In October last year, the richest nation on earth was dumped out of World Cup qualifying by a country of just over a million people and better known for producing cricketers. A year and a month after their traumatic defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, the USA arrive at Wembley in the mood for renewal, but still with more questions than answers.
On the face of things, it’s legitimate to wonder what has really changed in these 13 months. They’ve not played a competitive game in that time. Their world ranking (currently 23) has barely shifted. They still don’t have a head coach, a full-time captain or a real identity. They’ve carved out the odd decent friendly result, a 1-1 draw against future world champions France in June, a 1-0 win over an under-strength Mexico in September. But nothing in keeping with the remarkable feast of bloodletting and introspection provoked by the USA’s failure to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Most of the significant changes have taken place under the bonnet. The president of US Soccer, Sunil Gulati, left in December after 12 years in the job. One of the first moves made by his replacement Carlos Cordeiro was to install a general manager with the responsibility for “style of play”, “team tactical principles” and ensuring continuity between the grassroots, age-group levels and the senior team.
The eventual choice was Earnie Stewart, a 101-cap veteran midfielder and a former sporting director of AZ Alkmaar. The son of a US airman, Stewart enthuses about the use of data and talks about remaking the culture of American soccer. He has already insisted that the next coach must speak English and speaks of the team taking pride in the flag.
“We believe in the United States,” he said. “We’re a country that is aggressive, in the right sense of the word. We’re a little bit in your face.”
For followers of English football, all this may sound a touch familiar. After all, it’s barely two years since the England team underwent its own calvary, against Iceland in Nice. Ever since then, Gareth Southgate’s revolution has been built on many of same foundation stones - a purge of veterans, a relentless focus on youth, a defined style of play, a clear pathway from the junior teams to senior level - that the United States are now trying to emulate.
Stewart’s talk of “culture” could have been culled straight from the England DNA playbook. The bonfire of the veterans has been ruthless: gone are the likes of Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Tim Ream, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley - an entire generation simply swept out of the door. What’s left is a squad with an average age of just 23 and no outfield player over 30, drawn largely from the European leagues rather than Major League Soccer.
Already there’s a sense that the US are looking ahead not simply to the next World Cup but perhaps even the one after that, when the USA will co-host the 2026 tournament with Mexico and Canada, and by which time many of today’s emerging starlets should be just about at their peak.
Perhaps the brightest signs of hope lie in midfield, where the brilliant 20-year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic will have to shoulder the creative burden of a team that will not see much of the ball against the best teams. Alongside him, the strongly-rated Weston McKennie of Schalke and Tyler Adams of New York Red Bulls are just 20 and 19 respectively. Up front, there are high hopes for the Werder Bremen teenager Josh Sargent.
It feels like a more representative team too, a fairer reflection of the country’s polyglot, multicultural heritage. Dual nationals like Kenny Saief and Romain Gall abound. The Atlanta midfielder Darlington Nagbe - absent for the England game through injury - is a Liberian refugee who moved to the country as a child. PSG’s Timothy Weah, the son of George, is another notable player of Liberian heritage. In a country seemingly more deeply divided than ever along racial and cultural lines, these minor symbolisms feel especially powerful.
All very fine, but can they play? The evidence, to date, remains sketchy: a lack of elite experience reigns with many players on the fringes at big clubs rather than playing regularly at smaller ones. And many of the endemic problems in the US game - the whiteness of its grassroots, the lack of quality coaching, the failure to grow the game beyond its affluent suburban base - won’t be solved overnight. But in the capricious world of international football, a few fearless kids and some well-rehearsed set-piece routines can get you a lot further than you might think. Just ask England.
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