The United States men's national team is facing a crucial test this summer in the Copa America. After months of underwhelming performances and increasing unrest in the fanbase, the USMNT can restore their pride and the fans' faith by performing better in Copa than they have over the last two years.
While many will be looking to the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones to lead the team to victory, the USMNT can't rely on that aging group of players to get the job done forever, and indeed they might not even be able to in this tournament. That trio is talented, make no mistake, but to find success against the kind of opponents they'll face in the Copa America, they need more than that. They need their kids to step up and take the reigns.
Without Jordan Morris and Matt Miazga, that will be easier said than done, but the younger players in the U.S. squad are still perfectly capable of making a profound impact. Even in attack, where the USMNT looks shorthanded without Morris and the injured Jozy Altidore, young Christian Pulisic has the potential to be game-changing for them when needed, despite his inexperience.
USMNT fans might be familiar with Bobby Wood by now, but it's easy to forget that he's still just 23 years old. He's still taking big strides forward in his development. Wood has become more reliable in the American attack each time he plays, with his technical skills finally starting to catch up to his significant work rate. The Copa should be the chance he needs to take a big step forward, and if he does that, the USMNT will be all the better for it.
There's also Darlington Nagbe, a darling of MLS fans and a long-awaited member of the USMNT. He hasn't gotten to play a particularly large role for the national team yet, but when he has been put on the field he has consistently made a large impact. His creativity and drive is a huge boon to the attack, and he has the pure skill in possession to help the U.S. keep the ball in those desperate moments when holding possession is vital. His skillset is one that's not one that's echoed anywhere else in the squad, making Nagbe and his potential contributions invaluable.
But it's not just the USMNT's attack that will need its youth to step up. Perry Kitchen will be hoping to take his excellent form with Hearts (and in MLS before that) and turn it into a bigger role for the national side. A rapidly improving defensive midfielder like Kitchen would be a big boost to add to the existing squad. He could add a reliable base to the pairing of Bradley and Jones, freeing up both players to get forward more without having to worry as much about shielding the defense. Kitchen has shown during his career that he can be that shield, and if he is given and takes advantage of the chance to play that role for the USMNT, it could make them a much better, much tougher opponent for teams to face.
Then there's Steve Birnbaum, who has taken huge strides forward in his development as a defender in the last two years. While John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and Matt Besler are clearly better defenders here and now and are likely ahead of Birnbaum on the depth chart in central defense, the rising D.C. United star can still play a significant role for the Americans at Copa America. Be it as a tactical substitution late in a game, or as a rotational starter, Birnbaum will get his chances to play, and if he shows just how good he can be then the USMNT's defense will be capable of being better than ever.
DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks will play significant roles in defense as well, but they've already proven that they're important players for the national team, despite their youth. Now it's time for their young compatriots to stand up and join them as top contributors to the team.
Copa America might be the last hurrah for some big-name USMNT stars. But more importantly, it's a chance for the team's young players to prove that the veterans' time is up, and their time is now.