A month ago I focused on how soccer has arrived in the USA as a true draw. Coming off an exciting June filled with EURO 2020 and the COPA America, eyes turned toward the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Tokyo Olympics. The task for the Men was to make the Final and for the Women, bring home the Gold Medal.
Greg Berhalter called up the so-called A squad for the Nations League in early June. That squad was littered with players making significant contributions to 15 European clubs including Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester City among others. These men attacked and defeated the Mexican A squad to bring home the trophy and make a statement. Seeing the likes of Pulisic, McKennie, Reyna, Dest, Acosta, Aaronson, Miazga, Sargent and others play with bravery, aggression and emotion was refreshing. These players know that their legacy playing for the USA is on the line with the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
The success in the CONCACAF Nation’s League brings us to the 2021 Gold Cup. In an effort to develop and test the depth of the national team, Berhalter allowed many of the veteran stars to rest in preparation for their club season. This resulted in the youngest US Men’s National Team squad taking the pitch. There were a handful of players held over from the Nation’s League journey and they would make their voices heard. The USA made their way through group play with poise and suffocating defense. They defeated Canada in the final group stage match to win the group. This ensured that they wouldn’t face their bitter rivals to the south until the Final. The Yanks continued to show resiliency and march their way to Vegas. Viewership ratings of the tournament were positive, culminating with over 7 million TV viewers of the Final on August 1st. The final was set, USA and Mexico, live from Vegas. As in just about every USA-Mexico match, emotions are high and the foul counts are much higher. The young Americans were facing almost the exact same 11 that the A squad defeated 2 months earlier in Denver. The Americans controlled the pace and had the majority of the scoring chances. As the clock ticked closer to extra time, Kellyn Acosta struck a beautiful free kick into the box, meeting Miles Robinson perfectly. He made sure this attempt wouldn’t miss and put the ball into the net with almost no time remaining. Soon after, the whistle blew and the Americans were Gold Cup Champions. Defeating Mexico in back to back finals within 8 weeks of each other is a massive springboard. The 2 defeats for Mexico, in addition to their short comings in Tokyo, their squad is faltering. This success and test of depth now presents the American men with a larger challenge, World Cup qualifying.
In addition to facing the demons of missing the 2018 World Cup, COVID has caused the WC qualifying schedule to be condensed from about 2 years of matches to 14 over the next 7 months. These are all played during International Break windows where global Clubs pause league play so the National team matches can be played. This condensed schedule begins on September 3rd against El Salvador. The condensed schedule was another factor into Berhalter’s plan. He knows this will be a grueling campaign and availability or player health might cause for them to miss a match or two. This means he needs to see who he trusts to play significant minutes. Missing back to back World Cups is not an option.
Unlike the Men’s National Team, the Women have been at the top of the sport forever. They have been tested, but in most tournaments, they arrived and walked away with hardware. As the squad made their way to Japan, they had dreams of Gold and redeeming themselves for not medaling in Rio. This squad came in with a ton of talent and experience, but it became evident very quickly that they were not the same team from the 2019 World Cup. They lost 2 matches in a tournament in what feels like forever, resulting in falling short of their goal. They lost to their neighbors to the north in the semi-final, setting up a Bronze medal match with Australia. The squad rallied amidst all the chatter of disfunction and lack of desire to capture the Bronze. A medal is nothing to be ashamed of, but could this have been the beginning of the end of American dominance or has the game grown so much because of their success that the play is better across the globe? The 2023 World Cup will speak loudly to the depth and success of the Women’s National Team.
As we enter August, the club campaigns are about to commence as well as the closing of the summer transfer window. 2 American MLS players have impressed so much that Venezia of the Italian Serie A bough Tanner Tessmann of FC Dallas and Gianluca Busio from Sporting KC. These signings as well as the significant interest in Orlando City’s Daryl Dike is a sign that American players and the MLS are viewed as a talent pool. The quality of play in MLS as well as the talent development is becoming a viable option of the premier clubs in the world to pick from. This is validation that MLS is here to stay and a global player for talent. The second half of the MLS schedule is here and the race to the playoffs will be as intense as any other leagues push for a title or Champions League qualification. MLS attendance and viewership numbers continue to increase and if more European clubs see the talent we have here, they will pay to acquire the player. Those funds are then used to develop the MLS squad and grow their brand. The future is very bright for American soccer on the club and International level. If you live near one of the cities hosting a World Cup Qualifying match, buy tickets, bring your friends, tailgate and represent America as we March toward Qatar!