With winter break in the books, we’re back. But hold on. You’re probably wondering: where’s Paul, my favorite Orient columnist? Paul has made the bittersweet move to creating podcasts, which I will shamelessly plug and suggest you check out when they are released. The other week, he sent me a text indicating he needed to bequeath the duties of this column to someone—and I knew right away that I had to grab the reins and carry on the legacy of “Well in, Lad.”
With that said, I want to make my debut by flying us back to the United States from England, where Paul left off. More specifically, I want to talk about the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT)—why I am truly excited about them for the first time in my life and why U.S. soccer fans should be too. Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve enjoyed watching U.S. soccer greats as I’ve grown up. Landon Donavan gave us, perhaps, the most iconic USMNT moment in recent history when he scored in the final minutes against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup to send the U.S. to the round of sixteen. Tim Howard inspired the entire nation by notching a record-breaking 16 saves in the 2014 World Cup Round of Sixteen against soccer powerhouse Belgium. However, as their generation reached their primes and began regressing after the 2014 World Cup, it became evident that the U.S. simply didn’t have the quality to compete on the world stage and, despite having some promising youngsters, wouldn’t for a while. That fear was confirmed for U.S. fans over the three years following the 2014 World Cup. For the first time since 1986, they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 after several shocking losses.
That being said, I have faith that the next generation of American footballers can right the ship. The most encouraging trend is the growing number of Americans getting playtime—and occasionally starring—on European teams, a feat that we haven’t seen since Tim Howard hung up his boots after a prolific career in the net for the English club Everton. For those who don’t follow soccer as intimately as Paul or I, the top soccer league in the U.S., the MLS, is a big step down in quality from its European counterparts, which is why it’s so exciting that U.S. players are finally starting to make it abroad. Christian Pulisic is leading the charge. He was a regular goalscorer during the 2019-20 season for Chelsea, one of England’s most elite sides, after spending four seasons playing in Germany. The best part? He’s only 22. And, luckily, youth seems to be a trend. Weston McKennie, the consensus number two player on the U.S. roster behind Pulisic, is also just 22 years old and is tearing up Italy’s top league—Serie A—playing alongside the renowned Christiano Ronaldo on Juventus. Pulisic and McKennie are joined by 21-year-old Tyler Adams, who is currently playing in Germany, and 20-year-old Sergino Dest, who is playing in Spain. And, at just 18 years old, Giovanni Reyna is proving to be an especially exciting talent as he perfects his craft in Germany. That’s just to name a few. With the help of established leaders like John Brooks, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to help mentor and develop their younger nationals, the U.S. roster is shaping up to have the potential to be the best U.S. team we’ve ever seen.
If at this point you’re as excited as I am and are sitting there with the impression that we’ll be seeing the U.S. hoist the World Cup in 2022, I’ll be the first to tell you that, despite the hopeful picture I’ve tried to paint, there remain many question marks and much work to be done before anything like that is even a possibility. The hope that youth brings also comes with risk. Many of these players look good now, but it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll be in a few years. We’ve seen many an American prospect fizzle out. Hopefully, that won’t be the case for too many of this young generation, but it’s a reality we may have to confront. But let’s say, in some miracle world, all the talent the team has pans out to perfection. The U.S. will still have to contend with the same problems every other team does in their bids to be the best in the world—team chemistry, injuries, coaching, the whole nine yards. Will it be a long, difficult and potentially disastrous journey? Almost certainly. But, I encourage you to join me in having faith that brighter days are in store for U.S. fans and applauding this new generation for providing inspiration to kids all across the country playing youth soccer, who hope to one day do the same.