams to its original 10, US soccer appeared to be on the up and up. American soccer fans had little to be disappointed about, until all that progress unraveled in the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign. The team’s struggles began in the final stage, the infamous “Hex,” a six-team round robin where each team plays each other twice. After losses against Mexico and Costa Rica, the US fired Jurgen Klinsmann as coach and brought back Bruce Arena, the national team manager over an eight-year span from 1998 to 2006. Instead of stabilizing the situation with familiarity and experience, Arena presided over the US’s greatest soccer failure. Arena’s own loss to Costa Rica elicited a brutal rant from Alexi Lalas, a USMNT legend turned TV commentator. Lalas went player by player through the team’s “leaders,” making a disparaging comment about each one before referring to the collective as “a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires.” In a mostly empty stadium in Couva, Trinidad, the players failed to respond to Lalas’s criticism. Trinidad and Tobago, the Hex’s bottom feeders, a team with nothing to play for, had slain the supposed giants of North American soccer, winning 2-1. Christian Pulisic, who had emerged as the future of US soccer over the course of the campaign, pulled one back for the US after T&T took a 2-0 lead, but it ended up being too little, too late. The media reacted as if the apocalypse had arrived.
Three and a half years later, Pulisic, cheesily nicknamed “Captain America,” leads the USMNT into a new era, one of youth, excitement, and genuine top-notch caliber. The 2017 iteration of the national team relied on unexceptional MLS mainstays like Matt Besler and Darlington Nagbe as well as European journeymen such as Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, who bounced around the continent from club to club achieving only a modest level of success. Few would have called the US’s best players in 2017, even Bradley, who’s earned 151 caps for the team, bonafide Champions League-level players. Pulisic, though, provided a glimmer of hope amid the mediocrity. The Pennsylvanian made his league debut for Borussia Dortmund at just 17 and earned his first USMNT cap shortly thereafter, becoming the youngest US scorer in the modern era in a summer friendly against Bolivia. As the World Cup qualifying campaign was ending, it was obvious that Pulisic was the team’s only star, one on whose young shoulders the team had placed too much responsibility.
Now, though, Pulisic appears ready to lead the national team to genuine success, together with the most promising generation of American soccer players to date. Pulisic has since transferred to Chelsea, one of the English Premier League’s biggest clubs, but a new American has risen in his place at Dortmund: Gio Reyna. Reyna, son of USMNT legend Claudio, broke his predecessor’s record as the youngest American to appear in the Bundesliga and has contributed a combined eight goals and assists in 26 appearances this season. This winter, the prestigious French sports publication L’Équipe ranked him as the fifth-best player under 20 in the world—he has every chance of exceeding Pulisic as the US’s best player. Midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have shone for Juventus and RB Leipzig, respectively, too. Adams can play a variety of positions across midfield and defense and his Leipzig team play some of the most intricate, pressing-heavy soccer in Europe. After a surprising transfer away from Schalke, McKennie has earned a consistent place in the reigning Italian champion’s team and scored an athletic volley against Barcelona in the Champions League, for whom fellow American Sergiño Dest has emerged as a dynamic attacking right-back. US talents continue to crop up, including Chris Richards at Bayern Munich, Owen Otasowie at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Antonee Robinson at Fulham, Yunus Musah at Valencia, and Bryan Reynolds at Roma.
The USMNT has European pedigree now, chock full of young, technical players establishing themselves at Europe’s top clubs. The US should qualify easily for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar under new skipper Gregg Berhalter’s leadership, but the team’s core will still be young and inexperienced, as the aforementioned group of players have an average age of just 20.3. In 2026, though, the USMNT will play the World Cup on home soil. Pulisic and company will be in their prime, fully ready to exorcise the demons of Trinidad and Tobago. How far will that team go? I’m afraid to say my answer out loud, so I’ll whisper: I think the US could win the whole shebang.