The lineup read Manchester City, Barcelona, Anderlecht, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Caen, Fulham, Valencia, Boavista, and Heerenveen. Not only that, but the USMNT’s starting eleven in their most recent friendly against Panama was the second youngest lineup ever at 22 years and 154 days. The coronation for a generation of American youth development started slowly with Panama scoring first off a simple cross. Then, the European-honed quality took over: 18-year-old Gio Reyna scored his first ever national team goal off a cheeky free kick. Caen’s 20-year-old striker Nicholas Giocchini added two more before halftime. Norwich City striker Sebastian Soto, also 20-years-old, scored two more late goals, with Sebastian Lletget capping off a 6-2 win.
Even considering the lackluster 0-0 draw against Wales, you could see the USMNT’s paradigm shift during this latest international break just by the lineups alone. It was partly due to happenstance, with travel restrictions from the pandemic combined with the start of the MLS playoffs forcing manager Gregg Berhalter to call up a European-based roster for their two matches in Wales and Austria. The friendlies were a showcase for the cohesive pressing style of the national team influenced by the MLS pipeline into Germany. RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams noted how competition within the squad was now between Champions League level players. The quality demonstrates how, for all of their own individual philosophies, national team managers are still at the mercy of domestic talent and development.
To further showcase the global nature of the USMNT, a piece of Berhalter’s midfield came as a byproduct of Valencia’s current financial distress. Considering how the club sold five starters without any replacements, 17-year-old attacker Yunus Musah received his opportunity to start in La Liga by default. We may never have gotten this viral goal that brought Musah onto the radar of supporters otherwise (though Berhalter claimed he had been recruiting Musah for the past 18 months). His rise happened quickly, as things do in the social media world: Musah made his senior debut for Valencia in September, scored his first goal on November 1st, then accepted a U.S. invite on November 2nd.
The welcoming of Musah captures the dichotomy and shifting recruitment style of the new national team: we simultaneously want the USMNT to be of America and have as good of individual quality as possible. So no matter that Musah, who grew up in Italy for ten years then developed in Arsenal’s youth academy, was born in New York when his family was on vacation - or that Sergino Dest was born in the Netherlands and first visited American when he was 14 years old. Quality is quality, and American talent is still American talent as defined under FIFA rules. Dest nutmegging Daniel James counts as one of our own.
“It’s not as if the U.S. is bad at soccer...they play in World Cups,” said Dest on his decision to choose to play for the U.S. instead of the Netherlands.
Besides, through social media, we’ve been watching, tweeting about, and building a relationship with the likes of Dest for years now. There may have been questions about what constitutes an American player in the past, but the connections through retweets, likes, and smartphones delivered a new way to form a bond. And it was only a matter of time before Musah’s age and quality attracted more attention, with England manager Gareth Southgate saying that they would still continue their recruitment for Musah’s international career.
Of course, it helps when Musah is as good as he is, and fills a role in midfield that no one else on the roster can. While Berhalter previously built upon the pressing ability of Weston McKennie and Adams, Musah’s directness and dribbling is the x-factor that makes the trio function in attack. Berhalter acknowledged how impressed he is by the three players in “how much ground they can cover, how dynamic they are.” And it’s not a show of running for its own sake. Adams has frequently discussed the education he’s received under Julian Nagelsmann, especially in his decision-making when pressing.
“Being able to kind of command everything that was going on in front of me, tell players when to go and when not to go, to initiate the press, when to stay back, it allows me to lead the team in a better way,” said Adams of his holding role with the national team.
Each player has their irreplaceable role within the trio: Adams is the quarterback of the press, the holding midfielder putting out fires. McKennie is the box to box midfielder filling in the small parts. Musah adds the thrust in transitions. Before the Wales match, Berhalter said he wanted to take advantage of his side’s aggression and athleticism. Those were backhanded compliments in the past, drawing on stereotypes of a lesser skilled team. But pressing turned athleticism into a skillset as valuable as any in the modern game.
This reverence towards Europe didn’t go unnoticed by other players within the national team pool, for better or worse. 23-year-old winger Sebastian Saucedo, a U.S. international currently as Pumas, predicted that the USMNT has a brighter future than Mexico because they’re willing to sell their players to Europe for cheap.
“There are players in Europe that are…called just because they play in Europe. They underappreciate the Mexican league. The Mexican league has spectacular players that are called up to their national teams,” remarked Saucedo, who was born in California, about those who were left behind in the paradigm shift.
Berhalter said he wanted the USMNT to play one more friendly before the end of the year, this time featuring mostly domestic players. That will be followed by a four month break until the next international period in March, before the real test with the Concacaf Nations League in June.
This separation between a Europe-based team and an MLS-based team is a contemporary development. Berhalter specifically emphasized the need for his European-based players to win matches in the short time that they’re together, and one wonders if the MLS roster will have the same urgency if there’s no opportunity to break into a European-based team. You could say this is a good, modern problem, an example of the amount of depth currently in the talent pool. But there is also the tension of a roster based in Europe having to grind out matches within the physicality of Concacaf. Reyna noted after the Panama match that “we got a little bit of a taste of what the Concacaf teams will be like against us.” Berhalter added that it was important for his young phenoms “to be involved in a game like this.”
“We had some guys calling for fouls and stuff – these aren’t going to be fouls. You’ve got to play on,” he added.
Having two separate ideas of national team rosters could also indirectly nudge young players to move to Europe, something that Jurgen Klinsmann tried to emphasize during the early part of the decade. It is easy and obvious to say that players should be playing in the top leagues, but those demands require long-term, generational commitments of academies. Though other times, like with Dest and Musah, the talent falls into your lap. Through a combination of happenstance and planning, the USMNT looked outward, and the results are beginning to match the expectations we’d built up this entire time.