Eagles on the Edge
Hours away from the start of this years World Cup can Berhalter turn his squad around?
A cloud of uncertainty and consternation has surrounded the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) since the failed qualifying run of 2018. And yet, four years on, in the tail end of the 2022 that same cloud still has not lifted. At times over those four years it may have ebbed and burned off. But only ever for a short time. But like a stubborn fog, the cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over this current generation. Fair or unfair. The expectations of the nation has always been that our national team should never miss the World Cup. This sentiment stemming from the time of our Golden Generations successes in the early to mid 2000’s where we made World Cup after World Cup. So it is that every USMNT player today has been expected to replicate the same level as their previous predecessors regardless of actual talent levels available for selection.
Our current crop of players falls exactly in the category of players with talent but overall unrefined and as a whole below the level of the players from our Golden Years of 2002-2014. This isn’t to say our current team is lacking talent but rather they lack the same quality/level of talent that the throughout the remaining 15 of 26 players selected. And fair or unfair, the current crop of players smacks of a team who is ‘haunted’ or rather lives in the shadow of the successful teams of 2002, 2006, and 2014. Yet, that sentiment cannot be used as an excuse or the reason for their short comings over the past few years. And by in large Berhalter has been left with the unenviable task of righting a beleaguered ship. A ship, mind you, that has been left in disarray because of and not in spite of, the US Soccer Federation. The lack of quality of managerial appointments by the Federation has left the program in disarray ever since Jürgen Klinsmann‘s dismissal. And despite how you felt about him the fact remains that he was the last manager to get the USMNT to the World Cup prior Gregg Berhalter.
Then to Now
After Klinsmann’s dismissal (let’s face it that’s in essence what it was) the men’s program derailed. Starting with the choice by the federation choice of reappointing Bruce Arena to lead the team which proved that dipping into the well of prior success assures you nothing. Similar to Berhalter, Arena’s tenure was rife with its own short comings, the most egregious being his team selection for the final World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago. As Taylor Twellman said “It is a complete embarrassment when you look at CONCACAF, for the amount of resources and the amount of money that is put into our sport…..As a whole US soccer is not prepared . They have not done a good enough job of getting this group ready to play!”and the sentiment back then still rings true today. The discussion still rages on as to why a federation our size still labors to produce a plethora of talent comparable to the best teams in FIFA given the size of our country. Especially when the federation knows the key reasons as to why talent is missed and or not developed. One glaring reason being the lack of investment in player development outside pay for play “Premier Teams” is one of the key reasons for our current lack of depth. And our situation at depth within the squad is where we need begin when looking at our deficiencies going into this World Cup.
One of the key concerns for this team going into the World Cup has to be the gulf between the talent level of the starting 11 and those on the bench/reserves. Specifically at the striker but also across the defensive back line. The big issue is the fact that our top players are of high quality but are often injured. I specifically am referring to players Cristian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest and more recently Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson. Each one of these players is easily the best player at their respective position in the US national team pool but maintaining fitness has been a sticking point for the aforementioned. This makes their absences felt even more when international fixtures are set up. And while injuries are a factor for all national teams it seems to be more impactful for the US Soccer Federation due to the lack of talent within the national team pool. A symptom of the federations prolonged struggle with generating a youth system capable of producing consistent talent at increased numbers. So let’s look at the players currently available.
Leading the Line
Starting between the posts is the easiest place to start. The clear #1 of late is Matt Turner (Arsenal) who only through playing time and recent performances with the national team has supplanted Zach Steffen. Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson round out the goalkeepers. And honestly outside these four mentioned there aren’t any goalies truly ready or deserving of a World Cup place.
We then go to the LB/RB positions which are some of the most crucial to our team and along with the CB position the most vulnerable from a depth perspective. Antonee Robinson(LB) and Sergino Dest (RB) when healthy are locks for their designated positions. But again players backing up the two aforementioned players talent drops off significantly. DeAndre Yedlin is in his twilight years and has in all honesty never been defensively sound for a player whose designated role is a defensive one. A knock I doubt many will argue against. Reggie Cannon is another who is of equal quality to Yedlin but like Yedlin has a history of problems staying fit. From there the potential filllins at RB/LB thins. And out of the mist of the next tier of USMNT defensive backs in our player pool the only name that stands out is Joe Scally.
Then there is the question of the center back position which currently is remarkably thin for a position that historically has been especially deep. Outside the inexplicable reluctance to call up John Brooks the top tier CBs are Zimmerman, Robinson, and McKenzie. Tim Ream, Matt Miazga, and the like do not have the necessary qualities to play at the international level. Chris Richards, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Tyler Blackmon of Vancouver deserve a mention/inclusion into the roster. Blackman especially should be looked at seeing as the pool continues to thin leading up to the kick off of the tournament.
Over the course of Berhalter’s tenure the injury bug has been a prominent factor but not the overwhelming reason in the teams lack of strong performances. His reliance on old players past their prime and former players he has coached negatively affected results early on and created stagnation within the team. I discount the magnitude of the victories the press gave to the successes of the CONCACAF Nations League and CONCACAF Gold Cup. Simplybecause of the lack of stiff opposition faced in the group stage and the Knockout rounds of those competitions. At most there’s maybe two or three other teams that consistently give the USMNT a challenge (Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada). Outside that the other mentionable teams are Honduras and Panama. Winning those tournaments still requires massive amounts of focus and determination. But again the victories achieved must be measured against the lens of the greatest competition within the sport; the World Cup. Especially if our goal as a federation is to one day lift the hallowed trophy.
The Red, White and Blue
So where do we stand? Our best bet going into the first game is to assemble a lineup that is both creative and cohesive. The problem of producing large quantities of national team caliber players like other well established national teams won’t be rectified by kick off. We have talent. Lately we lack the execution in sustaining our best form. But if there was ever a time for the USMNT to catch fire and gel the World Cup would be the perfect place. And there’s nothing more American than being underrated and written off only to prove everyone wrong! Hopefully, I am wrong and depth is a non factor as the USMNT flys to new heights shattering all expectations. I sincerely hope so.
But if I had to pick a starting 11 these names below would be the ones on my list.
GK: Matt Turner
Left Back: Antonee Robinson
Center Back: Walker Zimmerman, Cameron Carter-Vickers
Right Back: Joe Scally
Center Midfield: Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams
Attacking Midfielder: Brendan Aaronson
Left Winger: Christian Pulisic
Striker: Jordan Morris
Right Winger: Sergiño Dest
Bench: Sean Johnson, Ethan Horvath, Jesús Ferreira, Haji Wright, Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Luca De La Torre, Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Cristian Roldán, Tim Ream, DeAndre Yedlin, Aaron Long, Shaq Moore.
About the author
Avid traveler. Father. Weekend hiker. I enjoy almost every sport but football is #1. My other passion is to write historical fiction. So be on the lookout for my book. Thanks for reading!