Sports

The Optimist’s Case for the USMNT

America is more than capable of springing a surprise on those who underestimate it.

Reyna screams with his arms out, the octagonal-grid scrim of a soccer net illustrated behind him
Gio Reyna celebrates his goal against Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League finals at Empower Field at Mile High, on June 6, 2021, in Denver. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/ISI Photos/Getty Images.

Good for you. Despite dismal performances in two September friendlies that cast a pall over the team’s buildup to the 2022 World Cup, you’ve chosen to keep the faith in the U.S. men’s national team. You know that the team is far better than it showed in its last pre–World Cup games, that the return of Valencia’s Yunus Musah and Fulham’s Antonee Robinson will smooth many of the rough patches we saw against Japan and Saudi Arabia; that if it plays well, it could absolutely make a run in this tournament to the quarterfinals or beyond.

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The prevailing mood would not have you think so. The team was beyond awful in those final two tune-ups, losing 2–0 to Japan and drawing scoreless with Saudi Arabia. World Cup qualifying was an up-and-down affair, the team booking its passage to the tournament only on the final day, when it lost to Costa Rica but not by enough to fall out of the crucial place in the standings.

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The qualifying grind pulverized much of the hope and enthusiasm that once surrounded this young generation of players, and the losses in September kept it smothered ahead of the tournament. The players, we were told repeatedly, were the most talented in American history. They were young and fearless and ready to take the world by storm. What happened?

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What’s the point of an emotional investment if the team can’t even beat Wales? What’s the point of caring if the best team the U.S. has ever produced isn’t yet among the world’s best? You’re smarter than this. You know only the worst kind of sports fan demands guaranteed success, and that success has never been guaranteed in American men’s soccer. It’s OK to get excited about what’s merely a hope.

This World Cup is not a deadline that’s been missed. The USMNT is not frantically assembling its team during the national anthems, hoping the effort will let it skate by with a C-minus. The conversion of potential to ability is rarely linear. The projections of the past five years—the growth we’ve anticipated, the talent we’ve been waiting to unlock—have finally run into the present tense. The players have not grown into world-beaters yet; their flaws in many cases are readily apparent. But they are awesome nonetheless, undeserving of arriving on the world’s biggest stage under a cloud of whiny Why Aren’t They Better? questions with only some (admittedly heart-tugging) marketing efforts and kind of odd Ted Lasso tie-ins to dispel it.

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Take defensive midfielder Tyler Adams. His game has limitations; he’s not a great passer, nor is he as comfortable under pressure as you would like from someone who plays in the most crowded area of the field. But he is a savant at interrupting opponent attacks before the danger has time to muster, a judo master at engaging in the off-balanced instant after an opponent has received the ball and using his quick feet and his balance to emerge from the tangle of legs with the advantage. The bet is that he adds more to their discomfort than he does to yours. It’s almost always a good bet. Adams is second in the Premier League in tackles, and if he doesn’t get you that way, then he’s third in fouls committed. Wind him up, drop the needle on some Iggy & the Stooges, and let him go to work making opponents’ lives hell.

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His Leeds and U.S. teammate Brendan Aaronson, meanwhile, is tied for seventh in the league for fouls drawn, having been cut down more than anyone on Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham, or Chelsea. Aaronson is involved so much because he’s literally everywhere, pressing opposing defenders on one end and charging back to put in a block on the other. As of a few weeks ago no player this season in the Premier League had covered more distance in a single game than he had. Earlier this year, his former coach in Philadelphia said the tracking numbers indicated he was top 1 percent on the entire globe for distance run. He’s scored just one goal for Leeds this season, but few are complaining because of everything else his effort adds. Besides, that one was the most Brenden Aaronson goal imaginable:

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Meanwhile, nobody needs this tournament more than the face of the team. Christian Pulisic’s career is stuck in neutral at Chelsea, neglected first by Thomas Tuchel and now by Graham Potter. He’s too coarse of a fit tactically to win a regular starting role, too talented to ride the bench, too valuable to Chelsea’s new American owner to be moved on. He’s first on Chelsea this season in goals plus assists per 90 minutes; he just doesn’t get enough minutes to make much of an impact for the team’s struggling offense. At the World Cup, he can finally show what he can do when entrusted with a team, if he seizes his chance.

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He won’t go it alone. After a year plagued by injury and absence, the team is finally, mostly healthy. (Here’s to you, Miles Robinson. A nation turns its lonely etc.) Gio Reyna brings a different understanding of the game’s geometry than any of his teammates, which he unlocks with his herky-jerky, gunslinger dribbling, like Manu Ginobli walking into the frame for Sergio Leone. On the wing, Tim Weah reads seams like he’s Tecmo Bowl Jerry Rice and his opponent just guessed the wrong play. Forward Josh Sargent has rediscovered his form for Norwich through the one simple trick of “actually getting played in his preferred position” and is tied for the goalscoring lead in the English Championship. Fellow forward Jesus Ferreira was named the best young player in MLS, where he’s been elite as a passer, a scorer, and a defensive disruptor, and jumped from eight to 18 goals scored from last season to this one. (MLS is sending more players to the World Cup than any league outside Europe’s big five, so you can keep your “but it’s MLS” to yourself.)

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Under coach Gregg Berhalter, the U.S. has been good at the sort of condensed competition it will grind out in Qatar. It narrowly lost in the Gold Cup final to Mexico in 2019, an age so far in the distant past that Michael Bradley was still starting for the team. It won two titles in the summer of 2021, the CONCACAF Nations League and that year’s Gold Cup, with two mostly distinct teams. Youthful lapses of focus and fit may have plagued it during friendlies and over the long haul of qualifying, but the players have met the occasion when it was demanded of them. There is no bigger occasion than this.

The U.S. arrives in the World Cup not as the promised Golden Generation, ready to sweep all before it and avenge the qualifying failure in 2018. This is not the second fight of a Rocky movie. It is here instead in a familiar mode: as an underdog, more than capable of springing a surprise on those who have underestimated it. Have faith, and you may yet be rewarded.

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