Shaking off the embarrassment of failing to qualify in 2018, the United States Men’s Soccer Team puts an exclamation on what has already been an outstanding 2022.
With a 3rd place finish in their group and a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica on Wednesday, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) has officially solidified their spot in the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar this November. But to some, this qualification calls for more of a sigh of relief than it does celebration.
To bring back the painful memories briefly, the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after an abysmal 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. At the time this loss felt like rock bottom for the fans and the media. While our team has not always been great, 2018 would be the first time the USMNT missed the World Cup since 1986.
In my daily routine of reading sports news this morning, I noticed something pretty peculiar, but not outlandish. I can confidently say back in 2018 there was a lot more media coverage surrounding our soccer team after they failed to qualify, than there has been today after making it into this year’s tournament. Obviously, negative press sells, but that is not my point. People from all corners of sports media had a field day with a team that they knew nothing about. Guys like Colin Cowherd and Mike Florio, who primarily talk football, suddenly became soccer pundits overnight.
For those of us who have watched this team and program closely for the last decade or so, there was always a sense of optimism even after such an embarrassment. Personally speaking, I thought 2018 would be the wake up call that we needed, and so far that has proved to be somewhat true.
A Mass Exodus
In 2008, Major League Soccer (MLS) introduced a homegrown player rule, which basically incentivized teams to promote players from within their academy. A lot of this ‘homegrown talent’ came from American colleges or universities, which is traditionally not a beneficial path to take if you want to become an international star. Most players come out of college at 22 years old, whereas teams like Borussia Dortmund in Germany have given first team debuts to players like Youssoufa Moukoko at 16 years old.
The casual American sports fan always called for our talent to be cultivated from the States, but international soccers fans always knew deep down that our success would come from sending our players overseas. In the 2014 World Cup, after the USMNT made the Round of 16 and were then knocked out by a very good Belgium team, the casual American sports fans looked to be correct. At the time, some of our best players such as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan were all playing in the MLS.
So, the overall mood about American soccer in 2014 was quite positive. Our overall goal was to make the knockout stage and we had accomplished that. Conversations were starting to be had about moving our players to Europe, but they did not have much ground.
Fast forward to 2018, where we all know what happened, and the overseas truthers finally got their spotlight. This time, the media was on their side. For weeks following the Trinidad and Tobago loss, the displeasure with how our talent is developed got louder and louder. The majority of people finally started to agree that players needed to kick off their careers in Europe.
The Great American melting pot
We’re back in 2022 finally, and I think I can say this has been the best year of American soccer I have seen in my life. I am only 22 years old, so I recognize that the sample size is not that large. Also, I am including the Summer of 2021 in this as well. With trophies coming from the CONCACAF Nations League and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States has finally risen to a level that many had predicted would only come a few more years down the road. What makes these victories even more satisfying, is that both finals were won against Mexico, our rival. Tournaments aside, obviously the crowning achievement is getting back into the World Cup.
So what has changed since 2018 with our team? Just about everything. Though it was a defeat last night, our starting lineup contained players that play their club ball in England, Spain, Germany, and France. Not just for any old teams either, but Champions League winners Chelsea, Premier League winners Manchester City, Ligue 1 (France) winners Lille, and Bundesliga (Germany) powerhouse RB Leipzig. Not to mention some players that did not play last night, but are a part of giant clubs such as Juventus and FC Barcelona. Sending our talent overseas has already been exponentially beneficial, and there are no signs of slowing down.
The United States Men’s National Team is in a better spot now than even the most optimistic fans could have dreamed in 2018. With an average age of 24 years old throughout the entire squad, it’s not crazy to say that this is only the beginning. For now, we can celebrate qualifying for the 2022 Fifa World Cup, but I think bigger things lie ahead.
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