DOHA, Qatar – Desperation crippled Tyler Adams for the first few minutes of the next four years. Here, at the Khalifa International Stadium, shortly after the final whistle blew his World Cup dreams, he was brought to his knees. This forced him to gather as the Netherlands celebrated their 3-1 victory over the United States. Finally, it dragged him to the grass.
But as he sat there with his head bowed, amid sad looks and sincere condolences, his thoughts turned to the future and his mood changed.
“It’s probably the first time in a long time that people are saying, ‘Wow, this team has something special,'” Adams reflected, later speaking about the US men’s national team and the public’s perception of it. “Potential is just potential, but we can see that if we maximize it in the right way, it can be a good thing.”
However, he was eliminated in the round of 16 after a series of World Cup qualifiers that resulted in familiar failures, just as he did in 2014, 2010 and 1994. So I asked Adams: Why is it different?
“Oh, I mean, I think you can make that assessment for yourself,” he said. And he was right.
“With the players on our team compared to previous teams – I wasn’t on the 2010 team, I wasn’t on the 2014 team, so I can’t sit here and assess the potential of these teams,” he continued. “But, I mean, being the second youngest team in the World Cup and getting the same result, that speaks for itself.”
Their starting four were, in fact, the four youngest in this World Cup. They were full of still-rising stars who had already surpassed many of their predecessors in the USMNT. Adams, perhaps out of respect for those predecessors, doesn’t say at all that his team has more talent than theirs. But it is clear.
But its current talent is not the only reason for unprecedented optimism. Talent, as the vast majority of footballing nations can attest, tends to peak in consistency and starts through random ebbs and flows.
But the hope in American soccer is that this generation is not just a golden generation that shines on home soil in 2026; this is the beginning of a carefully crafted trend and a sign of even better generations to come.
The USMNT is still a work in progress
The seeds of change and the 2022 USMNT were planted in the mid-2000s, when the men running U.S. Soccer basically realized that their youth development model, as former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports, was “absolutely is gone.”
It was backwards. Children were playing more than practicing, taking tests more than studying. In a way, FC Dallas academy director Chris Hayden told Yahoo Sports, “we accidentally developed some kind of players.”
So in 2007, as Major League Soccer increased its investment in youth programs, USA Soccer launched its controversial Development Academy. The DA, as it became known, was a nationwide league that pitted America’s best teenage boys against each other every week. It also scheduled three and then four training sessions a week. It broke early, ruffling feathers and angering some youth football directors around the country. But it fixed a “broken” system and, especially, when it expanded in the last decade, it started to produce.
It helped produce 17 of the 26 players on this year’s World Cup roster, including Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKenney, Joe Reyna and Brenden Aaronson. US Soccer shut it down in 2020, but by then MLS was poised to take over the boys soccer pyramid. Currently, 29 Pro League clubs invest more than $100 million annually in the development of domestic players. They maintain reserve teams that span the spectrum from youth to professional and provide their first teams and, by extension, the US Men’s National Team.
They attract more and more European scouts and send youngsters to the best clubs in Europe. Disadvantages, of course, there are many shortcomings, but “quality [American] The players have grown dramatically over 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 “just scratching the surface. scratched.”
By extension, so is the USMNT. Its 2022 World Cup ended in line with expectations, but several people interviewed for a pre-tournament story on youth development warned against the temptation of more than four games. Many believed that better evidence would come in four years and beyond.
“We will see the final result in five to 10 years,” said another Bayern youth coach, Sebastian Dremmler. “[In 2026]you will have a very strong team.”
“The American public should be optimistic”
The 2026 World Cup was far from over as grim faces emerged from Khalifa on Saturday night. Reyna declined interviews. Pulisic’s voice was weak and pained. Tim Rham was overcome with emotion as he realized that, unlike many of his teammates, at age 35, he probably wouldn’t get another shot at the stage.
But there was a prospect under the dark faces.
“The future is bright,” said Raym 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 reached the top level yet – the potential in this next cycle is very is great. The program is in good hands with these guys. Good characters. Good players. Good people. … I’m excited about what they can do on the world stage.”
DeAndre Yedlin, who enjoyed the 2014 team, was asked if it was a step forward or a step back, saying, “I think it’s a step forward.”
Matt Turner casually said, “There’s great potential, and if you can’t see it,” well, he doesn’t know what to tell you. “We played in England, we played in the Netherlands and we gave both teams a tough, tough time.”
And perhaps most importantly, they didn’t do it reactively. They wanted the ball. When opponents won it, they wanted it back. They struggled physically and tactically with England. They were ranked among the top 10 teams in the world, the Netherlands basically decided that their best hope of beating the USA was to take possession and counter.
“They have to make sure we can play with everybody in the world the way we want to,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s the important thing.”
This does not mean that the USMNT has reached the Dutch or English level. There remains a lack of quality, which was evident at crucial moments on Saturday night.
But quality improves with experience and age. The youth system should provide more of it.
“To go to the World Cup four times in a row with the youngest team in the world and still be able to play like we are — the American public has to be optimistic,” Berhalter said.
He and his players as a team set out four years ago to “change the way the world looks at American football,” as McKenney reiterated Saturday night. “I think we got some of that in this World Cup,” McKenney said. Berhalter felt they had “partially achieved” it.
But the holy grail has always changed America’s view of American men’s soccer. They do it almost exclusively by winning. And here in Qatar, even though they have only won once, they have shown that they will surely win more one day.
“I think this tournament really restored a lot of faith, restored a lot of respect for USA Soccer and soccer in our country,” McKenney said. “I think we have shown that we can become giants in the end. We may not be there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way. “