Why the USMNT’s road to the World Cup looks clear after years of toil

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Photograph: Omar Vega/Getty Images

There are two versions of the US men’s national team, depending who you ask.

There’s the USMNT that exists in the consciousness of those who have paid little attention to the team since October 2017, when they failed to qualify for the World Cup. That USMNT is an embarrassment, and the image wasn’t helped when a hybrid Olympic team failed to qualify for Tokyo this year.

But for fans who have stuck with the USMNT all along there is genuine optimism that the US men could be embarking on their golden era. There’s a compelling mix of tangible results and unrealized potential that has fostered a feeling this USMNT may reach new heights.

While the USMNT are realistically still closer to missing a World Cup than winning one, the feeling around the group is that they can qualify convincingly for Qatar 2022 and then loftier ambitions can come later. So, as the USMNT get ready to face El Salvador in the final round of World Cup qualifiers, why does it feel so different this time?

Unprecedented talent

There was a time when the pinnacle of optimism for USMNT fans was the moves of Clint Dempsey to Tottenham Hotspur and Michael Bradley to Roma. They were big clubs in top leagues, to be sure, but Roma have won a single league title in the past 20 years and Spurs have won none.

Now consider Christian Pulisic winning the Champions League with Chelsea, Weston McKennie’s permanent move to Juventus, or Sergiño Dest’s transfer last year to become the first American to play for Barcelona. That’s only the beginning. The USMNT have had players competing in Europe before, but never for such powerhouse clubs and never so many of them.

Even better, they play actual minutes, like 18-year-old Gio Reyna who scored for Borussia Dortmund over the weekend. Cynics accuse European clubs of signing US internationals for their marketing potential or their lower cost based on perceptions of US footballers – but that can’t explain why so many Americans are contributing significant minutes for top-tier clubs. The talent is clearly there.

Of the group that failed in 2017 none, aside from Pulisic, were playing for what could be considered a top European club, and 70% of the roster came from MLS. This roster is 60% based in Europe, and it’s worth noting that MLS has improved significantly in the last four years too.

Unprecedented depth

Players such as Sergino Dest have established themselves at top European clubsPlayers such as Sergino Dest have established themselves at top European clubs

Players such as Sergiño Dest have established themselves at top European clubs. Photograph: Pressinphoto/REX/Shutterstock

When the USMNT won both the Concacaf Nations League and the Gold Cup back-to-back this summer, they did so with 42 different players on the rosters across both tournaments. That was partly because coach Gregg Berhalter didn’t want to burn out his top stars, but also because he felt the USMNT had a lot of bubble players capable of stepping up.

Step up, they did. In a Gold Cup final in front of a mostly pro-Mexico crowd against what was a strong EL Tri team, a US B side more than held their own, winning in extra time and emphatically ushering in a new era of American soccer.

That means that for all the talent that will be part of the USMNT’s start to 2022 World Cup qualifying, there’s even more that didn’t make it.

Some fans wanted to see 20-year-old forward Matthew Hoppe, who just completed a move to La Liga’s Mallorca, or 21-year-old Nicholas Gioacchini who is on loan at Montpellier from Caen, but they have time. Defender Sam Vines, who just joined Royal Antwerp, and 19-year-old midfielder Gianluca Busio, who recently signed for Venezia, can establish themselves as future choices. The list goes one.

A new mentality and culture

When this version of the USMNT hit their full stride, they are something they haven’t been for a while: fun.

Oozing with confidence and camaraderie to pull off flicks and dummies, it’s a swagger that hasn’t felt familiar since the heyday of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. But it’s not just one or two standout players doing it now – just about everyone on the field is combining and finding joy in playing together.

It’s not always like that, of course. That’s especially true in Concacaf, where success is often a grind. But this USMNT team have shown a tenacity that has been absent in years past.

Fans who watched the USMNT fail in 2017 will never forget how, with a spot at the World Cup on the line, some players looked almost uninvested. That’s in sharp contrast to the USMNT that beat Mexico in the Nations League final by coming back from a goal deficit twice to win 3-2. Berhalter and the players have talked plenty about building a new culture in the program, and the early returns are positive.

Coaching confidence

When Berhalter took over after a coaching search that took too long and lacked the candidates fans and pundits wanted, there was immediate skepticism. A coach who built a rigid system in MLS with Columbus Crew could never implement the same vision for a national team. The USMNT’s first loss to Canada in 34 years only proved it.

But then something happened – the players started to look more comfortable doing what Berhalter wanted and, more importantly, Berhalter started to adjust in the right ways as well. He clearly still wants the USMNT to build out from the back and value possession, but he has shown a willingness to be more pragmatic too.

To be fair, Berhalter hasn’t truly been tested yet. Winning the Nations League and the Gold Cup are nice, but those trophies don’t really matter and everyone knows it. Qualifying for the World Cup is everything for Berhalter now.

A key difference this time is that, right or wrong, it will be clear what Berhalter is trying to do. While Bruce Arena barely had a chance to clean up the mess Jürgen Klinsmann started, Klinsmann often experimented endlessly without any takeaways from game to game and players often looked frustrated and confused.

This USMNT, in stark contrast, seem to understand Berhalter and like playing for him – at least for now.