The 2022 World Cup seems impossibly far off but in some ways, the United States men’s national team started its preparations last week. The team has a new coach, Gregg Berhalter, and — with a host of promising young players — kicked off his tenure with a pair of friendly victories. While there’s potential for low expectations for the team come 2022, it’s time for that underdog mentality to end.
When the U.S. qualified for the 1990 World Cup, it kick-started the modern era of U.S. Soccer. Since then, the national team has seen three generations of players come and go.
The first generation, of college stars fighting an uphill battle, defeated Colombia in 1994 but crashed and burned in 1998. The second generation, led by breakout star Landon Donovan, reached the quarterfinals in 2002 but failed to duplicate that triumph in 2006 or 2010. The third generation increasingly lost its way, culminating in the team’s failure to even qualify for the 2018 edition.
Each generation provided hope. The ’90s generation was supposed to lay the foundation, to prove that the USA was no longer going to be a CONCACAF doormat. The 2000s generation was all set to establish the U.S. as a worldwide competitor. The 2010 generation, the first to grow up in a country that wasn’t dead set against the very idea of soccer, was supposed to be the one that pushed the USA to a new competitive level against the world’s best.
All of that growth, all of those resources and the explosion of American fan interest in soccer in general have all combined to push the USA to exactly one knockout-round win at the World Cup.
That one trip to the quarterfinals, nearly two decades ago now, is all the USA has to show for all of its efforts. Even that one bare victory was against local rivals Mexico. That one victory since 1990 is enough to put the USA in a class with 18 other members of the one timers’ club – not exactly an exclusive group.
There have always been ready-made excuses for the USMNT: no pro league, not enough players going overseas to test themselves, not enough money spent on youth development, and on and on. For the most part, those obstacles that once impeded American soccer are gone. Today’s players have been developed to be high-level soccer players from the beginning, with myriad opportunities in the pro ranks, whether stateside or abroad.
No, the United States is not on the verge of becoming equals with Brazil and France and Germany and Argentina and the rest of the world’s best teams. But there’s no reason that the USA can’t plant itself firmly in the second tier of countries, the ones that nobody wants to play and that are always dangerous. Teams like Croatia or Sweden or Uruguay, that sort of country.
Two decades after the modern era of U.S. Soccer got started, the USA can still count its victories at the men’s World Cup on one hand, and its knockout-round wins with just one finger. Berhalter’s task, beginning now and leading up to 2022, is to break the string of disappointment and to get his team living up to what it’s really capable of.