The U.S. men’s national soccer team has enjoyed a prosperous summer, winning the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League in June and performing strongly at the Gold Cup in July. Yet these triumphs will mean nothing if the USMNT fails to build on them in the future.
Promising outings at two continental competitions are positive strides for a team that infamously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. However, it is important to remember that many of the USMNT’s wins — with the exception of its victory against Mexico in the Nations League final — were against teams it should comfortably defeat, such as Canada and Haiti, which rank outside the top 60 in FIFA men’s world rankings, and Martinique, which is not a FIFA member.
The next — and most important — step will be to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar this upcoming year.
The strength of the U.S. team will truly be tested in the eight-team qualification group, in which the U.S. will face Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Canada and Panama.
With Mexico as its sternest opposition, the United States should have enough talent to defeat the other six teams. But it is crucial this team avoid the complacency it adopted four years ago, when it crashed and burned out of the World Cup qualifiers, finishing fifth in a six-team group of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.
Unlike that disappointing 2017 team, which featured players who were well past their prime, such as Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, the current squad is youthful and fresh.
Thus, it will be essential to optimize the U.S. team’s young talent.
In the past few seasons, many U.S. athletes have played key roles for Europe’s top clubs. Led by Chelsea Football Club’s Christian Pulisic, a starter on the infamous 2017 USMNT, this generation of U.S. stars also includes Juventus’ Weston McKennie and Borussia Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna.
Despite their flair and creativity, the three aforementioned players were not included in the U.S.’s Gold Cup roster. Head coach Gregg Berhalter omitted them from the roster in order to give the trifecta time to rest before they report to club preseason in August. In reality, it seems he chose to bring his “B team” for the Gold Cup.
The USMNT will only go as far as its best players — Pulisic, McKennie and Reyna — take the team, so their omission from the roster was inexplicable.
Berhalter should build the team around his talented trio. They should be a consistent presence on the roster, a source of leadership and a catalyst for team chemistry, even if the players surrounding them constantly change.
But when the team’s best players are on vacation while other players are competing, it does little to build cohesion among the group.
In other words, the USMNT is not good enough to play its B-team in tournaments like the Gold Cup and then expect its A team to save the day at more important matches like World Cup qualification.
It is rare to see so many Americans starring for European juggernauts at the same time. This season alone, Christian Pulisic won the Champions League with Chelsea, Weston McKennie won the Coppa Italia with Juventus and Giovanni Reyna won the DFB-Pokal with Dortmund. Many more U.S. players are attracting the attention of European clubs, for example FC Dallas’ Tanner Tessmann, who signed with Serie A’s Venezia in July.
With so many U.S. athletes playing in the spotlight of Europe’s top leagues, it is incumbent upon Berhalter to use these players as much as possible while they are in their prime, and it is up to the players to translate their success for their clubs into success for their country.
Christian Baldari is a rising sophomore in the College. The Upper 90º Report appears online every other week.