Fans of American soccer breathed a collective sigh of relief this week, as the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) clinched an automatic berth in this year’s FIFA World Cup. If you haven’t been closely following international soccer, the World Cup is not being played in the summer as usual, due to the fact that someone at FIFA decided it was a good idea to hold the 32-team tournament in the desert this year. Roasting temperatures in Qatar make keeping with tradition impossible this time around, so winter it is. The USMNT isn’t due back on the pitch until late November, but now that the dust has settled on qualifying rounds, let’s take a look at the squad that will be representing the United States.
Now, in case you did not know, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team did not qualify for the last World Cup, in 2018. That was quite a bummer, and it led to some major soul searching within the U.S. soccer establishment. Through the other side of that catastrophe, head coach of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Columbus Crew, Gregg Berhalter, was named the head coach of the national team. Despite CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football) Gold Cup and Nation’s League victories this past year, anything short of qualifying for the World Cup would have been seen as a failure, so Sunday’s 5-1 win over Panama that all but punched the Americans’ ticket to the big show was comforting on multiple levels.
The first thing to know about the current U.S. Men’s National Team is that lots of U.S. soccer fans do not like Berhalter. They accuse him of relying too heavily on U.S.-based MLS players to fill out his roster, and not emphasizing the up-and-coming crop of U.S. players who are playing for some of the best teams in Europe’s highest rungs of competition.
This author does not buy into the Berhalter hate. One need only look at his record as coach of the team (34-7-9) to see that he has so far built a strong squad and won consequential games. Critics will point to the U.S. slipping into the World Cup on a tie break. Both with 25 points (teams get three points for every win and one for every draw), the U.S. narrowly held off a surging Costa Rica squad for the third and final automatic World Cup bid in CONCACAF by virtue of a better goal differential (a team’s goals scored minus their goals allowed). That being said, the USMNT did what they had to do to survive, and Berhalter deserves his share of the credit in that.
For the uninitiated, CONCACAF is the organizing body for 41 national team programs from Canada in the north to Suriname in the south. The top three finishers from CONCACAF qualify for the World Cup, with fourth place headed to a dreaded play-in game with the champions of the Oceania region. The USMNT fortunately avoided that fate, and instead it will be Costa Rica playing new Zealand on June 24 for the right to go to Qatar.
So what makes the current squad different from past U.S. Men’s National Teams? For one thing, they are young. We are routinely fielding a team with an average age of around 23, which is one of the youngest lineups the USMNT has ever fielded. Why? Simply put, it is because we have some great young players. They have come up through MLS’ Academy system, in some cases, and in others, they were lured over to Europe as teenagers, where they developed quickly in the Academy programs available there (upon which the current MLS Academy systems are largely based). Think of the Academy system as a minor league set-up in U.S. Major League Baseball. Young players are selected into the Academies of individual teams, they are developed into better players, and they work their way into the first team lineups.
So who are these leading lights of U.S. Men’s National Team soccer, upon whom we are placing so much pressure and expectation for both the 2022 and (especially) the 2026 World Cups?
Pulisic is the U.S. team’s talisman, arguably the best American player of this generation, and a key attacking player for one of the best teams in the world (Chelsea, in the English Premier League). When Pulisic is on, he is a marvel to watch, and can score some incredible goals as a winger. He was playing somewhat below his best form before exploding for 3 goals in the game against Panama, and will hopefully keep up his prolific goal-scoring and guide this team on a post-Group Play World Cup run.
While Pulisic is generally dubbed the best American player, and most valuable player for the national team, Weston McKennie has to be in the conversation. The latter plays for Italian side Juventus, another of the world’s powerhouse European club teams, and before an injury sustained in a game for Juventus, was on fire for his Italian team. McKennie is a scoring threat from the attacking midfield position, and his ferocious and aggressive play in the midfield is absolutely critical for the U.S. team’s success. He is the engine, along with Tyler Adams, that drives the U.S. offense forward.
Adams is a regular captain for the USMNT (along with Pulisic), and is the beating heart of the team in the defensive midfield position. He regularly plays clean-up on defense, hustling back to assist the defensive backs, and also reliably drives the ball forward from the back. He plays his club soccer for RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, making the move from the MLS’ New York Red Bulls in 2019. With Pulisic, McKennie, and Adams on the field, the U.S. is generally at its best (Canada loss notwithstanding). Keeping those three healthy (and out of foul trouble) is key for the team.
Dest was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American dad, and committed to U.S. soccer in 2019 (he was also eligible to play for the Dutch team). He is currently a right back (RB) for Spanish powerhouse Barcelona, having also played for Dutch team Ajax before that. Dest is an offensive threat from the RB position, though some think he should be stronger with the defensive responsibilities that also come with that position. The best right and left backs in the world combine strong defense with an offensive threat. Dest is developing into a great RB, and when playing at his best, is a strong asset for the USMNT.
Aaronson plays his club soccer in the Austrian Bundesliga, for Red Bull Salzburg. An attacking midfielder like McKennie, he also occasionally plays as a winger for Berhalter. This is likely to get him onto the field as a scoring threat, while not sacrificing McKennie’s attacking prowess in the midfield. Before an injury he sustained playing for his club team, Aaronson wasn’t a lock to start in every USMNT game, but he should be, and it would not surprise me to see him as a regular starter in the World Cup. However, if he can’t beat out Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, or McKennie (the latter of which is highly unlikely) to secure that start, at a minimum, he is a good attacking threat coming off the bench.
The son of U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna, Giovanni (“Gio”) Reyna plays as an attacking midfielder and attacking winger for German Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund. He has followed Pulisic’s footsteps in many ways. He is now the youngest American player to feature in a Bundesliga game at 17 years, 66 days, breaking the previous record set by Pulisic, who also played for Dortmund before moving to English side Chelsea. For the USMNT, Reyna is primarily a right wing with Pulisic playing on the left. He has flashes of great offensive prowess, and if he can sustain a top form, will prove a key player for the team.
Playing opposite Dest on the field, in the left back position, Robinson is also an offensive threat coming out of the back, and has scored for the USMNT in key World Cup qualifying games. He plays his club soccer at English team Fulham, currently working its way back up to the top flight of English Premier League teams. He, too, will need to be adroit at both offense and defense if the team is to do well.
Where the USMNT clearly struggles the most is at the number 9 position on the field, which is the center striker. This is the one player on the field whose sole job is scoring goals. Much like being a quarterback in the NFL, it is a high-praise or high-blame job, depending on production. Any prolonged dry spell generally results in increased scrutiny and a player losing his starting spot. For the USMNT, that has not been a concern, ironically, because none of the handful of number 9s rostered are scoring on a regular basis. It is a big hole in the U.S. attack, and one that everyone hopes Pepi can fill. The teenager recently signed with German Bundesliga side, FC Augsburg, from MLS team FC Dallas. He is just beginning his European career, which is off to an admittedly slow start, but he has lots of potential. Hopefully the USMNT will see some of the return on that potential and he will rise as their go-to number 9.
The other handful of Europe-based standouts are Tim Weah (winger for French club team Lille); Yunus Musah (winger and central midfielder for Spanish club team Valencia); Zack Steffen (back-up goalie for English Premier League team Manchester City); and Matt Turner (recently signed as a goalie for English Premier League team Arsenal). The rest of the roster is comprised mostly of MLS players and other Europe-based players, who will play important roles in the defense (Walker Zimmerman, DeAndre Yedlin, and Miles Robinson), in the midfield (Kellyn Acosta and Luca De La Torre), and up front as attackers (Jordan Pefok, Jordan Morris). Some, like Daryl Dike (English second tier team West Bromwich Albion) and Josh Sargent (English Premier League team Norwich City FC), also have the potential to make the final roster and, if they peak at the right time, to play a big role.
So there you have it. Soccer might not get a ton of exposure in the U.S., and therefore the rules and the standings can seem a little foreign and confusing to the casual observer. Hopefully you feel a little bit more informed and interested, and might even look in on a couple of the players above while they play for their clubs this summer, awaiting their turn on the World Cup stage.
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Feature image: Erik Drost via Flickr