Joseph Dodson, Contributing Writer
On June 8, 2017, the U.S. men’s national team was served a much-needed wake-up call. After losing to Trinidad & Tobago, a CONCACAF nonfactor, the USMNT’s World Cup dream was over for another four years.
Fortunately, thanks to a young core of confident, skilled players who are hitting their strides, things are looking up. But it may take longer than expected. The men’s national team’s history can be divided by the star players every World Cup cycle, and in the 2014-2017 era, the men’s national team had its worst cycle of players in recent memory.
In 2015, Jürgen Klinsmann, then coach of the U.S. team, selected Michael Bradley as the permanent captain. This was the first in a line of mistakes that would result in a step backward as an institution.
Bradley had a great start to his national career, playing 151 games for the United States and scoring 17 goals from the midfield position. In 2010, he scored two goals to defeat Mexico in a World Cup qualifying match. He started every game in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cup.
After the 2014 World Cup, Bradley played his first full season in Major League Soccer after moving to Toronto FC from the Italian super club, Roma. Bradley’s game changed after the move to MLS; he began playing more conservatively in his older age.
Many fans let out a collective groan when Bradley received the ball in international games because he always turned back immediately to his defense and laid off some safe pass. Sometimes he used his passing ability to send a long ball up to the offense, but these passes became sparse.
Passing back to the defense is not inherently bad, but when it’s your first thought as a player, you’re slowing down the team. This negative attitude from the captain infected the whole squad. Between the years of Landon Donovan and now Christian Pulisic, the men’s team hit a slump, and any excitement was gone.
Jozy Altidore has always been my least favorite player on the national team. Never have I seen such a young player display such a lack of effort on offense. Altidore has never scored a World Cup goal, and he spends the majority of a game walking from an offside position, slowly over to an onside position.
Altidore’s scoring is worthy of praise — the forward has scored 42 international goals in 115 games. His style of play can be described as poaching; he rarely comes back to help with defense and spends most of the game right outside of the opponent’s goal box. This style has not worked for him in international play in recent years, and he’s fallen out of favor with the current head coach, Greg Berhalter.
The U.S.’ young core has already proven they play well together in games like their 7-0 win against Cuba. Bradley and Altidore have done great things for U.S. soccer, but with the World Cup qualifiers around the corner, it’s time for youth.
The youth movement is led by Pulisic; the midfielder has scored 14 goals in 34 games for the U.S., but that is hardly his greatest contribution. Pulisic was the only beacon of hope that night in Trinidad and Tobago. Although he didn’t play his best game of qualifiers, he was the silver lining to the team’s fans because we knew he would be in his prime by the time the next cycle came around.
Two years later, Pulisic just keeps getting better. While some U.S. internationals are scoring in the MLS, Pulisic has been scoring in the Champions League and Premier League. Unlike most Americans who play for European clubs, Pulisic is not a role player, he’s a star.
In six Premier League games, Pulisic has logged five goals and two assists for Chelsea FC. On Nov. 8, 2018, Pulisic became the youngest captain in the national team’s history at age 20.
Pulisic has not been alone in his success. Forward Jordan Morris and midfielder Weston McKennie have added to this era of excitement for U.S. fans. McKennie has already played 56 games for the German top division club, Schalke 04. In his 18 games with the U.S., he has scored six goals from a holding midfielder position.
McKennie and Pulisic play with confidence for the U.S. Unlike MLS players, most international games for the two could be considered a break from the tough competition they face in Europe.
Morris has given Berhalter an athletic offensive option — the former NCAA D-I Player of the Year has had a rockier start due to injury. Morris scored his first international goal against rival opponent Mexico in a friendly. The first thing you notice about Morris is his speed and eye for goals. In 2017 he scored the game-winner in the CONCACAF Gold Cup finals against Jamaica. On Friday he scored against Canada in 4-1 win.
The youth movement isn’t perfect. The U.S has lost some big games with Pulisc and McKennie at the helm but development isn’t always measured in wins. For years, the U.S. has tried to create an identity with players such as Bradley and Altidore. With players like Pulisic and McKennie, we have swagger, and more importantly, we have superstars in the making.
Other players in the youth movement worth mentioning are Newcastle defender DeAndre Yedlin, Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen and D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola. This group is solid and eager to fix the mistakes of their predecessors.
The U.S. will have talented strikers to choose from for the first time since the Clint Dempsey era with 19-year-old Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent. The U.S. has won the battle for Dutch-born Ajax defender Sergino Dest, who chose to play with the U.S. over his home country of the Netherlands.
The team is taking a step in the right direction. Last month’s team that beat Cuba 7-0 was the youngest U.S. team ever with an average age of 24. Although they suffered a setback in a loss to Canada 2-0, they rectified that mistake with a decisive 4-1 victory on Nov. 15 against Canada.
The future is bright, and fans are ready to give the younger players every possible chance they can — even if that means leaving some veterans at home.