A youthful USMNT enters its most exciting era ever with lofty 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, Nev. — The 2022 World Cup cycle began with a year of purgatory and then of stars. Gregg Berhalter would scribble them as he planned the future of the US men’s national team. They would go next to names like Gio Reyna on projected depth charts. Reyna is a USMNT mainstay today, a crown jewel within the most exciting generation in program history; but back in 2018, when Berhalter interviewed for the head coaching job, he was 15 years old.

He and others packed potential, but four and five years ago the USMNT’s future was uncertain and its present bleak. Berhalter would scan the player pool and do the initial depth charts, and “it was tough in the beginning, man,” he once told “The Gap & Christmas Show.” “It was hard to say, ‘OK, how do we get out of this?’”

That in a nutshell was the state of the program at this very stage a cycle ago. Nick Lima and Daniel Lovitz were regulars; Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes were borderline starters. Berhalter prepared for its first competitive matches, the 2019 Gold Cup, with pitiful losses to Jamaica and Venezuela.

All of this is context, notable recent history that puts nights like Sunday into perspective. Over 73 hours in Vegas last week, the USMNT bossed Mexico, then disposed of Canada and walked across champagne-coated floors into its most promising era ever.

Over the years there have been bursts of success and triumphant teams, but never has there been a collection of talent, both raw and refined, like this. It has blossomed over the past four years, almost completely phasing out MLS mainstays. There were only five non-MLS players on that 2019 Gold Cup roster. Now the USMNT’s crowded first-choice 11 – even without captain Tyler Adams – plays in top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

And development is underway, perhaps even accelerating. It was originally produced via US Soccer’s Development Academy, which helped produce the likes of Adams, Reyna and others. DA then changed to MLS NEXT, which has kept the production line running. The current crop of early 20-somethings “was a special group of players,” U.S. Soccer athletic director Matt Crocker said when he took his job in April, “but I’m already seeing more of those teams come through the youth systems here.”

Homegrown talent, more abundant than ever before, has been supplemented by bi-national recruits. And together they are already winning. The USMNT lifted only two trophies from 2008 to 2020; this group has already lifted three since. Even with an interim coach in charge, they comfortably cruised past Mexico and Canada. They were “very professional”, as Christian Pulisic said, a matter-of-fact statement about their current regional supremacy and their higher ambitions.

And they smolder with confidence that they can and will reach these high places. They look around their locker room and see a dozen reasons why. Moments after Folarin Balogun came off it Sunday night, he was asked if anything about his first two weeks with the USMNT had surprised him. After a pause to think and reflect, came the answer: “What surprised me the most was just the actual talent in this group.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 18: Folarin Balogun #20 takes the trophy after winning the CONCACAF Nations League Championship Final between USA and Canada at Allegiant Stadium on June 18, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo: Omar Vega/Getty Images)

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

He had already connected with players on a recruiting visit to Orlando in March; so to some extent, having committed himself to the US over England, he knew what he was getting into. But he was still blown away by the team’s collective youth.

“Sometimes when I ask the boys and they tell me they are 20, I can’t believe it,” Balogun said on Sunday. “I think there are so many players who will go on to have top careers.”

Many have already established themselves and participated in a WC. But the optimism is endless because Balogun is 21 years old and Reyna, Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi are still only 20. Even Pulisic, Adams and McKennie are still only 24; Tim Weah and Chris Richards are 23; Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest are 22.

“When I took over in 2018, I was coaching kids,” Berhalter said Friday. “Watching the development of this group, the individuals and the team, has been amazing.” And that made him think: “OK, what might the next three years look like?”

The thought, more than ever before, produces giddiness. The USMNT will participate in a Copa America on home soil next summer, perhaps as the third favorite behind Brazil and Argentina. From there, it has a bottomless well of resources to fuel its continued growth. It has a “fraternity”, a culture of self-maintenance that will highlight talent. And the World Cup in 2026 has to feed strange dreams.

Or at least they used to be outlandish – just a few years ago. Now Balogun arrives and is asked about 2026, voicing an increasingly common thought: “It would be stupid, I think, to go into a tournament and not try to win it.”

Which is not to say they will, of course. But the current trajectory is irresistibly alluring.

“If we continue to develop the way we have,” Berhalter said Friday, and “if this group continues to go where we think they can go, the sky’s the limit.”

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