When America plays host to the next World Cup, alongside Mexico and Canada, it will likely field the most talented men’s squad ever trotted out by the U.S. Soccer Federation. And yet, to hear many American soccer fans tell it, our competitive place in the world game remains shamefully uncertain.
Ambiguity, it seems, is a poor fit for cultures accustomed to hegemony.
Internationally, futbol observers do agree the U.S. has finally amassed a bumper crop of young, potentially game-changing talent. They recognize this fact because the 2022 World Cup finals proved a pretty good eye test — but also because the players who embody and exhibit that talent are all being groomed right under their noses, at dozens of European clubs.
Back in 2015, the controversial soon-to-be-fired USMNT skipper Jurgen Klinsmann tried to explain this overseas-development dynamic to the larger Americans soccer public, both the fan base here and his own national team players, many of whom were then — for a variety of reasons — returning home to compete in Major League Soccer. These senior players didn’t listen to Klinsi, but young prospects like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie read him loud and clear. All of them apprenticed themselves abroad, at their earliest opportunities, with the best European clubs that would have them.
This is how and where world-class footballing talent is developed in the modern era, whether that talent is born or first emerges in North America, or South America, or Africa. Ultimately, the fortunes of national teams the world over are dictated by how many and how well players are reared by club-affiliated academy operations across Western Europe.
The USMNT is no exception, yet American soccer fans remain stubbornly unfamiliar with how this process affects our national team. The idea that we must outsource such a thing flies in the face of every sporting understanding we possess. And so our understandings and expectations remain unmanaged or mismanaged.
Sadly, this disconnect has been evident in our heedless, en masse responses to the USMNT’s Round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands on Dec. 3. The thrust of this outrage is rather simple: The Federation, its coaching staff and the players themselves must somehow be more vigilant in seeking and securing the nation’s first quarterfinal place since 2002, lest the talents of our young core be squandered. We must aspire to the next level of World Cup competition, folks insist. We cannot be satisfied, they say, as if it’s somehow a matter of will.
These grave assertions nearly all serve as de facto indictments of coach Gregg Berhalter, whose tactical inflexibility and inexperience make the team’s next-step evolution impossible, his critics allege. I’m no great fan of Berhalter’s. I’d prefer he resign and take his talents to South Beach or some such MLS locale. Yet even if he were retained as USMNT manager, the fate of our precocious national team frankly lies well beyond the control or influence of any single national team manager.
Let’s break down the larger dynamics here: Winning the World Cup is really hard. Only eight nations have ever done it, and that group is populated mainly by nations whose traditions and talent-development processes have long dominated the elite ranks of this sport. If we remove one-hit, home-soil wonders (England) and nations that haven’t seriously competed for titles since 1950 (Uruguay), the cohort of realistic contenders, of perennial quarterfinalists, is smaller still.
Accordingly, if we’re searching for guideposts in how exactly elite footballing nations mature, it seems reasonably to ask, “What was the last G8 member to arrive amongst the elite, how did that country manage its ascent, and who, if anyone in particular, managed that evolution?”
The best answer, for the purposes of this U.S.-centric discussion, is France, which just happened to absorb a heartbreaking defeat in yesterday’s World Cup denouement, its fourth final in seven quadrennials. Examination of the French national team and its serial successes reveal something else germane: how multi-cultural influence can benefit a large, multi-ethnic, still-developing soccer nation like our own.
How long did it take France to arrive as an elite footballing power? Its semifinal appearance at the 1958 World Cup proved rather flukish in retrospect. It competed regularly at subsequent major tournaments but never threatened to gain the last four in any of them. Les Bleus wouldn’t take their first genuine “next steps” until World Cup 1978. That generation of players impressed in Argentina, went on to contest a World Cup semifinal in 1982, then claimed its first major title at the 1984 European Championships, in France. Michel Platini & Co. landed themselves in another semifinal at Mexico ’86, but that was the end of the line.
Come 1998, an entirely new cohort of French players claimed the nation’s first World Cup title, again on home soil.
The English proved that winning a World Cup at home doesn’t guarantee sustained championship success. France avoided this fate, starting in the 1980s, by deftly transcending the impact of any one generation of players, however golden it may have been. Over the course of 40 years, the French have consistently developed an extraordinary stream of young talent: some of it entirely home-grown; some of it developed abroad, in former colonial holdings, mainly in Africa; some of it native-born to parents recently arrived from elsewhere. All of these young footballers were developed by French clubs and academies — or by academies attached to clubs across Europe.
The result: Since winning World Cup ’98, France has consistently competed for and claimed major trophies — because they never stopped finding and training up new players, at French clubs but also at clubs in Spain, Italy, Germany and England. Their competitive record is what separates Les Bleus from the Spanish, whose two Euro Championships, sandwiched around a World Cup title in 2010, certainly peg them as members of the G8, in good standing. However, until they win something without Xavi or Iniesta, they will not stand beside France as an exemplar of long-term soccer nation-building.
Who was the French coach back in 1978?
Exactly. Elite football cultures take those vaunted “next steps,” not because they wanted it badly enough, or because fans and federations refused to settle for merely reaching the knock-out stage, or because one genius coach led them to lasting glory. It’s a critical mass of players who make that happen, not any single manager who, in the national team context, shapes a generation of talent only episodically, as senior players, in the immediate tournament context.
For the record, it was Michel Hidalgo who managed the French national team from 1976 to 1984. This tenure represented his first head coaching assignment, of any kind, outside the single season he spent at non-league Menton as player/coach. Michel did prove a skilled tactician; he’s credited with devising a four-man midfield alignment, the so-called magic square (“carré magique”), that ably accommodated/leveraged the supreme talents of Platini, Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse.
Yet Michel did not develop any of these players. He inherited them, more or less fully formed, once they’d been trained up by big clubs. As national team manager, he deployed them very cannily and effectively — but only a few days at a time during qualification campaigns, for a few weeks during major competitions.
Did the USMNT field a credible proto-pool of talent in Qatar? Yes. But whoever manages the national team going forward won’t effectively develop or shape all that talent going forward. The most a national team coach can do is gather them, lend them some tactical nuance perhaps, accustom them to winning and each other, then insist they go off and play at European clubs under capable training staffs.
Klinsmann tried to tell us these facts of modern futbol life when Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and others all returned to MLS in the middle of the last decade. The German was much dismayed at this development. He wanted all his best players competing for prestigious club places abroad — because developing national teams of real quality is a crowd-sourced function spread across multiple club training staffs who, incidentally, have no incentive to train up U.S. players for this specific national-team purpose. Only their own.
In this way, over the longer term, national team skippers have surprisingly little to do with a country’s evolution as potential World Cup-winning of semifinal-achieving side. Berhalter, for example, brought Reggie Cannon into the national team back in 2018. It will be Cannon’s club teams (he currently plays with Boavista in the Portuguese Primeira) that will or won’t develop him as world-class defender.
Again and again, our French example from the late 1970s proves instructive: The members of that killer midfield, along with superlative centerback Marius Tresor, all starred for big French clubs ahead of Argentina ’78 — in an era when supreme talents didn’t normally leave their home countries. Only Platini would eventually go abroad, to Juventus. What’s more, during the summer 1978, only Tresor was a truly finished article.
The American core we observed at Qatar 2022 is similarly unfinished. While Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Anthony Robinson, Sergino Dest and Tyler Adams all play for pretty big European clubs, only Adams, Robinson, Aaronson and Musah earn meaningful minutes at those clubs. Young Reyna would likely start at Dortmund, were he not so prone to injury (and stamping his feet, apparently). But still: None of these U.S. players are established professional standouts on the order of Tresor, Fernandez, Platini, Giresse or Tigana circa 1978, when that group remained six years from being major-tournament ready.
To be clear, we’re deploying the French example purely as context. No one expects or predicts the Americans to win World Cup 2042. No one with any sense. A quarterfinal performance in 2026 would be stellar, in my view. The oldest members of this U.S. cohort, Pulisic & McKennie, are just 24 years old. All of them should continue to grow and improve. Thankfully, they all play their chosen trade, day to day, on the right continent.