USMNT youth movement gave us a year of incredible highs and lows

Tyler Adams celebrates a Weston McKennie goal last month as Christian Pulisic leaps onto McKennie’s shoulders like a happy child. Healthy and fun all around.
Photo: Getty Images

As stated many times before, what the USMNT attempted, and actually accomplished, in 2021 is unheard of in international football. Passing the whole list to the kids at once isn’t done. Usually, teams try to blend generations, mixing senior veterans (around 30) with those in their prime (24-25) with a sprinkling of hot shots that will carry the flag for the next decade (18-20). The US skipped those first two, with the basically exception of Christian Pulisic, except he just turned 23. He’s not at his peak yet, and he’s basically the steady hand or the wise sage (let’s give him Gandalf’s staff to get in on the field with). This is crazy.

Parody of the Simpsons “the child admiral“? The USMNT did it practically in real life.

So when you look at it, you have to weigh the chaotic nature that arose in that kind of experiment / turnover / table flip. The results may not look as good as you would like; the performances are not as refined or coherent as you would like; but they would never be perfect. Because the whole team, and the manager, were going through all of this for the first time. Your children will crash into the car. Just pray they don’t push him into a lake.

But the high points … oh, the high points. And it’s mostly three wins over Mexico in games that matter. Not some friendly either federation devised in Dallas or Phoenix just to make some money. They were all for something. And the United States has won them all. And the evolution of how they did it is probably the most encouraging thing.

The triumph of the Nations League, in perhaps the most shocking game in international history, was simply to survive the madness, keep a cool head and find a way. The Gold Cup victory, achieved by team B to C, was about the steel defense, the frustration of Mexico and the choice of your seat. And the victory in Cincinnati in the World Cup qualifiers was simply playing outside the park, especially in the second half.

Something the United States has never done. There have been many victories, and milestones. But it was mainly about defending and fighting, and then resisting. The United States dominated the last game against Mexico and brought it to them. Maybe having a team so young that they didn’t know any better, and can’t just put Mexico aside simply because they wanted to, was an advantage.

But the waves crash and crash. The performance in Panama was bland, and perhaps the final death rattle for some MLS intruders on the team whenever a schedule crisis doesn’t require their presence. The draw with Jamaica in Kingston was disappointing, as they had the Octagonal for their throats. Sometimes they threw themselves on both performance poles within the same match, as they were real clowns in the first half against Honduras, and then put in four in the second half.

And all of this is natural, given the volatility of young people on this stage. It has been a nice trip.

The most important thing, in the long run, is the amount of players that the team has discovered will be the cornerstones for the future. Pulisic we knew it. Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie (when not horny girl breaking the rules) we did it too. We did not know Yunus Musah. He became a guaranteed appetizer before his 19th birthday. Tim Weah became an important piece of depth during Gio Reyna’s injury absence. Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman went from Team B in the Gold Cup in the summer to starters nailed to Team A in the future, and it is said that both to have many suitors across the pond to take them away. Ricardo Pepi sometimes seemed like the number 9 that the United States simply never had (and sometimes not, which will happen to an 18-year-old, but in the desert we lived in we will drink the sand). Matt Turner took off Zack Steffen’s goalkeeper gloves for a while there, because he’s not a USMNT without a goalkeeper dispute (my heart lifted over Keller v. Friedel rejoices).

Most will point to Musah as the biggest development, and I won’t argue with that. I’m partial to Miles Robinson, only because a blocked center-back was hard for the USMNT to find as the turning point at the other end of the pitch. Robinson can make the game easy in a way that few can through anticipation and instinct, and if he were to move to Europe this winter or next summer, he’ll feel like he’s turning into a real star.

And perhaps most importantly, the United States should never do that again. One, this is their final qualifying cycle for about six years. They don’t have to qualify for the World Cup they will host in 2026. So it will be different.

Second, they will find it difficult to overcome the generational handover of the baton as they did four years ago. Quite simply, the United States developed nothing behind the Dempsey-Bradley-Howard crop and before that. That’s why they smelled Russia 2018. The old guard was too old and only Pulisic was behind them. Bobby Wood? Darlington Nagbe? Paolo Arriola? Get the fuck out of here.

European clubs’ sudden hunger for American talent (due to relative affordability and ROI), as well as MLS clubs refining their development systems to cash in on those European offers, should ensure that the generation behind this should be a lot. more agitated than what came before. And due to the still amazing youth of this national team, there is so much time to develop that generation!

Having survived the risky and only turn to the youngest options possible, the US and manager Gregg Berhalter need not worry about mixing generations and deciding when it’s time for Player A who is 31 to give way to Player B who has 20 and the headaches that can come from leveraging a veteran from the 11th owner. It’s just this generation. You no longer have to wonder how to get Michael Bradley out of lineup when he can’t move anymore but he’s too ingrained due to experience and reputation.

He was wild. It took years out of our lives. In the end it was more useful than we expected. And we don’t need to do it again.


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