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The Mass Media

What’s next for Team USA after the World Cup?

This whistle’s shrill cut through Al Rayyan’s warm evening air. The bodies in white fell to the ground, exhausted and dejected. The bodies in orange let out a roar of pride and satisfaction. The hopes of one nation lay shattered, the hopes of another continuing to climb.

The USA lost 3–1 to the Netherlands, knocking them out of the 2022 World Cup in the Round of 16. While an uninspiring loss, this campaign has shown signs of things to come for this young generation.

The USA played four games. They won one, drew two and lost one. They scored three goals and conceded four. These are unflattering numbers to look at, but statistics in isolation are never the full story.

Team USA’s first match was a 1–1 draw against Wales. Timothy Weah scored the opener in the 36th minute after he flicked Christian Pulisic’s pass into the Welsh net. The team didn’t build on this, which proved costly in the end. While the team defended well for 80 minutes, a reckless challenge from Walker Zimmermann on Gareth Bale led to Wales being awarded a penalty, which Bale scored in the 82nd minute.

Their second match was a 0–0 draw against England and was an incredible performance against such a renowned footballing nation. The midfield trio of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams controlled the play brilliantly. They prevented English midfielders Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham from having much time on the ball to make any threatening passes. There were also some decent chances created by the USA. It showed the potential of this team in a big match.

The 1–0 win against Iran was the peak of the USA’s tournament. Christian Pulisic put his body on the line to meet Sergiño Dest’s cross to score the only goal of the game in the 38th minute. Once again, it was a story of creating chances but not scoring from them for the USA.

A dominant first half display was coupled with a nervy second half and some baffling tactical decisions to secure the USA’s place in the Round of 16 for the seventh time in the country’s history.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much joy to be found against the Netherlands. Only 10 minutes into the match, Dutch defender Denzel Dumfries played a pass into Memphis Depay, who slammed the ball into the bottom left corner of the USA’s net. In the first minute of first-half stoppage time, Dumfries repeated the trick and it was Daley Blind who converted the chance in a similar fashion.

2–0 down after the first half, the USA kept pushing and had some better chances in the second half. They pulled one back in the 76th minute through Haji Wright’s flick that looped agonizingly beyond the reach of Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert, and the comeback looked to be on.

Alas, Denzel Dumfries had arrived in Al Rayyan that evening with his heart set on destroying the hopes of a nation, as he got on the end of Daley Blind’s cross in the 81st minute to secure a 3–1 win for the Europeans.

Watching these matches made one thing clear: This team lacks a finish. They created many significant chances but could not convert them efficiently. The fact that the USA only score three goals would lead one to believe they were boring. Far from it! There was some great play displayed at times, and several instances that were surely going to be goals but just missed the mark.

There was also the naivety that comes with a young team. It was best exemplified in the buildup to Memphis Depay’s opening goal, when the Netherlands played a series of uninterrupted passes—eight observable from the clip online—beforehand. It was a move typical of Dutch football for decades, and it picked the young USA side apart with ease. The players didn’t know how to stop it or react to it.

There were questions about manager Gregg Berhalter before the tournament, with many questioning his ability to lead the team. On the balance of this World Cup, he has earned both his plaudits and his criticisms.

At times, he did everything right. Against England, Berhalter played a 4–4–2 formation that allowed him to use two strikers against England’s two central defenders. The presence of two strikers, one marking each defender, prevented the English defenders from making many passes forward. This allowed the USA to push higher up the field and pose a more significant threat to England while also limiting how much threat the Europeans could pose.

However, Berhalter also had his faults. Perhaps his biggest was his continued reliance on central defender Walker Zimmermann, who never looked very comfortable when defending. His reckless tackle is what gifted Wales the penalty in the opening match. Zimmermann then started the game against England, in which he did decent but was still not without his shaky moments.

Berhalter finally dropped Zimmermann in favor of Cameron Carter-Vickers against Iran, which worked a treat. The 24-year-old looked extremely assured alongside veteran defender Tim Ream as they restricted the threat posed by Iranian strikers Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun. Carter-Vickers seemed like the no-brainer option, so it was baffling to see Zimmermann reinstated against the Netherlands.

Berhalter was a mixed bag. What of the players? This is more clear-cut as there is a lot of promise in this team. Christian Pulisic was the standout player, assisting two goals, scoring the other and creating way more chances than his teammates knew what to do with. The previously mentioned trio of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Yunus Musha showed incredible maturity in the way they prevented opposition midfielders from making dangerous passes.

Timothy Weah showed an explosive pace on the wing and should have had three or four goals to his name. Antonee Robinson showed creativity going forward but was a bit lackluster defensively. There were also talents such as Giovanni Reyna, Jesus Ferreira and Brendan Aaronson whose involvements were limited but have very bright careers ahead of them.

The best-performing players were the ones playing for clubs in Europe. The only Major League Soccer players who started were Jesus Ferierra and Walker Zimmerman, and their level of performance was significantly lower than other players. This isn’t to talk down to the MLS, which is where almost all of these young talents had their breakthrough into football, but the fact is that the standard of football in Europe is much higher than it is in the USA.

Almost all of the best players in the world play for clubs in Europe. They get access to the best facilities, coaching, preparation and so on. They compete with the best players in the world on a weekly basis, which elevates their own level of performance and experience.

Go back to the McKennie-Musah-Adams trio. They play for clubs in Italy, Spain and England respectively. They have a level of experience against some of the best players Europe has to offer, which helped them shut down the midfield against England. If they were still playing in the MLS, England would have walked all over them.

As another example, Walker Zimmerman plays in the U.S., and Cameron Carter-Vickers in Scotland. The level of Scottish football is relatively low compared to other European countries, but it’s still higher than that of the USA. Zimmerman couldn’t be trusted, Carter-Vickers was dominant.

For 2026, the focus needs to be on talent development. Nine of the 26 USA players at the World Cup were playing in the MLS and 13 were playing in the top five European leagues. For future success, this ratio needs to swing further toward European-based players.

Younger players such as Jesus Ferreira should be looking to move to European clubs, as it will provide an excellent next step for their careers. The talents that are already there will only continue to improve. Come 2026, this team could feature a mix of fresh young talent with the now-experienced core that was used in this tournament.

The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the USA, Mexico, and Canada. Making predictions about football is always a risky game. To make predictions about a tournament that is four years away is almost insanity. No one knows which players will rise to the top and which ones will be a shadow of their former selves.

However, if this team continues on its upward trajectory, and more talented players emerge by 2026, there’s no reason this team couldn’t make the quarterfinals or even the semifinals.

That’s the other thing that makes football so great, and it’s that anything is possible.

About the Contributor
Adam Shah, Contributing Writer