It's been more than two years since the U.S. men's national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It's been little more than a year since Gregg Berhalter took charge of the national team for the first time. The Americans' first crack at redemption will come this fall, when they begin qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
So with the failures of the 2018 cycle in the past and the hope of the 2022 cycle still on the horizon, where does the U.S. stand? Jeff Carlisle and Noah Davis answer that question by chronicling the state of the U.S. men's national team in four key areas as the Americans prepare to start on the path toward Qatar.
Is the player pool improving?
A thought experiment: How would the U.S. starting lineup fare against past editions? While there's no way to know for sure, using EA Sports' FIFA ratings can offer a bit of insight. Without further ado:
Today's starting XI: Zack Steffen (77); DeAndre Yedlin (76), John Brooks (79), Aaron Long (75), Tim Ream (72); Tyler Adams (76), Weston McKennie (81); Jordan Morris (78), Sebastian Lletget (71), Christian Pulisic (82); Jozy Altidore (76). Average rating: 77.
Starting XI vs. Ghana (June 16, 2014): Tim Howard (84); Fabian Johnson (73), Geoff Cameron (74), Matt Besler (69), DaMarcus Beasley (69); Alejandro Bedoya (72), Kyle Beckerman (74), Michael Bradley (81), Jermaine Jones (77); Jozy Altidore (77), Clint Dempsey (87). Average rating: 77.
Starting XI vs. England (June 12, 2010): Tim Howard (87); Steve Cherundolo (72), Jay DeMerit (73), Oguchi Onyewu (74), Carlos Bocanegra (74); Clint Dempsey (75), Michael Bradley (77), Ricardo Clark (70), Landon Donovan (85); Jozy Altidore (75), Robbie Findley (no rating). Average rating: 76.
That tells a story of consistency, although not one of outright improvement. Dig a little deeper and the story becomes more complicated. Christian Pulisic is the best American ever, full stop, end of discussion. If anything, he is perhaps underrated. According to AJ Swoboda at soccer consultancy 21st Club, the Chelsea winger's 2019 season was the only year during which he rated as a Champions League-level impact player. Furthermore, he's alone in that regard, at least in terms of American outfield players. (Tim Howard's 2012-13 campaign is the only other one approaching that elite level.)
More concerning, 21st Club's World Super League and player contribution models show the performance levels of American player might actually be dropping off.
Over the past half decade, the red, white and blue have boasted at least four players who produced Europa League-level quality:
2015: Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks
2016: Johnson, Brooks, Christian Pulisic, Timothy Chandler
2017: Brooks, Pulisic, Chandler, DeAndre Yedlin
2018: Brooks, Pulisic, Chandler, Yedlin
In 2019, however, the number dropped to just two (Yedlin and Brooks), although of course Pulisic disappeared from this group because he moved up rather than down. And while the count of American players starts to pick up at the next level of quality, akin to the second divisions of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, the story of decreasing numbers remains the same. "U.S. has held steady with an average of 34 players at this band of talent from 2015 through 2018, but the 2019 calendar year saw this number drop to 24," Swoboda said.
Add this all up and it's cause for concern, although there's cause for hope in the younger generations. The current camp features a wide range of players who are 22 and under, including Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, Mark McKenzie, Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, Brandon Servania, Jesus Ferreira and Ulysses Llanez. Add that to already established or hopeful players such as Sergino Dest, Miles Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Paxton Pomykal, Weston McKennie, Djordje Mihailovic, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Jonathan Amon and Tim Weah and a pretty picture starts to paint itself. Plus, the most recent U20 team featured emerging talents Chris Gloster, Chris Richards, Alex Mendez and Richard Ledezma, and 17-year-old Giovanni Reyna is just breaking through at Borussia Dortmund.
In the end, the U.S. doesn't need all of those players to reach their potential, but it does need a handful to do so, more than have made it in the past. The American program has more potential game-changing players than it ever has before. Right now, however, it remains to be seen whether anything will come of it or Berhalter will have to make do with a 77 average.
-- Noah Davis (@noahedavis)
Tab Ramos knows well that a successful manager is a product of his or her support system, even as he took the U.S. U20 national team to the quarterfinals of the FIFA U20 World Cup three times in a row.
"I'd like to fool myself into believing that the only reason we got results is because I'm a great coach," he told ESPN via telephone. "But the bottom line is that great players get results, so the identification is really the most important part of U.S. Soccer."
Yet Ramos is concerned over the direction the federation has taken. The USSF's talent identification program has undergone a restructuring in recent years. During much of Ramos' tenure, there were nine technical advisers spread out across the country covering club development, youth national team responsibilities and scouting. The scouting piece has now been broken off so that, under Tony Lepore, the USSF's director of boys talent ID, there are three full-time talent ID managers, one each in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. There are plans to add a fourth.
Underneath the talent ID advisers are around 90 "per diem" scouts who are given individual assignments that include watching a specific player or players or attending showcases and scouting events. Then there are the informal networks that include coaches and staff from MLS and amateur academies, as well as coaches in the Olympic Development Program and id2, the talent identification program used by US Club Soccer. There are comparable numbers on the girls' side. Lepore estimates that the per diem scouts receive a total of about 3,000 assignments per year.
The talent ID program begins with identifying 13-year-olds and in some cases 12-year-olds for the U14 national team. It's an age where the number of variables is vast, so Lepore says the pool of U14 players is "much bigger" than the pool of U20 players. The ultimate question is whether this is enough personnel in a nation of more than 300 million people spread across 3.8 million square miles.
"I think up until three years ago, we were heading in the right direction in terms of putting people in place to have them on the ground all over the country, people that you can trust, people that know what we're looking for," Ramos said. "And then they started to have all these cutbacks."
Lepore admitted that the network used to be bigger but said the USSF is intent on focusing on quality. "I would say that this 90 [per diem scouts] helps us cover ground in all the right places, and then we're always replacing or adding where we need to," he said.
The extent to which these scouts are diving into minority communities remains a hot topic. A USSF spokesperson said that two of the three talent ID managers speak Spanish. Of the 90 per diem scouts, the USSF says around 20 are either Spanish speakers or of Latino origin. When asked how many were African American, the USSF said it didn't have such data available.
That ability to connect with minority communities is vital, especially given the impact dual nationals can have on a national team program. Lepore estimates that there are 100 dual nationals in the U.S. pipeline born between 2001 and 2005. The decisions by Dest and Ferreira to represent the U.S. internationally are positives. But the episode involving former U20 international Jonathan Gonzalez, who ultimately decided to represent Mexico, still rankles, the implication being that the USSF didn't do enough to make him feel included.
"These kids have not been unidentified," said Brad Rothenberg, the co-founder of Alianza de Futbol, which holds scouting events in minority communities throughout the U.S. "U.S. Soccer simply doesn't have the resources in the marketplace, in the Latino community, to give these kids a feeling of inclusion."
The Dest and Ferreira cases hint that the USSF has learned its lesson in that it was more aggressive, left nothing to chance and identified prospects early.
"We can't promise anything when it comes to a men's national team, and that's not something I'm going to do because that's a short-lived story that might backfire on you," said USSF sporting director Earnie Stewart. "The most important part to me is that we can look each other in the eye after the fact and say that we've done everything about it."
-- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
Can Berhalter adjust his tactics?
From the beginning, Berhalter has had a plan. This was part of what piqued U.S. Soccer's interest, and one of the main reasons he got the job in the first place. The powers that be in Soccer House Chicago wanted the exact opposite of the "go out and play" Jurgen Klinsmann years. Berhalter's hiring was, in that sense, the right call, a way to reestablish coherence in a program that was rudderless and lost after the epic failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
During Berhalter's initial phase, the focus was on playing a specific way. "That was a big part of what the first year was about: introduction of new ideas and how Gregg and U.S. Soccer wants to play," said Josh Wolff, who worked as an assistant to Berhalter at the Columbus Crew and with the U.S. before taking a head-coaching job at Austin FC. "Understanding that you're introducing a lot of new players and young players."
That resulted in some, shall we say, interesting performances. Most notable was the 3-0 loss to Mexico when American center-backs Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson and Aaron Long, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, continued to play out of the back despite being overwhelmed and overmatched. The next match against a half-speed Uruguay was slightly better, all part of the learning process, yet the U.S. was too rigid and too inflexible too often in 2019.
A November match with Canada saw the Americans play differently in a 4-1 win. They played long when they needed to, resorting to that under pressure and keeping the quick passing out of the back for the appropriate time. It was, perhaps, a signal of progress and understanding. "[Berhalter] becomes very clear as to what's working and what's not working," Wolff said. "Now is about what direction do we need to go in to educate players and what will put us in the best position to go out and execute on game days?"
While American fans worried that Berhalter wouldn't adjust, the coach quietly showed flexibility. Look no further than his recent comments about Adams -- "We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as central midfielder." -- despite a promise last March that the New York Red Bulls product was a right-back. If 2020 and beyond is going to be a success, Berhalter will need to be more than willing to show he'll alter his plans.
-- Noah Davis
Is the development academy doing its job?
The past 10 years have witnessed some significant changes in U.S. player development. The advent of the USSF Development Academy (DA) in 2007 has raised standards in terms of coaching and practice-to-play ratio. There is now more of an emphasis on developing players via a 10-month program as opposed to focusing on the next result. Facilities have improved as well, especially with MLS investing millions of dollars in youth development.
"It's clear that the DA completely changed the landscape," Lepore said. "It's about the standards that they raised right away."
"I just see a lot of improvement," said FC Dallas manager Luchi Gonzalez, who has also worked in the club's academy. "I believe our youth club teams are representing their club, our league and the U.S. to a high level. You see improvement of our academies to compete with the Real Madrids, with the Monacos, with the River Plates, the Flamengos, even in South America and compete very well. And not just competing in the scoreline but competing in terms of concepts."
Some problems seem intractable. Pay to play remains a burning issue, even as the USSF awarded more than $1 million in DA scholarships for the 2019-20 season. Then there's pay to play's close cousin, finding transportation to play, which can also shut players with two working parents out of opportunities. Having more cost-free academies has certainly helped.
"My strong opinion is that MLS will save U.S. Soccer," Rothenberg said. "MLS and those free academies are opportunities where merit wins out because whether you're talking to the Fire or the Galaxy or Atlanta United, those guys want to develop the best talent regardless of race, regardless of whether or not they can pay."
The DA itself sparks plenty of debate. Stewart has said he wants "the best playing with the best against the best" and it's taken the form of a national league split up into regions. At the U18 and U19 level, the USSF DA has taken to seeding teams in separate divisions, which conspicuously looks set up to accommodate MLS academies -- which sources said had threatened to leave the DA due to substandard competition -- at the expense of their non-MLS brethren. There is near universal agreement among coaches that a season of 25-30 games isn't enough.
"I think the DA is absolutely the best league that will happen in this country," said Bernie James, the director of Crossfire Premier, a club based in Redmond, Washington. "But I think the people leading it are misguided. There's not enough games, and now our U19 team's closest game is 800 miles away because somehow they put us in a lower tier even though we beat everyone in the upper tier."
The travel costs are an issue as well. Gonzalez called the logistics and cost -- about $200,000 per year for two teams -- "insane" and suggested that DA clubs, especially for the lower age groups, might be better off looking for competition in their own backyards.
There is also the question of whether the efforts of the DA are actually leading to more first-team opportunities, at least in MLS. The relative ease with which green cards are procured, thus allowing players previously classified as internationals to become domestic, creates even more pressure.
"I look at our roster in general, there's very few Americans. Very few," said Ramos, who was appointed Houston Dynamo manager in October. "And not just young Americans but of any age. Obviously, the rules are you try to put together the best team you can. The green card rule in the league almost forces clubs to choose foreign players."
The DA is here for the foreseeable future, but it could use some tweaking.
-- Jeff Carlisle