The United States men’s national team bowed out of the 2022 World Cup on Saturday with a disappointing 3-1 loss to Netherlands. It was a whirlwind of emotions for American soccer fans to see this young team eliminated in the first stage of the knockout rounds. On one hand, it’s a gut punch because you don’t want the journey to end. On the other side, there’s so much optimism for what lies ahead for the program.
As we look toward the 2026 World Cup that will be played in the United States, Canada and Mexico, there’s plenty of reason to expect this team to transform into one that can potentially compete for the grand prize.
Four years is a lifetime in soccer. You don’t have to look any further for proof than how far the USMNT came in that timeframe of failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament all the way to now. Nearly the entire player pool and staff saw complete turnover for the better. The volume of players who emerged and developed into international quality during that time was quite remarkable. Whether it was players who developed through the youth ranks or prized dual-national recruits who the federation worked hard to win, the amount of talent that popped up was staggering.
One of the biggest keys to making sure the progress over the last four years keeps trending upward instead of stagnating or declining is continuing to find talent at that rate or better. The U.S. have built a very solid foundation of young players that was on full display in this tournament. Now the goal becomes making sure you continue to build on top of that to only get better from a talent standpoint. That means not only continuing the work to improve training and development systems, but continuing to recruit promising dual-nationals who came through other programs.
It was easy to see the core of players that Gregg Berhalter relied on Qatar. It was the same 12-14 players who continually were put out there in hopes they could be enough to win games. What the team was missing that the best countries in the world have is that deep pool of talent to delve into whenever they need it. If Neymar gets hurt for Brazil they just turn to Antony or Gabriel Jesus. If Harry Kane goes down for England they just pull Marcus Rashford off the bench. It’s that type of depth of quality that will take this U.S. team from above-average to flirting with the elite.
No position showed this absence of quality more than the striker spot. Finding reliable, pure strikers with a nose for goal will be the program’s No. 1 task over the next four years. The U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter admitted as much after the loss to the Dutch:
#USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter says the Netherlands’ attacking quality was the difference between the teams today: “We don’t have a Memphis Depay right now, who’s scoring in the Champions League.”— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) December 3, 2022
Meeting expectations in Qatar is a bit of a double-edged sword for this team. There’s always that satisfaction of progressing further than your regional rivals, Mexico and Canada, and experiencing a knockout round match. The lessons learned on this run will inevitably help the mostly young core down the road. But there’s that feeling of what could have been at this tournament. As Americans, we always feel we can overachieve and surpass expectations. So, the realization that this team went about as far as most people expected them to leaves us with a hunger for more. That’s why the prospect of having a World Cup in the USA is so exciting.
The progress the U.S. has made since Couva is truly mind-blowing. If they can continue their current trajectory by consistently finding and adding talent to push the current exciting core, the potential for something special increases tremendously. If that wishful dream of a fruitful and thriving player pool comes to fruition in four years time it will just amplify the effect of having a World Cup on home soil.
No one is saying the USMNT will be favorites to lift the trophy in 2026, but if they can continue on their current path without stalling or regressing, there’s no reason they can’t realistically be in the conversation.