Sports

How Good Can the USMNT Be by the Next World Cup?

A young team with four years to mature, a World Cup on home soil, and one big decision to make.

Berhalter in a blue shirt wraps arm around Pulisic, who is covering his face with his jersey
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and forward Christian Pulisic after the loss to the Netherlands. Jewel Samad/Getty Images

The 2022 World Cup cycle was the most important in the U.S. men’s history, coming as it did after 2018, when the team failed to qualify for the first time in its modern history. With one of the youngest teams in the world, the USMNT not only returned to the tournament but acquitted itself well at the main event. It battled England, one of the favorites, to an even draw and finished second in its group before falling to traditional power the Netherlands in the knockout rounds.

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But 2026, going into a home World Cup, will be even bigger. The advantage provided by hosting is real; five of the eight winning nations in the competition’s history won their first World Cup at home. (West Germany would win its second in Germany.) Even if the U.S. is not quite ready for that four years from now, the chance to combine that boost with its maturing talent and secure its best finish cannot be squandered.

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And so there are preparations to begin and decisions to make, starting with the big one: Who will coach the team for the 2026 cycle?

It should not be Gregg Berhalter. This is more philosophical than evaluative. Berhalter was a good coach, no matter what you hear from a vocal subset of people on the Internet who believe the team’s every misfortune the last four years is the result of his foolhardy decisions. He was, if not the best man for the job, then at least close to it. He set his team up well for the vast majority of their biggest games. He corrected more of his mistakes than he gets credit for, evolving his plans with his team. He leaned fully into the necessary youth movement despite struggles with naivete. He recruited well, landing prospects like Yunus Musah, Sergiño Dest, and Ricardo Pepi that had legitimate interest from other countries. The culture and bonding he fostered was a necessary corrective after the previous decade of throwing players to the wolves and blaming them for not wanting to be eaten.

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It’s true that Berhalter never did get the offense to click against quality opposition. The team struggled and was inconsistent when energy flagged. He probably narrowed the player pool too early ahead of this tournament. He never figured out how to make the team more dangerous on set pieces, not even after hiring a specialist assistant to do so.

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But the real issue is mostly historical. National team managers, and especially USMNT managers, tend to perform best in their first cycle. Returns diminish, and that’s been so true throughout history that I can say it even though there’s a better-than-even chance a returning manager like France’s Didier Deschamps, England’s Gareth Southgate, or Brazil’s Tite will win this World Cup. The U.S. regretted bringing back Bruce Arena after 2002 and it regretted bringing back Bob Bradley after 2010, and it definitely regretted bringing back Jürgen Klinsmann after 2014. The job, like many unelected positions of authority in this country, should be term-limited. Four years is a long time. Berhalter had his chance. He might prefer going back to the club game anyway; he said he was going to take some time to think about his future after the loss to the Netherlands on Saturday.

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Coaching an improving young team based in a cultural and commercial juggernaut into a home World Cup will be perhaps the world’s most sought-after gig once the market for international coaches shakes out in the aftermath of the World Cup. There’s no telling who’s going to throw their hats into the ring. (Not you, Jürgen!) After the sketchy hiring process that got Berhalter the job—Berhalter was the only serious candidate during a time when his brother was a U.S. Soccer executive—the most important thing will be to make the search thorough and transparent.

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Domestically speaking, the big name is Jesse Marsch, current coach of the Premier League’s Leeds United. But the timing is awkward. Turnover in the Premier League is so high it seems unlikely that Marsch will still be coaching Leeds in 2026, but since he’s just the second American head coach of a Premier League team and already the longest-tenured, he could prefer to keep his current gig as a trailblazer, even if he does get asked about Ted Lasso twice a day. Other American options would likely come from MLS. U.S. Soccer could consider successful coaches like Jim Curtin, who has turned low-budget Philadelphia into a developmental and on-field powerhouse, or Brian Schmetzer, whose flexible Seattle teams have won everything the league has to offer. Selecting an MLS coach would have the added bonus of triggering many of the same people who got so upset about Berhalter.

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Whoever it is will face the thorny problem of how to make the team better without interrupting the progress that’s been made so far. Much of this will come down to player development—how the young core improves as it gets more professional reps—but there are fundamental systemic questions: How to get more playmaking onto the field without sacrificing too much midfield dynamism; how to push the pace more effectively in transition; how to adjust the tactics to be more accommodating of the depth pieces, so that the system can adapt as subs come in rather than merely looking worse.

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This last part is especially important. National teams are not finely tuned machines. The limited time for practice throughout the year makes fits rough. They cannot purchase players to fill specific holes. They have to be MacGyvered out of the parts that are available, more Junkyard Wars contrivance than Formula 1 racer. Sleek and pretty is a bonus, but the most important thing is that they work, and work in multiple, often-imperfect configurations.

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There will not be many opportunities to find these answers in competitive games. As a host, the U.S. doesn’t have to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, which removes from the schedule a whole block of the highest intensity games the team plays. There is talk it could seek to remedy this by securing a spot in the 2024 South American championship, but even that would be two years out from the World Cup. Youth teams will play in their various World Cups and some of the starters here will be young enough to feature in the Olympics that summer, but the senior team will still need to seek out games that matter, whether it’s inventing some competition of its own for the summer of 2025, signing up for Eric Cantona’s Enter the Dragon–style Secret Tournament, or playing an exhibition game against the “real athletes” from that asinine SportsCenter tweet (which wouldn’t be very good preparation, but would teach everyone never to do that again).

We never knew what the USMNT could be in the buildup to 2022 until it hit the pressure of qualifying. For the next four years, the danger is that the stakes of the cycle as a whole will never be matched by those on the field. The future, and the United States’ best chance yet to reshape itself as a world power in the sport, will depend on finding ways to replicate that pressure on the small scale—and finding the right person to forge the team in those conditions.

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