DOHA – American success in the men's World Cup remains a dream.
The U.S. team looked better this year, but the results were the same as in 2010 and 2014. The Americans were eliminated in the round of 16 following a 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands on Saturday.
“We’ve shown that we can compete with top-tier teams and we just want to change the narrative because we think, obviously, over the past years we haven’t gotten enough respect for U.S. soccer and for the way that we play,” midfielder Weston McKennie said. “I think we accomplished a piece of that in this World Cup.”
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
Expectations were high for a team with a core of young, rising stars who play in some of the top European leagues.
No North and Central American and Caribbean nation has reached the semifinals since the U.S. in 1930.
Draws against Wales and England were followed by a 1-0 win over Iran that assured a spot in the knockout rounds, and the U.S. achieved the minimum to avoid being branded a failure. Going home after the group stage would have been a disappointment given the expectations for the team coach Gregg Berhalter rebuilt.
Berhalter was hired in December 2018 from Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew at the recommendation of Earnie Stewart, now the U.S. sporting director.
Berhalter took over 14 months after the U.S. lost at Trinidad and Tobago, failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia and ending a streak of seven straight appearances in the tournament. A segment of fans repeatedly criticized him for his roster selections and tactics and some would prefer a foreign coach with more European experience.
His contract expires this month — he was paid $1.29 million in the fiscal year ending in March 2021, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation's latest financial statement. Berhalter has led the Americans to 37 wins, 11 losses and 12 draws.
After the defeat to the Dutch, Berhalter wouldn't say whether he wanted to stay on.
“In the next couple of weeks I'll clear my head, I'll sit down and I'll think about what's next,” he said.
Defender Tim Ream, 35, was the oldest player on a 26-man roster that was the tournament's second youngest. He stood motionless at the final whistle and his voice cracked when talking about the experience.
“Just thinking about the journey, really, where I’ve really been, where I’ve come from,” he said. “I've been in the program for 12 years and never guaranteed anything. Obviously, a lot of these guys are guaranteed another World Cup and for me that’s not going to happen — and trying to convey to treat each and every training session as if it was their last, each and every game as if it was their last.”
A core group is led by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie (both 24), Tyler Adams (23) and Yunus Musah (20), joined by Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson (both 22) and Gio Reyna (20).
“We didn’t qualify for the last World Cup and here we are in the round of 16. We've definitely come a long way,” Pulisic said. “There's, for sure, moments that we can be proud of. But we don’t want to feel like this again, and we want to put ourselves in a position to win tournaments like this.”
Central defender and striker remained unsettled for much of the past cycle. Defenders Miles Robinson (25) and Chris Richards (22) missed the World Cup because of injuries.
Gabriel Slonina, an 18-year-old goalkeeper joining Chelsea next month, appears to be the top American prospect. Midfielder Paxten Aaronson, Brenden’s 19-year-old brother, joins Eintracht Frankfurt. Ricardo Pepi (19) was overlooked for the U.S. roster after leading the teams strikers with three goals in qualifying.
More than a dozen players eligible for the under-20 team are with European clubs, though most are not seeing first-team playing time. Whether any emerge is hard to predict. For every Pulisic and Reyna that become regulars as teenagers, 10 or 20 stall.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is from June 26 to July 16 and most Europe-based players should be available. Because the U.S. will have an automatic berth for the 2026 World Cup as a co-host, next year's Gold Cup will be one of the few opportunities in the cycle to have the core group available for competitive matches.