Christian Pulisic leads the USMNT’s celebration Sunday night. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
I don’t know about you, but this version of the U.S. men’s national team has me excited about its chances of reaching soccer’s promised land – aka the World Cup.
In fact, when I look at this group of talented players, I have some deja vu feelings of the team that qualified for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. They are young, sometimes play with a chip on their shoulder and have a desire to remind the rest of the world not to underestimate them.
After the dismal failure of the USA not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, there is a new air of optimism around this team, and rightfully so.
The players’ potential is as high as they want it to go.
During Sunday night’s tussle with perennial rival Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final, we couldn’t help but notice the grit and determination of a never-say-die U.S. squad. The Americans twice battled back from deficits, shoved back when push came to shove, and demonstrated their depth when their No. 1 goalkeeper, Zack Steffen suffered an injury midway through the second half. In his place was Ethan Horvath, who was thrown into the cauldron of a Mexican match with all of five international appearances. No matter. Horvath was up to the task and beyond. He made one of the most famous penalty kick saves in USMNT history to preserve a 3-2 tie in stoppage time in the second extratime period to preserve a triumph by that same score.
I have been following many of the European-based players on this team, writing stories and updates for a website. So, I have seen them play on a regular basis.
Perhaps you have as well.
I have gotten to know Christian Pulisic’s patent move on the right flank, especially in the penalty area, in which he tries to catch the opposition on the wrong foot. When he does, he can take a step around him to penetrate close to the net or send a cross to a teammate. Other teams obviously know it as well, but they still have problems stopping him. And oh yeah, he played an important role in helping Chelsea capture the UEFA Champions League crown.
I have watched Gio Reyna seemingly “getting lost” in a swarm of players then popping up “out of nowhere” to slot home a goal for Borussia Dortmnd. Right place at the right time, I believe they call it.
I have witnessed Weston McKennie’s progress at Juventus. He has had enough ups and downs, but when he is on, he contributed to the Italian Serie A’s side success (although Juve had a disappointing season compared to its recent championship squads). McKennie has developed an aggressiveness and awareness when to run and when not to be called offside. Of course, things can be easier when you have someone such as a Ronaldo on your side. But McKennie has learned from them.
I have noticed Sergino Dest play with joy on the right flank, whether it be on defense or as a wingback for Barcelona (certainly doesn’t hurt that he has an icon such as Lionel Messi on his team, from which he can learn, not unlike McKennie and Ronaldo). His defense sometimes leaves a bit something to be desired, but he has the potential to become a vital part of the American attack going forward.
And there are others: John Brooks has shown much grit when he performs for Wolfsburg. Ditto for Tyler Adams, whom I dubbed The Flash when he starred with the Red Bulls because he seemed to be in two places at once (on one quick scoring sequence for the RBNY, he was involved with three passes in as many parts of the field).
And there are many others as well, including Brenden Aaronson, Jordan Siebatcheu and Timmy Weah.
If there is a weakness in this squad, it is the defense, particularly the backline, which Mexico exposed so well in that dramatic 3-2 USA game-for-the-ages win in the Concacaf Nations League final in Denver Sunday.
Now, individual players don’t necessarily make a team. Players performing together does.
What this team went through against Honduras and Mexico reminded me of the USMNTs of yore, when they played with grit and determination, trying to do anything to win.
Now, they still have plenty of learn, especially when you go on the road in Concacaf, in Central America or Caribbean. That’s where the challenges become even greater with dodgy fields, local fans making noise at nights outside the team hotel and of course, confounding officiating calls that will boggle the sanest of minds.
They are a relatively young team and learning curve will be great.
With the USMNT A team getting the summer off so the players can recharge their batteries and be prepared for when their Euro club teams commence playing in August. and of course, when World Cup qualifying kicks off in September, the B team will compete in the Concacaf Gold Cup next month. Perhaps a player or two or three will emerge who will be worthy of joining the A team.
So, we’ll have to be patient for three months.
In several ways, this USMNT reminds me of the side that qualified for Italia ’90 in 1989, breaking the 40-year drought in the World Cup desert. Many players are young and of college age. While many in this generation don’t attend college. No matter. In Europe, they are getting an education and a half every day, learning to be professionals. Their classrooms are the training fields and stadiums across English, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Turkey.
Heck, many of them are on their way to earning a Master’s in Soccer Education and How to Win, and some will secure doctorates, depending on the level of competition and their success, individual and team.
I would love to see all of them graduate to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and beyond. In 2026, when the USA co-hosts the World Cup along with Mexico and Canada, most of these players will be in their mid-20’s, which is prime time for men’s international soccer.
Saying that, we should be prepared for some disappointments along the way. After all, they are young.
World Cup qualifying, particularly in Concacaf, is a grueling process. Even the Mexicans have endured some difficult times over the years. Pedigree means nothing. Performing and perhaps some luck along the way does.
Even with the bumps in the road and some potential roadblocks, we should enjoy the ride as a new generation of U.S. has taken its first important steps to help bring the USMNT back to respectability and perhaps to the World Cup.