After their 2-1 loss to Honduras on March 28, the United States Men’s National Soccer team (USMNT) saw their Olympic hopes slip away. With the loss, the team was ousted in the semifinals of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football’s (CONCACAF) elimination-style tournament, falling just one win short of clinching a spot on the Olympic field.
At first glance, the team’s failure to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics (which were rescheduled to summer 2021 due to the pandemic) is a part of a recent trend of the team’s lacking success. The USMNT hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since Beijing 2008 and famously lost to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 in the last game of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, ending their bid for another run into the knockout stages of the world’s biggest tournament. That loss has haunted them for the last four years, and so, for many disgruntled American sports fans, the March 28 loss was an expected, but unwelcome outcome.
However, despite the disappointment of another USMNT absence in the Olympics , there’s a reason for hope. Olympic rules dictate that only players under the age of 23 can participate in Olympic competition, including any qualifying games. (This rule only applies to men’s soccer.) But this means that the team that failed to qualify for the Olympic Games was not the team that fans are used to seeing out on the field. All of the USMNT’s most well-known and experienced veterans, like defender Deandre Yedlin (27 years old) and goalkeeper Zach Steffan (26 years old), were not available for selection to the team that faced the Olympic Qualifying gauntlet.
Additionally, this year’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament was played at the same time as a set of senior team international friendlies that were played across the pond on European soil. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a dealbreaker for most of the under-23 teams in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship, it was very likely the main contributor the USMNT’s failure to qualify.
To understand why, look to the aftermath of that devastating 2018 World Cup Qualifying loss. For the heads of the U.S. Soccer Federation, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After that game, the USMNT moved into a new era, with then-manager Bruce Arena resigning from his position, and aging stars like U.S. legends Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey ending their international careers. The team’s rebuilding process culminated in the hiring of a new manager, Gregg Berhalter, after a year-long search. He aimed to jumpstart the team’s success by phasing out the aging veterans that made up the majority of Arena’s roster and bringing in young talent to replace them, many of whom were playing in leagues across Europe.
Come 2021, many of the teams brightest stars, including 22-year-old Christian Pulisic, 22-year-old Weston McKennie, 20-year-old Sergiño Dest and 18-year-old Giovanni Reyna, were all brought into the player pool after Berhalter’s hiring and are currently under the age of 23. So, these players would qualify to play in the Olympics had the U.S. team made it there. However, many of these players, despite being the right age, were instead called into the senior team by Berhalter for the aforementioned friendlies, and so were unavailable for Olympic Qualifying. This meant that the team that the U.S. could have fielded for the Olympics, had they qualified, would have had an amazing chance at success; but without these players in the fold for qualifying, the U.S. coaching staff was left without the starpower they needed to win in big moments, like the match against Honduras.
While the Olympic Qualifying matches didn’t end the way that anyone had hoped, the USMNT’s senior side, whose most recent roster includes most of the young stars mentioned above, has been on a tear. As of now, they have won three straight games to start the year, including a 4-1 win over CONCACAF foe Jamaica and a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland, which was the team’s first on European soil since 2015. American soccer is on the up and up, and it has put the world on notice.
This renaissance in American soccer has been due to the internationally-recognized success of young players like Pulisic and McKennie, whose stellar play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe have drawn praise. At first, Pulisic, who arrived at Chelsea in August 2019 for an American record $73 million fee, received mixed reactions from fans. After a slow start and a season-ending injury, Pulisic came back after the Covid-19 season restart with a vengeance, scoring early and often when he started on the field, and changing the shape of games for the better when he came off the bench. A hamstring injury he suffered in Chelsea’s loss to West Bromwich Albion on April 3 has hobbled him for the time being, but his play has left Chelsea fans clamoring for more, and with good reason.
McKennie has enjoyed similar success at Juventus, where he recently became the second youngest American to make 100 appearances in Europe’s big four leagues. He arrived at the club on loan in the summer of 2020, where he immediately made an impact, regularly contributing goals and assists to Juventus’ stars, like Cristiano Ronaldo. One highlight of his short spell at Juventus was his beautiful Champions League goal versus Barcelona, which received praise from fans, players and managers around the world. His play has been so outstanding that Juventus recently triggered the permanent transfer option on his loan deal, keeping him at the club until 2025.
This type of play has led to a run of American players gaining recognition on the world stage, with clubs around the world expressing interest in the new generation of up-and-comers. This past summer, more Americans moved to European clubs than ever before, with clubs under U.S. Soccer transferring 79 players abroad, the fourth most in the world in this January’s transfer window. Some of the biggest deals included members of Berhalter’s roster for the most recent friendlies, including defenders Chris Richards (AS Roma) and Mark McKenzie (Genk), midfielder Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg) and forward Daryl Dike (Barnsley), who all traded MLS clubs for European ones during this transfer window. McKenzie and Aaronson were moved for about $6.5 million each, with the possibility those numbers rising due to incentives, while Richards and Dike were two of the biggest loan moves of the winter transfer window, with both players’ new clubs having the option to make their transfers permanent come this summer. And, there’s even more reason for hope for American soccer. These record numbers don’t account for Dest and McKennie’s moves to Barcelona and Juventus respectively in August of last year, which were two of the biggest of the summer.
All in all, USMNT fans have much to be excited about in the lead up to this summer’s Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying tournaments. While the loss to Honduras is devastating, the future of the USMNT looks bright. And, even though it will sting for a while, it will not define a team that is quickly rising through the ranks, and is hungry for a major Cup Title to show for it.