Scintillating soccer, technical, tactical, and attack-oriented, played by young men starting for some of the biggest and best clubs in the world: This is what we have to look forward to. This is the future of the United States men’s national team, in 2016 and beyond. But first, we need to get through the 2014 World Cup.
It’s possible to divide the post-1989 history of the USMNT into three, roughly eight-year eras.
The first began in 1990, when the Americans returned to the world stage after a 40-year absence. Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round the World got the USMNT into the World Cup for the first time since 1950. Four years later, when the United States played host, a wider audience got a close look at Tab Ramos’s talent, Eric Wynalda’s scoring prowess, and Alexi Lalas’s hair, and fell in love with the Denim Kits. This era came to an end right around the time coach Steve Sampson left John Harkes (a.k.a. “Captain America”) off the 1998 World Cup roster, opted for a 3-6-1 formation in the tournament, and watched his squad lose convincingly to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia in France.
The 2002 World Cup squad marked the beginning of the second era. Bruce Arena’s gang, the most successful side in modern American soccer, featured a mix of experience and youth, including veterans like goalkeeper Brad Friedel, midfield engine Claudio Reyna, and high-scoring forward Brian McBride, as well as a pair of electric 20-year-olds named Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley who were tearing up Major League Soccer at the time. Retired American player Frankie Hejduk recently told me it was the fittest team he’s ever been a part of, which is saying something considering the former defender values fitness as much as he does the perfect right-hand break.
Four years later, the team Arena brought to Germany featured the same DNA as the ’02 squad — eight players who started the first game of the ’06 World Cup appeared on the ’02 roster — but the results were dramatically different. The second era came to a close at the moment Reyna sprained his medial collateral ligament while being stripped by Ghana’s Haminu Draman, who promptly scored on Kasey Keller, more or less bouncing the Americans from the 2006 World Cup.
Bob Bradley’s accession to national team manager in December of that year — which came after a very public, and very failed, flirtation with former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann — marked the beginning of the current, third era. Nothing better represents it than a YouTube video showing reactions to Donovan’s goal in the 91st minute against Algeria in the third match of the 2010 World Cup.
As it was in 2010 is as it is now, with Donovan, along with Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Tim Howard, leading the way. The periphery changes — four years is a long time in life, and an even longer time in international soccer — but those men are the core of the team. For three of those players, Brazil represents a last chance. Another era of American soccer is nearing its inevitable conclusion. The national team will look dramatically different by the time we get to Russia in June 2018, as the most talented generation in U.S. soccer history comes of age. We’re sitting on the precipice of the fourth era, one that will last longer than eight years. The future of the United States men’s national team, one in which the Americans consistently compete for at least a semifinal appearance in every World Cup, draws near. But as a result, this summer might get a little dicey.
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