“We can finally be giants”

DOHA, Qatar — For the first few minutes of the next four years, frustration paralyzed Tyler Adams. He was knocked to the ground here at the Khalifa International Stadium shortly after the final whistle shattered his World Cup dreams. It forced him to crouch as the Netherlands celebrated a 3-1 victory over his US team. It ended up pulling him all the way to the grass.

But as he sat there, head bowed, amidst somber gazes and heartfelt condolences, his thoughts turned to the future, his mood changed.

“It’s probably the first time in a long time that people are saying, ‘Wow, there’s something special about this team,'” Adams thought, speaking later about the U.S. men’s national team and the public’s perception of it. “Potential is just potential, but we can see that it can be a good thing if we maximize it in the right way.”

Still, he spoke, as he did in 2014 and 2010 and in 1994, after a familiar defeat led to a familiar World Cup result, a round of 16 exit. So I asked Adams: Why is this different?

“Well, I mean, I think you can make your own assessment,” he said. He is right.

“Compared to past teams, the players on our team — I wasn’t on the 2010 team, I wasn’t on the 2014 team, so I can’t sit here and judge the potential of those teams,” he continued. “But, I mean, being the second youngest team at the World Cup and achieving the same result, it speaks for itself.”

In fact, their four starting XIs are the youngest four in this World Cup. They’re full of still-rising stars who have surpassed many of their USMNT predecessors. Adams, perhaps out of respect for those who came before him, wouldn’t say his team was more talented than theirs. But it apparently does.

However, its current talent isn’t the only reason for unprecedented optimism. Talent, as evidenced by the vast majority of countries that play football, tends to reach advanced levels through random ebbs and flows.

The hope for American soccer, however, is that this generation is not just a golden generation poised to shine on home soil in 2026; it is the beginning of a carefully crafted trend and a sign of better times to come.

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Round of 16 - Netherlands vs USA - Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar - 03 December 2022 US players applaud fans after the game as the US is eliminated from the World Cup REUTERS/ Greetings from Annegret

The U.S. players applaud after the game as the U.S. was eliminated from the World Cup. (Reuters/Annegret Hilse)

USMNT still in progress

The seeds of change and the 2022 USMNT were planted way back in the mid-2000s, when those running US Soccer were basically aware of their youth development model, as former US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports , “totally subverted”

This is backward. Children play more than they practice and actually take more tests than classes. In a way, Chris Hayden, the longtime FC Dallas youth director, told Yahoo Sports, “We develop players a little bit by accident.”

So in 2007, as Major League Soccer increased its investment in youth programs, the U.S. Soccer Association launched its controversial Developmental Academy. As we all know, the DA is a national league that pits the best teenage boys in America against each other on a weekly basis. It also calls for 3, then 4 training sessions per week. It broke out early, angered Feather and outright angered some youth football executives across the country. But it overhauled a “broken” system, especially after it was expanded over the past decade, and it’s starting to pay off.

It helped produce 17 of the 26 players on this year’s World Cup roster, including Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Brendon Aaronson. US Soccer shut it down in 2020, but by then, MLS was poised to take control of the men’s soccer pyramid. The 29 clubs in the professional league are now investing more than $100 million a year in developing homegrown players. They maintain the reserves, bridge the youth-to-pro gap, and provide security for their first team — and, by extension, the U.S. men’s national team.

They are increasingly attracting European scouts and sending youngsters to top European clubs.There are flaws, of course there are many flaws, but “quality [American] Jochen Sauer, president of Bayern Munich’s academy, told Yahoo Sports in 2018 that the number of players had increased significantly over the past five or ten years. Many believe the numbers have continued to rise since then and that the country’s development system is “only scratching the surface”.

By extension, so is USMNT. Its 2022 World Cup ended on schedule, but several people interviewed for pre-tournament youth development stories cautioned against obsessing over four games. Many believe better evidence will emerge four years later.

“We will see the final result in five to 10 years,” said Sebastian Dremmler, another Bayern youth coach. “[In 2026], you will have a very strong national team. “

Weston McKenney (far right) comforts midfielder Tyler Adams (4) after the United States lost to the Netherlands in their World Cup round of 16 match at the Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 12.  3rd, 2022, Al Rain, Qatar.  (Yukihito Taguchi - USA TODAY Sports)

Weston McKenney (far right) comforts midfielder Tyler Adams (4) after the United States lost to the Netherlands in their World Cup round of 16 match at the Khalifa International Stadium on Dec. 12. 3rd, 2022, Al Rain, Qatar. (Yukihito Taguchi – USA TODAY Sports)

“The American Public Should Be Optimistic”

With gloomy faces coming out of Khalifa on Saturday night, the 2026 World Cup feels a long way off. Renner declined to be interviewed. Pulisic’s voice was thin and pained. Tim Ream was thrilled as he realized that, unlike many of his teammates, he was 35 years old and likely would never have the chance to step on this stage again.

But beneath the sombre face is perspective.

“The future is bright,” Ream said selflessly. “I mean, this core group — and when I say core group, I mean those 22, 23, 24-year-olds who haven’t even hit their prime yet — the potential to go into the next cycle is huge. The program is well run by these guys. Great characters. Great players. Great guys.  … I’m excited for what they’re going to be able to do on the world stage.

DeAndre Yedlin, a retainer on the 2014 team, said when asked if that felt like a step forward or a step sideways: “I think it’s a step forward. step.”

Matt Turner said to himself, “there’s huge potential, if you don’t see it” – well, he doesn’t know what to tell you. “We played England, we played Holland and we gave both teams a very difficult time.”

Perhaps most importantly, they do so proactively rather than reactively. They want the ball. When the opponent wins it, they want to get it back. They played against England physically and tactically. They became a top 10 team in the world, the Netherlands, basically decided that their best hope of beating the US was to give up possession and counterattack.

“They should have faith in the fact that we can play with anyone in the world the way we want,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s what matters.”

This does not mean that the USMNT has proficiency in Dutch or English. There was still a gap in quality in Saturday night’s decisive moment.

But quality improves with experience and age. The youth system should offer more.

“Filing the youngest squad in four consecutive World Cups and still being able to play like we did – the American public should be optimistic,” Berhalter said.

As McKenney reiterated Saturday night, he and his players as a collective set out to “change the way the world thinks about American football” four years ago. “I think we’ve done our part in this World Cup,” McKenney said. Berhalter thinks they “partially achieved” it.

But the Holy Grail has been changing the way Americans think about U.S. men’s soccer. They almost only do it by winning. Here in Qatar, although they only won once, they proved that they will win more someday.

“I think this game really brought back a lot of confidence and respect for American football and our national football,” McKenney said. “I think we’ve shown that we can eventually be giants. But I think we’re definitely on the way.”

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