The last time the United States men’s national team was set for a competitive soccer game against Trinidad and Tobago, it was viewed by many of those who follow the program — and possibly some inside — as a mere formality. That is not at all how that evening in autumn 2017 developed, as those who aren’t too traumatized to remember can explain.
A little more than a half-dozen years later, the appearance on the USMNT schedule of a two-game series against T&T in the CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinals is viewed by many of those who follow the program — but hopefully none inside — as rather an inconvenience. An entire FIFA international window spent on facing someone other than a world power can appear to be time misspent for Americans aching to see their side improve and ascend.
Has that much really changed in American soccer in such a short time, that even after the USMNT’s shocking 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10, 2017, a loss that prevented them for competing at a World Cup for the first time in three decades, which sent analyst and former national team player Taylor Twellman viral for his “What are we doing?” rant, which effectively ended the international careers of longtime stars Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore?
And if things have changed, what things, and how profoundly?
Max Bretos of Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass broadcasts noted the U.S. Soccer Federation “didn’t go crazy and spend on a big-name international coach.” Many in the fan base would prefer they had,but instead they brought on successful Columbus Crew coach and former national team player Gregg Berhalter. They also chose to invest in the “front office”, first hiring Earnie Stewart as the team’s general manager and, after he left for a job in Europe, bringing in England’s Matt Crocker as technical director.
Is it enough for the USMNT to approach T&T casually on Thursday in Austin and Monday in Port of Spain? Because this is not just the opportunity to advance in a tournament the U.S. won in 2021 and 2023. It’s also the qualifier for next summer’s Copa America tournament in the States, which will feature reigning World Cup champ Argentina and perpetual world power Brazil.
Well, that last question is the easiest to answer: Hell, no.
Not unless American soccer wants to repeat the agony of that night in Couva, when defender Omar Gonzales scored an own goal not even 20 minutes into the game to raise the possibility the USMNT — who needed only a draw to clinch qualification for Russia 2018 —might find a way to squander that opportunity, which was followed 20 minutes later by goalkeeper Tim Howard misjudging a floating shot that slipped into the corner of the net and put the Americans in a 2-0 hole from which they never recovered.
“What are we doing?” Twellman asked that night.
In the years since, it appears the most appropriate answer might be: better.
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When authors Steven G. Mandis and Sarah Parson Wolter put together the book, “What Happened to the USMNT” in 2021, one measurement employed to examine the proficiency of the national team player was an accounting of how many were employed in top-five European Leagues: England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
For that game against Trinidad & Tobago in 2017, the U.S. roster included just four such players, with 16 competing at the time in Major League Soccer. Now, a few of those were by choice: MLS teams offered exorbitant contracts to bring Dempsey, Altidore and Bradley back to the league. They were the exceptions, though.
The roster initially called by Berhalter to play these two games against T&T featured 15 players from top-5 leagues, and only defender Miles Robinson from MLS.
The USMNT evolved from a program that drew much of its talent from American college soccer to one more dependent on academies associated with professional teams. MLS has been a huge part of that, with such players as Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and the Aaronson brothers among those developed through the league’s system before making their moves to compete in Europe. It just took a while before the system began to produce an abundance of talent.
“It’s certainly the model that we see as delivering the best talent to top soccer nations around the world,” Jason Davis, co-host of the afternoon Wynalda Talks Football program on SiriusXM FC, told The Sporting News. “We have kids in academies. They get very, very serious at a very young age. And then when somebody comes along with a little bit of money or an opportunity to sign at a higher level, they do that.
“Christian Pulisic was certainly the first of a new wave, but then… everybody else.”
Over the past decade, MLS has not only increased the investment in, and efficacy of, its academy system but also has become more aggressive about pursuing young talent from other regions, primarily South American, and helping to launch them on toward European success. Miguel Almiron of Paraguay, who helped Atlanta United win an MLS Cup before moving on to England’s Newcastle United, is the most obvious example. Current Atlanta star Thiago Almada of World Cup champion Argentina is the most recent.
The presence of such players in the league helps elevate the competition for those academy products looking to eventually move to Europe and into the USMNT lineup.
“MLS has to get some credit, because they’ve kind of taken the reigns in developing the young players and identifying them,” Bretos said. “Man, they have a lot of work still to do. I truly believe the talent here can match the talent of some of the best countries in the world, except for maybe a Brazil or France.
“Clearly something happened with the league — and you can include the Canadian guys, with Alphonso Davies — that I saw a big difference from when the first MLS players being sold to now. There were better opportunities for those players. There was a pathway to money, or to success, they didn’t see before. And the European’s eyeballs were made aware. Every top league now has to include a staff that has its eye on American talent.
“The process of going from 15-year-old to an academy to a European club is much better defined, and everyone’s kind of on board.”
Going all the way back to the 1990s and such U.S. Soccer Hall of Famers as defender Thomas Dooley and forward Earnie Stewart, the attraction of players with multiple national-team options has been an important component of every success the USMNT has achieved.
Whereas most in the past, though, technically were eligible for other nations but chose the United States because it presented an opportunity to play in the World Cup rather than watch, the players who’ve been recruited lately are young, developing, often very talented but eager to be a part of this program.
It’s the part of current head coach Gregg Berhalter’s tenure that is least understood and appreciated by the loud social media critics that one Facebook voice labeled the “Berhaters”. He has fashioned a team culture that young talents such as Sergino Dest, Yunus Musah and Folarin Balogun want to join.
Jermaine Jones was a hero of the U.S. World Cup “Group of Death” escape in 2014 and may be Hall of Fame-bound himself, but he did not join the national team until he was 29 and had been capped only three times by his native Germany. Fabian Johnson was nearing his 24th birthday without a call-up to Germany.
Dest made his first appearance for the USMNT at 19. Musah was only 17. Balogun, possibly the forward the squad badly needed at the most recent World Cup, joined at 21. Ricardo Pepi, his most obvious competition for the striker job, chose the U.S. over Mexico at 18.
“We’ve always had dual nationals, but certainly Berhalter has turned that up to 11 with some of these guys,” Davis told TSN. “It has changed the complexion of the team. Whereas in 2017, we were just grinding in the same direction that we’d always been grinding … 2022 and 23 where we are now, because of the new generation it’s a completely different outlook, a different level of optimism.
“I know there are frustrated fans who don’t think we’re living up to the talent we have, we’re not maximizing the talent that we have. And the anti-Berhalter brigade is strong for that reason. And I understand and I sympathize with a lot of what they feel. But think it’s hard to argue that this feels like a new beginning for the U.S. men’s national team.
“And while nothing is guaranteed in the future, we have no reason to believe we won’t continue to send players to Europe, they won’t continue to work their way into top leagues, we won’t be able to recruit those players that have options internationally — because the U.S. program has that potential. It’s a saleable asset in many ways.”
For the USMNT, the tragedy of missing out on Russia 2018 — aside the opportunity squandered to achieve something in the tournament — is so many gifted young Americans would have gained experience and proceeded toward the next World Cup as veterans.
In addition to Pulisic, McKennie, Adams and left-back Jedi Robinson would have had a great shot to make their first World Cup appearances in Russia rather than Qatar four years later. The USMNT program has been working since to recover what was lost as a result.
After the men’s team began a revolution by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup and ignited soccer interest by succeeding in the home-field World Cup of 1994, the country produced a significant number of top talents in the next decade, notably career goal scoring leaders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, as well as versatile DeMarcus Beasley, defender Oguchi Onyewu and goalkeeper Tim Howard.