Last summer, on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the USWNT World Cup title 2019, I took a look at the individual women’s World Cup teams in the country and rated them. It was a fun exercise and confirmed a pretty simple idea: age balance is important. A country will normally only go as far as players of their maximum age will get. By the 2000s, American women didn’t have enough talent to complement the otherworldly Abby Wambach, and the team’s results fell slightly. When the Rapinoe-Heath-Sauerbrunn-O’Hara-Morgan-Press generation fully developed, the United States grew strongly.
Stream LIVE: USA v El Salvador, Wednesday, December 9th, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS
It’s the same story for men. When Spain won the 2010 World Cup, Sergio Ramos, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres were all between 24 and 28. Germany? Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. France in 2018? Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. (Both Spain and Germany underachieved at their next World Cup when that core was a bit stale.)
Now, the concept of “peaking” is obviously nebulous in nature. Some players peak earlier, others hold their peaks longer – and others are Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And there are occasional exceptions to the rule in the team. Croatia reached the final in 2018 under the leadership of 33-year-old Luka Modric, 32-year-old Mario Mandzukic and some 29-year-old key players in Dejan Lovren and Ivan Perisic. And not even the cheat code for the maximum age can explain Greece’s famous victory at Euro 2004: The team started six players, ages 30+ (and only three between 24 and 28) in their victory against Portugal.
– USMNT stars Pulisic, McKennie and Reyna meet on historic day
– FC 100: Pulisic, Dest makes the cut
A healthy mix of top-aged talent – a golden generation, if you will – mixed with some steely-eyed veterans (e.g. a Hugo Lloris) and a fresh face or two (a Kylian Mbappe) can get you pretty far. This is the case even if you are not quite at the title level. For example, it is no coincidence that the USMNT’s deepest World Cup run took place in 2002, when the Stars and Stripes combined and one of old age Claudio Reyna, Frankie Hejduk and John O’Brien with lively veterans like Brad Friedel and Brian McBride couple of star prospects named Donovan and Beasley.
The balance has mostly swung between “almost right but not quite” and “mostly off” since then, but it seems that will soon change.
The USMNT’s 2022 team might be the youngest in a while, but for the best possible reason – teens overtaking veterans. (The squad met El Salvador on Wednesday night – Watch LIVE at 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS (US only) – is intentionally populated with young and US-based players as it is not an official FIFA date.)
And in 2026, when the United States co-hosted the Shindig, the youth said will the veterans. After a slow slide, there is reason to believe that the USMNT’s trajectory is changing rapidly.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN + (US only)
Before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at past USMNTs
1990: Manager Bob Gansler opted to essentially use a test team for the US’s first World Cup in 40 years, a brief period of losses to Italy, Czechoslovakia and Austria.
Younger players like goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder John Harkes would attract attention, but of that 24-28 core only midfielder Paul Caligiuri (SV Meppen) played in Europe, while defenders Steve Trittschuh (Sparta Prague), Desmond Armstrong (Santos) and John Doyle (Örgryte IS) would find decent, but anything but spectacular, landing spots after the tournament.
1994: The team that hosted the World Cup had a much better 24-28 talent. Tab Ramos played for Real Betis, John Harkes for Derby County, Eric Wynalda for 1. FC Saarbrücken and Earnie Stewart for Willem II. Cobi Jones would soon be signing for Coventry City, and players like Meola, Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa made for solid depth.
Despite the lack of an offensive, the USA reached the knockout round with a win against Colombia and a draw against Switzerland.
Gregg Berhalter credits the Philadelphia Union for Brenden Aaronson’s progress since his first USMNT camp in 2019.
1998: With all of the above players except for Jones, who is aging outside the top range (and some of whom are reportedly arguing with one another), the 1998 roster was a bit stale.
Old age versions of Claudio Reyna (who played for Wolfsburg at the time) and keeper Kasey Keller (Leicester City) were added, while Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and Joe-Max Moore were all stalwarts in the “new” Major League Soccer. But that rally of talent was bombed in the group stage of the World Cup, and in hindsight it shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
2002: Reyna was 28 and played for Sunderland, while Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen) and John O’Brien (Ajax) were both of maximum age and played for strong European squads. Pablo Mastroeni and Gregg Berhalter were also in the highest reach, and McBride (soon after Fulham), keeper Brad Friedel (in the middle of an 18-year-old Premier League stint) and Tony Sanneh (up to then a Bundesliga star) were in their early 30s and still at a high level.
Combine that with two of the USMNT’s best prospects (Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) and you had the best US team yet, one that made it to the World Cup quarter-finals and almost went further if it wasn’t for German defender Torsten Frings to commit a blatant handball that was not called.
2006: Donovan and Beasley (now at PSV Eindhoven) were among the best, as were Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) and Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham). This was a high-end talent, but the depth was shaky, and most of the other minutes went to players who were either way past their prime (McBride, Reyna) or not ready to play at a consistently high level (Clint Dempsey, Bobby) mediate).
The US joined Italy but lost to the Czech Republic and Ghana, finishing last in Group E.
2010: Donovan and Onyewu (recently signed with Milan) were still at the top, supported by Dempsey (now with Fulham), Maurice Edu (Rangers) and Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA). The depth was shaky again, but Donovan and Dempsey are USMNT greats of all time and at their best. Youngsters Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore also held their own, and a core of Cherundolo, Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit (then with Watford) and keeper Tim Howard (Everton) from the early 30s all played at a high level.
The USA are known to have won their group against England and were favored against Ghana in the round of 16, only to run out of steam in extra time.
2014: The 2014 squad was a bit stale: The top 11-minute earners in the 2014 World Cup had an average age of 29.4 years, despite Jürgen Klinsmann’s infamous decision to exclude Donovan from the 23-man squad. Dempsey and Howard were still excellent, however, and the team featured top ranks from Bradley (who recently left Roma), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes) and Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), as well as MLS stalwarts Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi.
The US eventually defeated Ghana, drew against Portugal and made it to the round of 16, where they almost caused a massive surprise against Belgium before falling again in extra time.
2018: The 2018 team didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and the maximum age list shows you pretty clearly why. Of the 18 players with the most minutes in qualifying, only Altidore, Deandre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe and Jorge Villafana were in the 24 to 28 range (also Bundesliga stalwarts John Brooks and Timmy Chandler) they had injuries to do.)
Twelve of the 18 were 29 or older – Howard was 39, Jermaine Jones 36, Dempsey 35, Cameron 32 – but younger players couldn’t completely take them off the pitch in the rotation. This made Christian Pulisic, the best prospect since Donovan, attempt to carry a panting lineup to the finish line.
It took the US a lot to miss this final World Cup. The USSF probably waited too long to fire Klinsmann. Injuries and fitness problems robbed the team of two potentially stable starters in Brooks and Chandler. The last day of qualifying was also associated with an extremely spectacular amount of bad luck – the US, Mexico and Costa Rica all had to lose to keep the Americans from going through. The US lost in part to an own goal and Mexico and Costa Rica blew three hits together to both fall. Play the qualification cycle 100 more times in the Multiverse and Americans will qualify far more often.
Even so, it was the most flawed pool of players the US has set up in a long time. This was the lost generation of the USMNT.
We can argue about who’s to blame – we’ve actually been doing this for a while – but the US just didn’t produce enough high-end, prime-age talent to be successful in the final cycle.
Freddy Adu (still in the top range for 2018 qualifying, believe it or not) has never done the way he should. Aron Jóhannsson was always injured. Players like Mix Diskerud, Gyasi Zardes and Brek Shea showed upward flashes, but never enough. Altidore is an all-time MLS star with a little overseas success. Yedlin is a solid Premier League defender with Newcastle. Wood was serviced at some German clubs. and Nagbe and Villafana are solid with the Portland Timbers. But the US needed far more of that age group than it got.
USMNT trainer Gregg Berhalter shares his thoughts on America’s latest prospect of moving to Europe, Brenden Aaronson.
The big question: will this change in 2022?
Probably not, but there is hope. (There is always, isn’t it?)
Obviously, planning a line-up for the 2022 World Cup for the USMNT is a breeze. We don’t even know how qualifying will develop with the schedule changed by the coronavirus, and we don’t know which player-coach Gregg Berhalter will prefer in two years’ time. (We don’t even know exactly which player he prefers right now.) That said, here are some of the main candidates that will be in the 24-28 range in 2022:
GK: Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath
DF: Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Nick Lima, Reggie Cannon, Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon, Antonee Robinson, and Cameron Carter-Vickers
MF: Julian Green, Jackson Yueill, Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan
FW: Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Duane Holmes, Tyler Boyd and Andrija Novakovich
Players like Steffen (a backup from Manchester City), Yedlin and Miazga (a Chelsea player currently on loan to Anderlecht) may play an important role in qualifying. Plus, Morris and Arriola have already been capped more than 30 times, and Roldan and Acosta aren’t far behind. They’ll likely all be involved. (Green meanwhile, should involved, but not, for reasons that Berhalter should perhaps urge to explain.)
There’s a decent depth in this group, even if there aren’t any Donovans or Dempseys. But chances are the US isn’t getting a huge contribution from this group, and for the best possible reason: The generation behind these guys has already achieved more.
– Pulisic will have just turned 24 at the start of the 2022 World Cup, which means he will be in this top-class area at two World Cups. He has already played more than 150 games for Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea, two of Europe’s heavyweights. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best young attackers in the world.
– Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie will both be 23 years old. Adams is a rotation member of the Champions League semi-finalist RB Leipzig, and McKennie joined Juventus in the off-season. He’s also just scored his first goal for the Serie A heavyweight division.
– – Gio Reyna just recently turned 18 and will turn 19 at the start of the World Cup. He has three goals and five assists for Borussia Dortmund this season and is almost a bigger prospect than Pulisic.
Josh Sargent and Tim Weah turn 22. Sargent has already played more than 50 games with Werder Bremen and scored eight goals. Weah’s trajectory was slowed by an injury but he has played 10 games with Lille this season creating three chances in 101 minutes. Everyone has seen ups and downs, but both are only 20 years old.
– Sergino Dest turns 21. Not only did he move to Barcelona this off-season, but has already played 11 games for the club for over 700 minutes, scored once (no less in the Champions League) and created 10 chances. At Barca, he moved to 19-year-old American winger Konrad De La Fuente, who played twice in the Champions League and created two chances.
– Brenden Aaronson turns 22. After an outstanding MLS campaign – four goals and 33 chances (eight assists) for the Philadelphia Union, which received the Supporters’ Shield – he will move to RB Salzburg in January, which is still fighting for the knockout phase of the Champions League.
– Defense attorney Chris Richards turns 22. As a product of FC Dallas, he has played six games for FC Bayern Munich this season, creating three chances with an assist in the Bundesliga.
– Nicholas Gioacchini is 22 years old. In a recent USMNT appearance, he scored three goals in nine games for the Ligue 2 promotion candidate Caen.
Orlando City star Chris Mueller describes his emotions and goals after being called to the USMNT.
I’ve come this far and haven’t mentioned the Valencia midfielder yet Yunus Musah (He will be 19 when the World Cup starts), PSV Eindhoven midfielder Richard Ledezma (22), Telstar-via-Norwich City forward Sebastian Soto (22), view of the wolves’ midfield Owen Otasowie (21), Backup Keeper of Leicester City Chituru Odunze (20) or one of an interesting crowd of young MLS prospects: forward Jesus Ferreira, Sporting KC forward Gianluca Busio, Philadelphia defense attorney Mark McKenzie, Toronto Forward Ayo Akinola, Dallas FC defender Bryan Reynolds, Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykalet al.
We always trust in perspectives; The future is always bright, isn’t it? In this case, however, the USMNT’s prospects might already be the proven players. And in 2026, Pulisic, Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Dest, Sargent, Aaronson, Richards, and others will be or approaching their prime in their prime. The roster for the 2022 World Cup could be the most talented roster in the US to date and will only gain experience in the following years. The organization of the World Cup in 2026 could not have been better.
We don’t yet know how good a manager Berhalter is or will be for this team and how long he will be at the top. He had only been in action for a little over a year when the coronavirus stopped, and by that point he had used a large number of players to try as many different looks as possible and just win a little. While leadership tactics and talent are always important, the talent of the players makes the biggest difference. The US didn’t have enough of this in 2018, but there could be a breakthrough soon.