A best ever third place finish at the World Cup and regular top five placing in the FIFA World Rankings does not tell the full story of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT).
That third place was 90 years ago and based off three games in the very first World Cup, while their ranking was notoriously over inflated in the early 2000s as a result of a flawed system.
In more recent years, the United States have failed to win a World Cup knockout game since 2002 and didn’t even reach the last tournament in 2018 after a disastrous qualifying campaign.
Major League Soccer has so often seen overseas players rise to the fore, whether it be veterans like David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, misfits finding their feet like Sebastian Giovinco and Bradley Wright-Phillips, or emerging South American talents like Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
There have been promising American players before, but there always seems to have been a finite level. Landon Donovan is a USMNT icon, yet he never cracked Europe other than brief loan spells during the MLS off-season. Tim Howard, another American legend, found his level at Everton.
Other American players who ventured to Europe, top class by USMNT standards, didn’t stand out from the competition and were at best average in the top club leagues in the world.
But relatively soon after the disappointment of missing out on a 2018 World Cup, a first absence from the global scene since 1986, things are starting to feel a little different now. A growing number of American players are getting a foothold at top European clubs.
In the summer of 2020, full-back Sergino Dest became the first American to join Barcelona, while midfielder Weston McKennie enjoyed the same honour at Juventus. Crucially, both have been regularly involved with their new clubs - two of the biggest in the world.
Christian Pulisic, not actually involved in this month's internationals due to to injury, cost Chelsea £58m in 2019 and has been earmarked by expert pundit Gary Neville as the Premier League’s next ‘world star’ as a result of his enormous potential. He came from Borussia Dortmund, who have since dipped back into the US market to find Giovanni Reyna.
There is also Chris Richards, who is starting to make a breakthrough at Bayern Munich, and Yunus Musah, now a regular at Valencia after being developed at Arsenal, although it remains to be seen whether the latter will switch allegiances to England or Ghana. Timothy Weah joined Paris Saint-Germain at 14 and is now trying to forge a first-team career path at Lille, while Tyler Adams is playing Champions League football with RB Leipzig.
Of those eight players named, McKennie and Pulisic are the oldest at 22. Reyna and Musah are still teenagers at 18 and 17 respectively, but are already full USMNT internationals.
The squad named by former international Gregg Berhalter this month is extremely young. Only five of the 21 outfield players are over 22 and four of those are defenders, where experience pays. The XI that started Monday’s 6-2 friendly win over Panama had an average age of just 22 years and 154 days, making it the second youngest side in the history of the USMNT.
The game was played in Austria and the coronavirus crisis and associated implications from international travel is a likely factor why it was the first USMNT XI made up of players solely from European clubs since 2011, although LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget was still part of the squad.
Other more senior players based at MLS clubs like Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan and Aaron Long could return to the fold in the future, but young fresh talent being developed at a higher level in Europe will form the core of the USMNT moving forward.
The 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup and qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are the most pressing short-term targets for the next couple of years, but possessing a golden generation and heading towards a home World Cup in 2026 makes it an incredibly exciting time for US men’s soccer.
By 2026, which is to be co-hosted with Canada and Mexico in the first World Cup to be shared across three nations, the likes of Pulisic, McKennie, Dest and Adams should be at their respective peaks. Reyna and Musah won’t be far behind, if not there as well.
Canada, who are guaranteed to be at their first World Cup since 1986 if they miss out on 2022, are also presiding over long-term promise thanks to the emergence of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David as leading lights in an unprecedented generation of Canadian talent.