Post-mortem: The end of the 2022 cycle is a strong start for 2026
December 08, 2022
THE UNITED STATES is now several days beyond its elimination of the World Cup and the 2022 cycle is over. There is a lot of important things we don’t know yet about the team, with the two biggest being the coach and the general schedule the next four years. But there is also a lot about the team we do know.
While many fans are typically always disappointed with any exit, this was a good cycle for the men’s side of the program – both with the U.S. national team and beyond. Youth national teams continue to have turned the corner and the players who seem to be coming out of domestic channels are at another level compared with where they were during the tough years for the program in 2015-2017. Nearly every year you have multiple players breaking out in MLS and getting sold for good value.
This World Cup roster was really where you only started to see that investment in youth development at the club level pay off at the national team level. There really isn’t any reason to think it won’t continue when you look at the strength of the youth teams right now. There is a pathway for these players to eventually push for spots on the senior team to provide needed depth.
I said this all week. If I was to rate the 2022 World Cup for the U.S. team, I would give it a B+ and it played out as expected. The team had talent and while this team didn’t have a win on the level of defeating a Portugal (ala 2002), it played well in stretches for all four World Cup games. That hasn’t been the case before.
Even comparing the loss to the Dutch, the U.S. had real chances in that game. It was not the case when the U.S. was badly on its heels against Germany or Belgium in 2014, or against the Czech Republic in 2006, or Poland in 2002, or against Germany in 1998, or Brazil in 1994.
This World Cup ranks is most comparable to 2010 where the U.S. won its group with five points but lost to Ghana in extra time. But in this case, the U.S. drew and played very even with a much better English team than 2010 and was eliminated by a much better Ghana team. The 2002 team had to qualify for the knockout stages via the back door after an ugly loss to Poland and then was fortunate to draw Mexico.
But the biggest difference between this team and the successful 2010 team and the 2002 team is its youth. This team did not have a sophisticated Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey in their prime like 2010. Unlike 2002, this 2022 team did not have a prime-age Eddie Pope and Claudio Reyna along with the best No. 9 in team history in Brian McBride.
Instead, this 2002 team played well with a starting front six where none of the players had yet to turn 25. In doing so, they were in position to win each of their group stage games and had chances at key points against the Dutch. The did not need a performance like Tim Howard just to keep them alive like they did against Belgium in 2014 (when the team couldn’t string passes together).
In the end, the U.S. team paid its price for youth more than a lack of talent. But that was always how this campaign was likely to end for the U.S. team in a live by youth and die by youth cycle. The Dutch out-sophisticated the U.S. team in knowing how to change the pace of the game, respond better in adversity. These are the kind of things that the players must learn just by playing games of this magnitude on the international stage. The goal of playing so many young players is that there is hope it eventually pays off when they grow up.
Never in the program history will the U.S. team handoff to the next cycle a core group of players who will then be in their prime for the following cycle. Even successful World Cups like 2002 and 2010 required significant overhaul just because of age. This is where the U.S. team will now get to move forward with momentum while having learned tough lessons amid a successful tournament.
And it wasn’t just a solid World Cup either. The U.S. team has also won the Gold Cup, won the Nations League, and also its youth national teams are easily winning the regions and look set to continue to do well in global youth competitions.
That doesn’t mean critical questions need to be asked or addressed moving forward (whoever is the coach) but it is the best starting point that a U.S. team has ever had for a cycle.
Where things worked
For the U.S. team, Gregg Berhalter has identified most of the starting lineup that should widely be expected to be the staring lineup this cycle. But here are the best things that have come out of both this World Cup and the cycle overall.
The MMA midfield: This was probably the best thing to come out of the cycle is the creation of a first-choice midfield that the team can depend on. This was developed during World Cup qualifying and it has continued to grow. There is good chemistry between Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah and they can compete physically and technically at a high level. It’s not perfect as this contingent needs to be able to score and assist more. Creativity needs to continue to improve but the foundation is there.
The fullbacks: The USMNT is right now more stable with its starting fullbacks than at any point in its history. Antonee Robinson, 25, and Sergino Dest, 22, are two attacking fullbacks who have a lot of experience already and have great attacking qualities. Yes, Robinson’s crossing could hopefully be better, but this is as strong and as stable the U.S. has ever been with a fullback duo.
Wings: The U.S national team should also feel good about where it is in the wing positions on either side. Pulisic owns the left side while Weah operates on the right. There is also depth on either side too with Aaronson still being an option to cover either side. Even going down the chain to further backups such as Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola contributed positively during the cycle.
Where things didn’t work
There are still things that didn’t work this cycle – some of this is on Berhalter, some of this isn’t. Regardless of who is the coach next cycle, these are clear and obvious areas needed for improvement.
Backup No. 8/10 midfielders: In the MMA midfield, only Tyler Adams had a true and easily identifiable backup in Kellyn Acosta – who at 27 still has a few good years. Still, more No. 6 options are needed to backup Adams. But the backups to Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have always been murky. Most options fell through either because of injury, age, form, or simply because they were too young (Johnny Cardoso, Eryk Williamson, Sebastian Lletget, Gianluca Busio, Owen Otasowie etc). In the end, Brenden Aaronson served the only real backup in these positions but simply not enough midfield depth beyond the MMA midfield emerged.
Finding a role for Reyna: Gio Reyna did not feature much in Qatar and he sat beyond the MMA midfielders and/or Tim Weah on the wing. Whether or not this is the fault of Reyna, Berhalter, or someone else, his talent was not realized.
Midfield creativity: As promising as the MMA midfield showed in 2022, there needs to be more creativity with goals and assists from this trio. Part of this is probably due to their youth and still needing to grow, but this is a priority in terms of turning the corner is to get goals and assists out of the midfield.
Center forward: This is perhaps the biggest need for improvement. Over the past two years Berhalter played Haji Wright, Josh Sargent, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Ricardo Pepi, Gyasi Zardez, and Matthew Hoppe in center forward. In the end, nothing was good enough. The good news for the U.S. team is that these players tend to mature over time and in the years ahead, there are enough options that one or several of the younger options from the list will pan out. But the lack of a settled center forward made the U.S. team easy to defend. Opponents forced the U.S. team to go out wide far too often known that the team struggled with is crossing and didn’t have a reliable target in the middle.
Set pieces: The U.S. struggled with set pieces all cycle. They even hired a set piece specialist over the summer and saw literally no return for that investment in Qatar. The U.S. team struggled on both ends of set pieces in terms of delivery and targets. As good as Pulisic has been with this team, his set piece deliveries have not been great. But the two most dangerous targets, Walker Zimmerman and Weston McKennie, were also not involved. This desperately needs to improve moving forward.
Central defense pairings: This was something that could have been handled better but, in the end, did not cost the U.S. team much in Qatar. None of the three goals scored by the Netherlands were on central defense and only Zimmerman’s penalty against Wales was the fault of a central defender in Qatar. That’s not bad given over 360 minutes. But if Ream-Zimmerman was the pairing, they had almost no experience together. Cameron Carter-Vickers also spent too little time with the team.
There are going to be more options in the cycle ahead with Chris Richards, Erik Palmer-Brown, Mark McKenzie, Miles Robinson, Auston Trusty all looking to enter or reenter the fold as Ream, Zimmerman, and Aaron Long potentially age out sooner or later. The U.S. can’t run the risk of heading into another World Cup with pairings who have no experience together.
Above the U.S. team, U.S. Soccer needs to figure out a way to get the team more meaningful games on a regular basis. Unless there is a change, the standard four-year cycle for the U.S. team consists of two Gold Cups, two Nations Leagues, friendlies, and a watered-down World Cup qualifying now that the even consists of 48 teams. That’s not great and keeping this team relevant and challenged in between World Cups is a huge priority.
For the next four years, the U.S. team has some good options. There is a chance that the 2024 Copa America could be held without the “guest team” restrictions. Typically, guest teams in the Copa America are forced to play with almost unworkable restrictions, namely clubs do not have to release players for guest teams. This has led to teams like the U.S. in 2007, Mexico in 2015, and Japan in 2019 having to field distant backup option that made their teams non-competitive.
For the Copa America in 2024 to make sense for the U.S. team, these restrictions have to be lifted. Otherwise, the chances are small that a critical mass of those players who will play in 2026 will participate. These restrictions were lifted once before in 2016 when the Copa America Centenario was held in the USA and FIFA ensured all players would be released.
Then also in 2024, the U.S. will participate in the Olympics. This will be a U-23 team with three exceptions. That should still ensure that several players in the 2026 national team take part.
If the U.S. team, then participates in the 2024 Copa America free of restrictions in addition to the Olympics, the team should be in good shape.
But even beyond this cycle, long-term solutions beyond this cycle are needed. Otherwise, it will be the same questions in four years in terms of how to keep this team relevant. U.S. Soccer needs to think if it is possible for solutions like lobbying for the return of the Confederations Cup, more regular participation in the Copa America free of restrictions, a global nations league, merging with CONMEBOL, etc?
Big opportunities for YNTs
The U.S. team improved over the past four years because of improved developmental channels within this country – led by MLS academies where many of the players on the World Cup team spent significant time. But players such as Adams, Aaronson, Scally, and even McKennie (who spent seven years with FC Dallas), are only part of the first generation of the modern version of the academies. There are a lot more coming in the pipeline.
U.S. youth national teams have been feeding on this improvement with impressive efficiency. The U.S. U-20 team has advanced to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cups in 2015, 2017, and 2019. The current U-20 team has qualified for the 2023 World Cup and the Olympics after an extremely impressive showing this past summer at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships.
In total, 14 of the players on the U.S. team in Qatar played for the U.S. in youth World Cups.
In the coming years, the youth teams need to continue to prepare players to make the jump to the U.S. team. There will be a lot of spots to potentially fill to provide depth behind many of the starters.
Overall, it was a good cycle. The results were satisfactory in terms of winning CONCACAF twice in 2021 and advancing to the knockouts of the 2022 World Cup where the team played well in stretches of each of the four games.
There is a blueprint for the team moving forward as only minimal areas need to be replaced in the years ahead – and almost all of the entire core, will approach their prime years heading into the 2026 World Cup. It’s a vastly different start to the cycle than at any point in the past. It’s far more of a continuation than a new rebuild. The team has a long way to go to reach its potential, but it got a lot done this cycle.