European Football

Those Baby Yanks

How the United States has already found success in Qatar…

Football is an emotional sport. Never more so than in the final minutes of a close game. Every touch, every pass, every shot carries the weight of a people longing to celebrate, and all of these emotions are magnified in a setting like the World Cup. “Living and dying with every touch” does not begin to describe it.

And in the final minutes of the United States’ 1-0 win over Iran, I could definitively say that I was living and dying with every touch. Nine minutes of added time felt like it lasted nine years, and the mere seconds that went between Mehdi Taremi somehow squeezing the ball past the outstretched Matt Turner and an American defender arriving to clear the ball before it went into the goal, an incident that took seconds to resolve, felt like it lasted an eternity. When the final whistle finally blew, an entire nation could exhale. The United States Men’s National Team, a nation that did not even qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a nation fielding the youngest team by average age of the teams that traveled to Qatar, had booked their ticket to the Round of 16. Those Baby Yanks had done it.

We unfortunately now know what happens next. Despite several heroic performances in the Group Stage, the United States were outclassed and out-tacticed by a strong and ruthless Netherlands team in a 3-1 defeat that sends the United States back home to begin the long march to 2026. But despite the disappointing end to this journey, I believe this team, fanbase, and federation leaves Qatar much more hopeful about the future than when they arrived.

Not only is the mere fact of qualifying for the 2022 tournament inherent and demonstrable progress from 2018, but the United States’ performances in Qatar showed that there is actual talent in this team. The midfield triumvirate of Yunus Musah (Valencia), Weston McKennie (Juventus), and Tyler Adams (Leeds) certainly made their names known on the big stage, and Adams in particular, the youngest team captain at the World Cup, made plenty of fans and admirers both on and off the pitch. His defensive intelligence and relentless work rate on the pitch paired well with a stoicism and maturity well beyond his years off the pitch.

Despite the struggles of the defense against the Dutch, they still performed very well in the Group Stages. The two fullbacks, Fulham’s Antonee Robinson and Milan’s Sergiño Dest, showed incredible capability going forward. Tim Ream, Robinson’s teammate at Fulham, was one of the most heartwarming stories of the tournament, making his World Cup debut at age 35. And Matt Turner demonstrated his capability as a high-level shot stopper and showed he is more than deserving of his spot at Arsenal. The attack had some issues, especially in scoring goals, but I do think it was a solid tournament for Christian Pulisic, potentially one allowing him to turn around his tepid club form, but it also showed that the attack no longer revolves around him. Lille’s Tim Weah and Leeds’ Brendan Aaronson shone in smaller roles, and while Giovanni Reyna did not get much time on the pitch, it is still clear from watching him play for Dortmund just how talented he is.

This is no longer the USA teams of the past who focused on defense, running, and “American grit”. There are genuinely very good technical players on these teams, players who have showed that they have the potential to play at a high level for a long career. This team has a technical ability that many past American teams have not, so much so that the Dutch saw this USA team and felt their best course of attack to beat them was to play very defensive, soak up pressure, and play on the counter. Against the United States. That being the ideal strategy to beat the USA would have been unheard of four years ago. It was only two World Cups ago that Tim Howard had to make several dozen saves for the US to even have a chance against Belgium, now the team is on a level where opposition have to adjust their game plan in order to mitigate the US team. That in itself is a sign of progress.

Look, it is not all perfect by any means. I think you could ask questions of manager Gregg Berhalter’s team selection and in-game adjustments. Louis van Gaal said it himself, that the US did not adjust to the Dutch plan so they just kept going on with it. There is also a very notable goalscoring problem, as the rotation of strikers brought to Qatar have done nothing to truly solidify that position as their own. The decision to leave Groningen’s Ricardo Pepi and Union Berlin’s Jordan Pefok at home was very controversial, and while I do not think either would have made the difference against Holland, it does show that maybe those in the team right now are not the solution. With Arsenal loanee Folarin Balogun also eligible to represent the United States and yet to declare which nation he will represent, the options at this position are seemingly vast and will extend this conversation for four more years.

Regardless of the present issues, this was still certainly a step forward, and there should be a clear plan moving forward for the United States, whether Berhalter remains as manager or not. The US Soccer Federation are already in discussions to try and get the US team included in the next edition of the Copa América, and the lack of qualification requirements for the USA leading into the 2026 World Cup should free up time for the US to truly try and test themselves against nations outside of CONCACAF. The process still continues, this team will improve over time, and more American talents will begin their ventures over to Europe and add to the pool of talent available. Already during the World Cup there was a move made, with Paxten Aaronson, younger brother of US international Brendan, sealing a move to Eintracht Frankfurt. The US has seemingly learned the lessons that Jürgen Klinsmann was shouting about nearly a decade ago. There is a pipeline of talent going from the Americas to Europe, and it should continue in the coming years.

Because ultimately, this is a project. We have not yet reached the destination, but we still must make sure that we are on the right path. The US brought the youngest team by average age to the World Cup in Qatar, and it is very clear that their aim was not toward 2022, but to 2026. The United States will be one of three co-hosts in 2026, and this team should all be in or near their primes by the time they run out for the first game of the tournament at home. The ultimate dream of every American, albeit it is a difficult dream to accomplish, is to be champions on home soil. Even if they do not win, everyone recognizes that a strong showing for the US on home soil in 2026 could massively change the views, culture, and history of football in this country.

Will they do it? No one knows. We only know the journey and not the destination right now, but it is clear that the Baby Yanks are on the right path.

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