Following my Chelsea season review last week, I wanted to do a soccer post not just for soccer fans. With this weekend coinciding with USA vs Mexico in World Cup Qualifying, I decided to write a 10-point introduction to the US Men’s National Soccer Team.
How Good Are We?
In general, it’s really hard to rank international soccer teams. This is because the World Cup takes place every 4 years, and in between teams from different parts of the world rarely play each other. It’s a little easier to rank teams from the same continent.
At the time of writing, we are ranked as the 23rd best team in the world, and the third best in North America behind Mexico and Costa Rica. I clarify “at the time of writing” because these rankings shift a lot. Over the long run, we are generally the second best team in North America behind Mexico.
We have never won the World Cup (our best finish was reaching the quarterfinals in 2002) but have won the North American championship (more on this later) 5 times.
In summary, we’re good but not great and there is a lot of promise for the future, largely due to the answer to the next question:
Who is our best player?
Christian Pulisic. He’s been hailed as the “savior of American soccer.” Just 3 years ago, even dedicated fans of the USMNT may have never heard of him, but he’s quickly become the most promising American soccer player in a very long time, maybe ever. He’s only 18 years old but has found himself as the focal point of the national team, despite making his international debut just last March. Professionally, he plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, where he was a regular contributor this past season and helped them to win the German Cup. So far, he’s done a good job of not letting the pressure or his rising fame get to him. He has played only 15 games for the USA and already scored 7 goals.
There’s little doubt that big things are in store for Pulisic, and he has a chance to one day become the soccer superstar US soccer fans have been waiting for.
For more on America’s emerging superstar, check out this piece FiveThirtyEight recently wrote about him: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-great-american-soccer-hope-is-here-for-real-this-time/
Who are some other players I should know about?
While Pulisic is certainly the most compelling player on the team, there’s a couple other guys you should know about as an introduction to the team.
The first is Clint Dempsey, who is on the verge of becoming the USA’s all-time leading scorer. He’s been a go-to guy for the USMNT for the last decade, playing in 133 games (4th most all-time) and scoring 56 goals. He’s also been one of the most successful professional American players, playing for Tottenham and Fulham in England earlier in his career.
Next is Tim Howard, the US’s starting goalkeeper, a position he’s occupied since 2007, playing in 114 games in total. He has arguably reached the highest professional levels of any American player, as he was the starting goalie for Manchester United back in the mid-2000’s. He’s 38 years old but still looks at the top of his game.
Finally, you should probably know who the team captain is, Michael Bradley. He first came through the ranks when his dad was the US coach, which brought a lot of questions about if he was being favored. Those questions were dismissed by how important he became to the team, and he’s played 131 times for the USA (5th most). That said, he’s probably only still starting for the team at this point because 1) he’s the captain and 2) we don’t have anybody better to play his position (central midfield).
Where do our players play professionally?
As you likely already knew or have picked up on by now, unlike in other major pro sports it’s very common for American players to play professionally in other countries. However, the vast majority do play in Major League Soccer in the US and Canada. To illustrate, using the 26 players currently on the USA roster:
The MLS, while improving, is not a top league in the world, so it’s common for our most talented players to be playing elsewhere, particularly in Europe. Another incentive for top players is that they can certainly make more money playing in Europe than they can in the MLS. In becoming a stronger/more talented league, MLS hopes to be able to keep top-level US talent in the league.
Some of our players aren’t from the United States (?)
The concept of Dual Nationals is much less familiar to American sports fans than to fans of other countries, especially in soccer. In particular, there are several players in the US pool (the players eligible to be selected for the national team) who were born in Germany and have one parent who is American. This is largely a result of the substantial US military presence there. These players include defender John Brooks and midfielder Fabian Johnson, both of whose fathers were in the US military but whose mothers are German. There are also Mexican dual-nationals in the US player pool, but again the vast majority of players are American born and raised. This has caused some tension in the past, with Tim Howard at one point publicly questioning the loyalty and patriotism of players who weren’t born in the US. He later apologized to his teammates for these comments, but such sentiments remain, both in the team and in the fanbase. There are varying reasons a player will choose a given national team to play for when they have multiple options, from where they grew up to where the feel the most connected to which team will give them more playing time/opportunity.
Bruce Arena, the new and former coach
Bruce Arena was first hired as USA head coach back in 1998, but was fired in 2006 after the US was eliminated in the first round of the World Cup. In that time, he amassed the best record of any coach in the history of the team. He is now in charge for the second time after being hired back last year. To understand why he was brought back, it’s important to understand why his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, was fired. Klinsmann was fired following back-to-back losses in World Cup Qualifying games against Mexico and Costa Rica, but those losses aren’t the whole story. Klinsmann was a world-class professional player, making 82 appearances for the German national team, and went on to coach the team after his retirement. Thus, he brought a tremendous amount of experience to the US team, as well as a fundamentally different (non-American) approach. He challenged players to challenge themselves, encouraging them to take opportunities in better leagues oversees (not MLS) if given the opportunity. He also pushed for US Soccer to pursue dual national players and to do everything they could to put together the best possible team. However, his comments about the lack of quality in MLS put him at odds with US Soccer, who has made it a chief goal to help grow the league. When he was fired following the 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, it felt as if US Soccer had been looking for a reason to fire him; he gave them one.
It was no surprise when US Soccer turned to Bruce Arena as the replacement, not only because of his prior US experience but because he has a pedigree of success coaching in the MLS. For what it’s worth, he’s also questioned the loyalty of dual national players in the past. It is uncertain if Arena will just be the coach through next year’s World Cup or if he may be seen as a longer term solution, which brings us to…
So we’re trying to qualify for the World Cup next year, how’s that going?
In short, not as well as we would have liked. We are in the final round of qualifying for North America, which consists of 6 teams all playing each other twice (once in each country), with the top 3 teams qualifying for the World Cup (it’s a little more complicated than that but the details aren’t important for now). The previously mentioned losses to Mexico and Costa Rica were the first two games of this 12 game process; not a great start. Since then, we have beaten Honduras, tied with Panama, and won against Trinidad & Tobago. That leaves us in third place, just behind Costa Rica, going into a game in Mexico on Sunday night (8:30 PM on FS1 if you’re interested). At this point, we have now played each of the other 5 teams once. As for tonight’s game against Mexico, we have never won a WCQ game in Mexico. Ever. The good news is, we don’t need to win this game (although that would be amazing). The reasonable goal is a tie, which would still leave us in a good position to qualify because this will be the most difficult game we have left. After Mexico, we play Nicaragua and Costa Rica in September, then finish with Panama and Trinidad & Tobago in October. The USA has not failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1986.
What is the Gold Cup?
The Gold Cup is the name of the North American Championships and, in addition to World Cup Qualifying, is the other big thing going on this summer for the USMNT. It (almost always and entirely) takes place in the US every two years, and the pressure will be on the US this summer. That is because in the 2015 Gold Cup the US was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Jamaica. Given the teams we’re playing against, this is a tournament we are expected to at least make the semis in, if not the final, every time. However, given that winning the Gold Cup doesn’t get you much more than pride and a boost in your world ranking, the World Cup Qualifiers are by far the priority at the moment.
The search for the next great American goalkeeper
As I mentioned when talking about important players on the team, Tim Howard is 38 years old. Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando, his backups for most of the time he has been the starter, are 32 and 37 respectively. Tim Howard followed in the footsteps of Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, both veterans of the Premier League in England who made 82 and 102 appearances for the USA respectively. The team is searching for that next great goalkeeper and it isn’t clear who that will be, or if there is a younger keeper with that kind of talent. There are several young American goalkeepers who are promising, but it’s too early to tell who is the favorite to one day take over the starting job for the USA. Tim Howard will likely keep playing through next year’s World Cup, but it’s an open question what happens after that.
When is the US going to host the World Cup?
A few years ago, it was widely believed that the United States, which previously hosted in 1994, would host the World Cup in 2022. However, it was awarded to Qatar instead, a decision that resulted in a lot of questions about the integrity of the selection process. These questions led to a full-on scandal which included the resignation of FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
A few months ago, it was officially announced that the United States, Canada, and Mexico would submit a joint bid to host the World Cup in 2026. The phrasing “joint bid” is generous, as of the tournament’s 80 total games 60 would take place in the US, including all games from the quarterfinals onwards. There is high confidence that this bid is going to be successful given that the two most likely challengers are Colombia and Morocco, as well as the fact that FIFA may feel they owe it to the US at this point.
If you have any questions about anything in this list, or any other questions about the team, feel free to leave them in the comments.
For more on the team, you can visit the team website: http://www.ussoccer.com/mens-national-team
This Week In….
The Sox went 2-4 this week, and now find themselves with the worst record in the American League. The only teams worse in the MLB are the Padres and Phillies, and it’s questionable whether the Phillies still count as a professional baseball team. Avi Garcia remains the bright spot, hitting .333 with 10 HR, 42 RBI, and an OPS of .922.
The Fire are now unbeaten in 7 games following a win Saturday against Atlanta, their 6th straight win at home. Nemanja Nikolic scored again, his league-leading 12th goal of the season. The Fire remain in second place in the Eastern Conference, only one point behind Toronto.
This week, the Hawks signed highly regarded Czech defensive prospect Jan Rutta. This is furthering speculation that, either by trade or via the expansion draft, Trevor Van Riemsdyk will end up in Las Vegas.
Phoenix, “Ti Amo”
AJR feat. Rivers Cuomo, “Sober Up”
Declan McKenna, “Humongous”
Smallpools, “Millon Bucks”
Wild Cub, “Speak”
X Amabassadors, “The Devil You Know”