DOHA, Qatar – Frustration crippled Tyler Adams in the first few minutes of the next four years. He brought it to his knees here at the Khalifa International Stadium, shortly after the final whistle dashed his World Cup dreams. It forced him to crouch as the Netherlands rallied to celebrate a 3-1 victory over his United States. It eventually dragged him all the way to the grass.
But as he sat there, head bowed, amid gloomy looks and sincere condolences, his mind turned to the future, and his mood changed.
“It’s probably the first time in a long time that people are going to say, ‘Wow, this team has something special,'” Adams reflected, later saying of the U.S. men’s national team and the public’s perception of it. “Potential is just potential, but we could see that if we maximize it in the right way, it can be something good.”
He was speaking, however, after a famous World Cup result brought about by famous failures, a Round of 16 exit, just like in 2014 and 2010 and, hell, 1994. So I asked Adams: Why is this different?
“Uh, I mean, I think you could probably make that assessment yourself,” he said. And he was right.
“With the players that are on our team compared to past teams — I wasn’t on the 2010 team, I wasn’t on the 2014 team, so I can’t sit here and judge the potential of those teams,” he continued. “But I think being the second youngest team at the World Cup and having the same result speaks for itself.”
Their starting four, in fact, were the four youngest of all at this World Cup. They were full of rising stars who had already risen above many of their USMNT predecessors. Adams, perhaps out of respect for those predecessors, wouldn’t exactly say his team has more talent than theirs. But apparently it is.
His current talent, however, is not the only reason for unprecedented optimism. Talent, as the vast majority of footballing nations can attest, tends to arrive at higher levels in fits and starts, via random ebbs and flows.
The hope in American soccer, however, is that this generation isn’t just a golden generation primed to shine on home soil in 2026; it is the beginning of a carefully designed trend and a sign of even better generations to come.
The USMNT is still a work in progress
The seeds of change and the USMNT 2022 were planted in the mid-2000s, when the men running U.S. Soccer essentially realized that their youth development model was, as former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports, “completely flipped.”
It was backwards. The children played more than training, effectively taking more tests than classes. In a way, longtime FC Dallas academy director Chris Hayden told Yahoo Sports, “We kind of accidentally developed players.”
So in 2007, as Major League Soccer increased its investment in youth programs, US Soccer launched its controversial development academy. The Prosecution, as it became known, was a national league pitting America’s best teenagers against each other on a weekly basis. She also mandated three, then four workouts a week. He sputtered and ruffled feathers early on and completely pissed off some youth football directors around the country. But it reformed the “broken” system and, especially as it expanded in the last decade, began to produce.
He helped produce 17 of the 26 players on this year’s World Cup roster, including Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson. U.S. Soccer shut it down in 2020, but by then, MLS was poised to take control of the boys soccer pyramid. The 29 pro-league clubs now invest over 100 million dollars a year in the development of domestic players. They maintain reserve teams, which bridge the gap from youth to professional, and provide their first teams — and also, by extension, the US men’s national team.
They attract more and more European scouts and send teenagers to top European clubs. There are flaws, of course, many flaws, but “quality [American] the number of players has increased significantly in the last five or 10 years,” Bayern Munich academy chief Jochen Sauer told Yahoo Sports in 2018. Many believe it has continued to grow since then and that the country’s development systems are “only scratching the surface”.
By extension, so is the USMNT. His 2022 World Cup ended in line with expectations, but several people interviewed for a pre-tournament story on youth development cautioned against obsessing over four games. Many believed that better evidence would emerge in four years and beyond.
“We will see the final result in five to 10 years,” said Bayern’s second youth coach, Sebastian Dremmler. “[In 2026]you will have a very strong representation.”
‘The American public should be optimistic’
The 2026 World Cup felt a long way off as grim faces marched out of Khalifa on Saturday night. Reyna refused interviews. Pulisic’s voice was weak and pained. Tim Ream was overcome with emotion as he realized that he, unlike many of his teammates, at age 35, probably won’t get another chance on this stage.
But beneath the gloomy faces was a prospect.
“The future is bright,” Ream said selflessly. “I mean, this core group — and when I say core group, I mean these are guys who are 22, 23, 24 years old who haven’t even hit their prime yet — the potential is huge for this next cycle. The program is in good hands with these guys. Good characters. Good players. Good people. … I’m excited about what they’ll be able to do on the world stage.”
DeAndre Yedlin, the lone holdover from the 2014 team, was asked if this was a step forward or a step back, and he said, “I think it’s a step forward.”
Matt Turner said without prompting, “There’s huge potential, and if you don’t see it” — well, he doesn’t know what to tell you. “We played England, we played Holland, and we gave both teams a really tough, tough time.”
And perhaps most importantly, they did it proactively, not reactively. They wanted the ball. When opponents won it, they wanted it back. They sparred physically and tactically with England. They forced the world’s top 10, the Netherlands, to essentially decide that its best hope of beating the USA was to concede possession and counter.
“They should gain confidence that we can play with anybody in the world the way we want to play,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s an important thing.”
This does not mean that the USMNT has reached the level of Dutch or English. There remains a gap in quality that showed on Saturday night in the decisive moments.
But the quality will increase with experience and age. The youth system should provide more of that.
“For us to play the youngest teams in the World Cup four times in a row, and still be able to play as we are – the American public needs to be optimistic,” said Berhalter.
He and his players, as a collective, set out four years ago to “change the way the world views American football,” as McKennie reiterated Saturday night. “I think we achieved some of that in this World Cup,” McKennie said. Berhalter felt that they had “partially achieved this”.
But the holy grail has always been changing the way America views American men’s soccer. They will do so almost exclusively by winning. And here in Qatar, even though they won only once, they showed that, one day, they will surely win many more.
“I think this tournament really brought back a lot of belief, brought back a lot of respect for American football and football in our country,” McKennie said. “I think we showed that we can be giants in the end. We may not be there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way.”