A young USMNT enters his most exciting era ever with high ambitions


Gio Reyna lifts the trophy as USMNT players celebrate winning the CONCACAF Nations League title at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas. (Photo by John Todd/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

PARADISE, Nevada — The 2022 World Cup cycle began with a year of purgatory and then asterisks. Gregg Berhalter scrawled them while making plans for the future of the US men’s national team. They would stand alongside names like Gio Reyna on projected depth maps. Today, Reyna is a USMNT protagonist, a crown jewel of the most exciting generation in program history; But when Berhalter applied for the position as head coach in 2018, he was 15 years old.

He and others had potential, but four and five years ago the USMNT’s future was uncertain and its present bleak. Berhalter sifted through the player pool and created the first depth charts, and “it was tough at first, man,” he once told The Gab & Juls Show. “It was hard to say, ‘Okay, how are we going to get out of this?'”

In short, that was the state of the program at this point before a cycle. Nick Lima and Daniel Lovitz were regulars; Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes were borderline starters. Berhalter prepared for his first competitive games, the 2019 Gold Cup, with miserable losses to Jamaica and Venezuela.

Well, all of that is context, a remarkably recent history that puts nights like Sunday in perspective. Last week in Las Vegas, the USMNT dominated Mexico for 73 hours, then defeated Canada and raced across champagne-covered floors into their most auspicious era ever.

There have been spurts of success and winning teams over the years, but never before has there been a collection of talent, both raw and refined, quite like this. It has enjoyed a resurgence in the last four years, almost entirely supplanting the main MLS pillars. There were only five non-MLS players in the 2019 Gold Cup roster. Meanwhile, the USMNT’s overcrowded first-choice eleven – even without captain Tyler Adams – plays in the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

And the development continues, perhaps even accelerating. It was originally made by the US Soccer Development Academy, which helped produce players like Adams, Reyna, and others. The DA then essentially morphed into MLS NEXT, which kept the production line going. The current cohort of early-20s “was a special group of players,” said Matt Crocker, US Soccer’s athletic director when he took the job in April, “but I’m already seeing more of these teams moving through the youth systems here. “

The native talent, which is more plentiful than ever, has been augmented by dual nationality recruits. And together they are already winning. The USMNT has only won two trophies from 2008 to 2020; This group has since collected three already. Even under the guidance of an interim coach, they easily got past Mexico and Canada. They were “very professional,” as Christian Pulisic said, a matter-of-fact statement of their current regional supremacy and higher aspirations.

And they’re bubbling with confidence that they can and will achieve those lofty goals. They look around their dressing room and discover a dozen reasons why. Shortly after Folarin Balogun emerged from it Sunday night, he was asked if anything surprised him about his first two weeks with USMNT. After a pause for thought and reflection, the response came: “What surprised me the most was simply the actual talent of this group.”

Folarin Balogun accepts the trophy after winning the CONCACAF Nations League title in Las Vegas on June 18, 2023. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

He had already contacted players during a recruitment visit to Orlando in March; So, having settled on the US rather than England, he sort of knew what he was getting himself into. But he was still blown away by the collective youth of the team.

“Sometimes when I ask the guys and they tell me they’re 20, I can’t believe it,” Balogun said Sunday. “I think there are so many players who will have a top career.”

Many have already established themselves and played in a world championship. But the optimism knows no bounds, as Balogun is 21 and Reyna, Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi are only 20. Even Pulisic, Adams and McKennie are only 24; Tim Weah and Chris Richards are 23; Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest are 22.

“When I took office in 2018, I coached children,” Berhalter said on Friday. “Seeing the development of this group, the individuals and the team has been amazing.” And it got him thinking: “Okay, what could the next three years look like?”

The thought makes you dizzy more than ever. The USMNT will take part in the Copa America on home soil next summer, perhaps as the third favorite player behind Brazil and Argentina. From there, the company has inexhaustible resources to drive its continued growth. There is a “brotherhood,” a self-sustaining culture that highlights talent. And the 2026 World Cup is feeding offbeat dreams.

At least they used to be – just a few years ago – wrong. Here comes Balogun, being asked about 2026, and voicing an increasingly common thought: “I think it’s stupid to go into a tournament without trying to win it.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean they will. But the current development is irresistibly tempting.

“If we continue to develop the way we have,” Berhalter said Friday, and “if this group continues to go where we believe it can go, there is no limit.”

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