U.S. Soccer: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The U.S. crash out of the 2022 World Cup, but 2026 and the future could be bright for them if they focus on what's most important.

Two weeks, four matches, only one win. That is the record of the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2022 World Cup who exited the tournament in the Round of 16 just as they did in 2010 and 2014, despite having a younger and more well-rounded team with global developmental experiences. Now that the journey of the 2022 USMNT has come to an end, marking yet another end of a four-year (after a 4-year drought) cycle, it’s not a question of whether they will qualify for the Cup in four years (which they will automatically as co-hosts). It’s a question of whether they will ever be in the higher ranks of the tournament, now dominated by familiar nations: Brazil, England, France, Netherlands, Argentina… As Australia, Senegal, Japan and South Korea joined the U.S. and all crashed out in the knockout stage, the all-too familiar script of chalk leaves fans bereft of the delight of the upset by the underdog. Where to go from here?

As hosts of the World Cup in 1994, the United States, still relatively new to the landscape of modern football, performed as well as could be expected, a run up to the final 16, before losing to Brazil, the eventual winners. In retrospect, the 2022 version of the USMNT remains at a level between the haves and the have-nots, uncomfortable within its own skin and devoid of a true legacy and lasting characteristic. Their latest opponent, the Oranje, developed a systematic style of football known as Total Football in the 1970s and have become experts in it – a fluid style in which players can switch positions with ease. And when they, like the US, failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament, they fell back on their history, their identity, they doubled down on their experience. Meanwhile, the U.S. still appear to be looking from the outside in, while the old guard are dominating the beautiful game on the world’s biggest soccer stage.

The Good

Looking ahead to 2026, the youthfulness of the current squad is a plus. The team was the second youngest one in Qatar. Christian Pulisic, while being criticized for his lack of finishing, hit more crosses than almost anyone at the tournament, was crucial to Tim Weah’s goal against Wales and Haji Wright’s goal against the Netherlands, and sacrificed his own physical welfare for the winning goal against Iran. It was also just his first World Cup. He will likely be in his prime (27) in 2026. Pulisic heralded a new era for U.S. Men’s Soccer, one in which young American talent is being regularly recruited by European clubs. The number of U.S. players in the world’s leagues, calculated by Yanks Abroad since the early 2000s, has exploded over the last decade. Moreover, over the last five years, their average age has dropped from 27 to 23, meaning they had longer to contribute to the national program as well-rounded international players. That is a direct result of the intervention of the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy (DA).

The Bad

Seventeen of the 26 Americans at the 2022 World Cup came up through the DA, which itself replaced the U17 residency program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida that produced former USMNT stars, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. The DA was born in 2007, as a national league comprised of 62 clubs, some with professional team affiliations, others with amateur ones. The program grew to 100 clubs and encompassed six age groups, provided scholarships, focused on training over mere competition, and became a soccer scout’s dream. Players now had the option of being recruited before college. It overhauled an antiquated system that developed players like Donovan more in spite of, rather than because of, its existence. One downside of the DA, which closed operations in 2020 as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, was that it did not develop a true system, a way of playing. Instead, it enforced a reactive model, one that was supposed to be flexible, unpredictable, and creative. Sounds good on paper. But, as 2022’s World Cup showed, it also revealed a huge flaw. Sometimes the lack of a common identity and soccer culture means a gap in the fundamentals. The Netherlands, dominating in everything but possession in the knockout game against the USMNT, had no such missing depth when it mattered most.  

The Ugly

The ugly truth is the main hosts of the 2026 World Cup may survive the next Round of 16, but they likely won’t get further. The future beyond that, is unknown.

The lack of a lasting youth soccer developmental system that refines talent and produces consistent legacy is symptomatic of a larger issue the U.S. faces. When it comes to soccer, there is no clear foundation to build a legacy upon. Sure, the 2026 generation of national players could mostly be comprised of the same roster as the 2022 team, but in attempting to build something uniquely American, and rejecting the European and South American models of development where amateur clubs act as ‘factories’ supplying their senior teams, the U.S. has ultimately failed to create a model that lasts longer than a couple successful cycles. MLS Next arose from the ashes of the DA’s demise, yet the results won’t be seen on the international stage for another decade. Some say the future is bright, but for the USMNT it appears to come in ebbs and flows. The only way to truly build a lasting World Cup national team identity is to commit to a system and stitch it into the national landscape and culture. And by making it accessible to both kids who play street soccer and children who play in private schools, bridge the two within an academy system that sustains itself by forging bonds with professional careers. It will require long-term planning and a view towards future results, not short-sighted half-attempts. Until then, the USMNT will be stuck in the uncomfortable middle ground between the upper echelons of soccer and the lower third, always struggling to to beat a Croatia or a Netherlands who have already done the work to get to the next level. In a country known for putting the chicken before the egg, it poses a dilemma. The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be a remarkable chance to grow the popularity of this sport in the United States, and if done right, it will also be fertile ground to invest in the future of soccer for generations to come.

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