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USMNT's golden generation focus on "progress"

Max Merrill
December 3, 2022

The US Men’s National Team failed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup. But there's a belief that this young team has taken an important step in their development ahead of hosting the tournament in 2026.

USMNT crash out against the Netherlands
Gregg Berhalter will look to build on the USMNT's progress is Qatar as they get set to host the World Cup in 2026Image: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

While this wasn't the US Men's National Team's deepest run at a World Cup, this is the most accomplished they have looked on the global stage.

This golden generation nevertheless fell short against the Netherlands in the last-16 as they suffered a 3-1 loss. "You can sit here and point out so many areas of our game that need improvement to be a top, top team," 23-year-old captain Tyler Adams told DW after the match.

"But from three years ago until now the progress we've made is unbelievable. Three years ago if we'd play against Holland you'd say, 5-0. Today we come out and compete and made it difficult for them."  

Berhalter has indeed turned the side that missed out on the 2018 World Cup into a different animal. After an accomplished group stage, the US showed promise in the last-16. Inside five minutes, Christian Pulisic broke in behind with the travelling fans roaring on their charges at the near sold-out Khalifa International stadium.

But the nation’s star player, dubbed "Captain America", spurned a golden opportunity that could have written a different destiny for the game. However, their progress in Qatar has laid an important foundation as they begin gearing up to host the World Cup in 2026. 

Problem area

While they boast plenty of youthful quality in midfield and wide attacking positions, the US still lack a potent number nine. Coach Berhalter's decision to leave Union Berlin's free-scoring Jordan Pefok out of the squad entirely raised eyebrows on another night they lacked box presence and missed chances.

Tyler Adams disappointed against the Netherlands
Leeds' midfielder Tyler Adams was the youngest captain at the World Cup, aged just 23.Image: Martin Meissner/AP Photo/picture alliance

The same goes for handing FC Dallas's Jesus Ferreira his World Cup debut to lead the line in such a crucial match against the Netherlands. Berhalter quickly saw the error of his ways, subbing him off at half time for Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, another player bafflingly overlooked by the 49-year-old no matter his recent injury record.

Adams though, hasn't lost faith. "You can see the progress the team has made in the past three years under coach Berhalter. His ideas and his philosophy have worked really well and you can see how we adapted in games, how we pressure opponents. I don't think going into this tournament teams knew much about us. Now you can see that teams don't want to play against us because we make it physical, we make it difficult.

"We still have ways to go. We can be happy with our performance but we didn't come to make it to the round of 16. We want to be a team that comes into this and we're no longer underdogs, where people say the US has a real chance to win this thing."

Changing the narrative

The underdog tag is one which this team is desperate to shed with goalkeeper Matt Turner saying that the team's "mission is to change the way people view footballers from America" and remove the "stigma about American players".

USMNT fan in Qatar
The USMNT will look to ride a self-generated wave of hype when the host the World Cup in 2026Image: Tom Weller/dpa/picture alliance

Nowadays, the men’s national team is far less often the butt of a bad joke. Their starting eleven boasts players plying their trade for European giants like Juventus, Chelsea, Milan, and Dortmund. 

In four years time, most of these starting players will still form key parts of the squad when the United States co-hosts the 2026 World Cup along with Canada and Mexico. 35-year-old center-back Tim Ream will surely no longer be there, but his partner in the heart of defence Walker Zimmermann could be one of the few over the age of 27 currently that retains his place. 

"It’s a great experience and a great building block but it’s hard when the World Cup is only every four years," he said after the Netherlands' defeat. "We thought we could go toe-to-toe with anyone at this tournament. This is a group of selfless individuals who put the team first. That's what has made this tournament so fun for us."

But fun won't cut it on home soil in 2026, as expectations grow and the players themselves point to the next step in their team’s development. "The way we played surprised a lot of people but it didn't surprise us," says Matt Turner. "This is the way we expect to play, we expect to compete with the elite teams in international football."

The USMNT leave Qatar a more respected and unwanted opponent. But while the grit, energy and structure displayed by Berhalter's side is impressive, he will now be tasked with turning them into a footballing force to be reckoned with and one capable of sweeping up a nation in 2026.

Edited by James Thorogood