This past summer, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup title, I took a look back at each of the country’s Women’s World Cup squads and ranked them. It was a fun exercise, and it reinforced a pretty simple idea: age balance matters. A country will usually only go as far as players in their peak age range will take them. In the 2000s, the U.S. women didn’t have quite enough peaking talent to complement the otherworldly Abby Wambach, and its results slid slightly. When the Rapinoe-Heath-Sauerbrunn-O’Hara-Morgan-Press generation fully developed, the U.S. surged.
It’s the same story on the men’s side. When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, Sergio Ramos, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres were all between 24 and 28. Germany in 2014? Manuel Neuer, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels. France in 2018? Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. (Both Spain and Germany underachieved at the following World Cup when that core got a little on the stale side.)
Now, the concept of “peaking” is obviously nebulous by nature. Some players peak earlier, some maintain their peaks longer — and some are Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And teamwise, there are occasional exceptions to the rule. Croatia made the 2018 finals while being led by 33-year-old Luka Modric, 32-year-old Mario Mandzukic and a couple of key 29-year-olds in Dejan Lovren and Ivan Perisic. And not even the peak age cheat code can explain Greece’s famous Euro 2004 win: The team started six players 30 or older (and only three between 24 and 28) in its win over Portugal.
A healthy mix of peak-age talent — a golden generation, if you will — mixed with some steely-eyed veterans (say, a Hugo Lloris) and a fresh face or two (a Kylian Mbappe), can take you pretty far. That’s the case even when you don’t quite have title-level upside. It’s not a coincidence, for instance, that the USMNT’s deepest World Cup run came in 2002, when the Stars and Stripes combined peak-age Claudio Reyna, Frankie Hejduk and John O’Brien with still-spry veterans like Brad Friedel and Brian McBride and a couple of star prospects named Donovan and Beasley.
The balance since then has mostly alternated between “almost right, but not quite” and “mostly off” since, but it appears that will change soon.
The USMNT’s 2022 team could be its youngest in a while, but for the best possible reason — youth overtaking veterans. (The squad picked to face El Salvador on Wednesday night — watch LIVE, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS (U.S. only) — is purposefully filled with youth and U.S.-based players given that it’s not an official FIFA date.)
And in 2026, when the United States is co-hosting the shindig, said youth will become the veterans. Following a slow slide, there’s reason to believe the USMNT’s trajectory is changing rapidly.
Before we look ahead, let’s look back at past USMNTs
Younger players like keeper Tony Meola and midfielder John Harkes would get attention, but from that 24-to-28 core, only midfielder Paul Caligiuri (SV Meppen) was playing in Europe, while defenders Steve Trittschuh (Sparta Prague), Desmond Armstrong (Santos) and John Doyle (Örgryte IS) would find decent, but far from spectacular, landing spots after the tournament.
1994: The team that hosted the World Cup had much better 24-to-28 talent. Tab Ramos was playing for Real Betis, John Harkes for Derby County, Eric Wynalda for 1. FC Saarbrücken and Earnie Stewart for Willem II. Cobi Jones would soon sign for Coventry City, too, and players like Meola, Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa provided solid depth.
1998: With all of the above players except Jones aging out of the peak range (and a couple of them allegedly feuding with each other), the 1998 squad was a little bit on the stale side.
It did add peak-age versions of Claudio Reyna (playing for Wolfsburg at the time) and keeper Kasey Keller (Leicester City), while Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and Joe-Max Moore were all stalwarts in the “new” Major League Soccer, which had launched in 1996. But this collection of talent bombed out in the World Cup group stages, and in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise.
2002: Reyna was 28 and playing for Sunderland, while Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen) and John O”Brien (Ajax) were both of peak age and playing for strong European squads. Pablo Mastroeni and Gregg Berhalter were in peak range, too, and McBride (soon to move to Fulham), keeper Brad Friedel (in the middle of an 18-year Premier League stint) and Tony Sanneh (by then a Bundesliga stalwart) were in their early 30s and still playing at a high level.
Combine that with two of the USMNT’s best prospects to date (Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) and you had the best U.S. team yet, one that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals and damn near went further had it not been for German defender Torsten Frings committing a blatant handball that wasn’t called.
2006: Donovan and Beasley (now with PSV Eindhoven) were in the peak range, as were Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) and Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham). This was high-end talent, but the depth was shaky, and most of the other minutes went to players who were either far past their prime (McBride, Reyna) or not quite ready to play at a consistently high level (Clint Dempsey, Bobby Convey).
2010: Donovan and Onyewu (recently signed with Milan) were still in the peak range and were joined by Dempsey (now with Fulham), Maurice Edu (Rangers) and Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA). Depth was again shaky, but Donovan and Dempsey are all-time USMNT greats and were at their best. Plus, youngsters Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore held their own, and an early-30s core of Cherundolo, Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit (then with Watford) and keeper Tim Howard (Everton) all played at high levels.
The U.S. famously won its group over England and was favored against Ghana in the round of 16, only to run out of steam in extra time.
2014: The 2014 squad ended up a bit stale: the top 11 minutes earners in the 2014 World Cup had an average age of 29.4, and that was despite Jürgen Klinsmann’s infamous decision to exclude Donovan from the 23-man squad. Dempsey and Howard were still excellent, however, and the team did feature peak versions of Bradley (who had recently left Roma), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes) and Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), plus MLS stalwarts Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi.
The U.S. finally beat Ghana, drew with Portugal and advanced to the round of 16, where it nearly pulled off a massive upset against Belgium before again falling in extra time.
2018: The 2018 team didn’t qualify for the World Cup and listing the peak-age players pretty clearly tells you why. Of the 18 players with the most minutes in qualification, only Altidore, Deandre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe and Jorge Villafana were in the 24-to-28 range in 2018. (Bundesliga stalwarts John Brooks and Timmy Chandler were, too, but were dealing with injuries.)
Twelve of the 18 were 29 or older — Howard was 39, Jermaine Jones 36, Dempsey 35, Cameron 32 — but younger players weren’t able to fully unseat them in the rotation. This left Christian Pulisic, the best prospect since Donovan, to try to carry a wheezing lineup to the finish line.
It took a lot for the U.S. to miss the last World Cup. The USSF likely waited too long to fire Klinsmann. Injuries and fitness issues deprived the team of two potentially steady starters in Brooks and Chandler. The final day of qualifying featured an utterly spectacular amount of bad luck as well — the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica all had to lose for the Americans to fail to advance. The U.S. lost in part because of an own goal and Mexico and Costa Rica blew a combined three leads to both fall. Play out the qualifying cycle 100 more times in the multiverse, and the Americans qualify far more often than not.
Still, this was the most flawed player pool the U.S. has fielded in a long while. This was the USMNT’s lost generation.
We can argue about who’s to blame for this — we’ve actually been doing so for quite a while — but the U.S. simply didn’t produce enough high-end, peak-age talent to succeed in the last cycle.
Freddy Adu (still in the peak range for most of 2018 qualifying, believe it or not) never developed as he was supposed to. Aron Jóhannsson was always hurt. Players like Mix Diskerud, Gyasi Zardes and Brek Shea showed flashes of upside, but never quite enough. Altidore is an MLS all-time great with a smattering of overseas success, Yedlin is a solid Premier League-level fullback with Newcastle, Wood has been serviceable with a couple of different German clubs, and Nagbe and Villafana are solid with the Portland Timbers. But the U.S. needed far more from this age group than it got.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter shares his thoughts on the latest American prospect to move to Europe, Brenden Aaronson.
So, the big question: Will this change in 2022?
Probably not, but there is hope on the horizon. (There always is, isn’t there?)
It’s obviously a fool’s errand to confidently project a 2022 World Cup lineup for the USMNT. We don’t even know how qualifying will play out with the coronavirus-altered schedule, and we don’t know who coach Gregg Berhalter will prefer two years from now. (We don’t even totally know who he prefers right now.) That said, here are some of the primary roster candidates who will be in the 24-to-28 range in 2022:
GK: Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath
DF: Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Nick Lima, Reggie Cannon, Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon, Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers
MF: Julian Green, Jackson Yueill, Kellyn Acosta, Cristian Roldan
FW: Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Duane Holmes, Tyler Boyd, Andrija Novakovich
Players like Steffen (a Manchester City backup), Yedlin and Miazga (a Chelsea player currently loaned to Anderlecht) might play heavy roles in qualification, Plus, Morris and Arriola have each already been capped 30+ times, and Roldan and Acosta aren’t far behind. They’ll likely all be involved. (Green, meanwhile, should be involved, but isn’t for reasons Berhalter should perhaps be pressed to explain.)
There is decent depth in this group, even if there are no Donovans or Dempseys. But there’s a chance the U.S. doesn’t get a huge contribution from this group, and for the best possible reason: the generation behind them has already accomplished more.
– Pulisic will have just turned 24 when the 2022 World Cup begins, meaning he’ll be in this peak range for two World Cups. He has already logged more than 150 appearances for Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea, two of Europe’s heavyweights, and when healthy, he is one of the best young attackers in the world.
– Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie will both be 23. Adams is a rotation member for Champions League semifinalist RB Leipzig, and McKennie moved to Juventus in the offseason. He also just scored his first goal for the Serie A heavyweight.
– Gio Reyna only recently turned 18 and will be 19 when the World Cup begins. He already has three goals and five assists this season for Borussia Dortmund this season and is damn near becoming a bigger prospect than Pulisic.
– Josh Sargent and Tim Weah will be 22. Sargent has already made more than 50 appearances with Werder Bremen, scoring eight times. Weah’s trajectory has been slowed by injury, but he’s made 10 appearances with Lille this season, creating three chances in 101 minutes. Each has seen up-and-down development, but they’re both still only 20 years old.
– Sergino Dest will be 21. He not only moved to Barcelona this offseason, but he’s already played more than 700 minutes in 11 matches for the club, scoring once (in the Champions League, no less) and creating 10 chances. At Barca, he joined 19-year-old American winger Konrad De La Fuente, who has made two Champions League appearances and created two chances.
– Brenden Aaronson will be 22. After a stellar MLS campaign — four goals and 33 chances created (eight assists) for the Supporters Shield-winning Philadelphia Union — he will join RB Salzburg, which is still in contention for the Champions League knockout stages, in January.
– Nicholas Gioacchini will be 22. A recent USMNT call-up, he’s scored three times in nine matches for Ligue 2 promotion candidate Caen.
Orlando City star Chris Mueller describes his emotions and goals after being called up to the USMNT.
I’ve gotten this far and haven’t yet mentioned Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah (he’ll be 19 when the World Cup begins) PSV Eindhoven midfielder Richard Ledezma (22), Telstar-via-Norwich City forward Sebastian Soto (22), Wolves midfield prospect Owen Otasowie (21), Leicester City backup keeper Chituru Odunze (20), or anyone from an interesting crowd of young MLS prospects: forward Jesus Ferreira, Sporting KC forward Gianluca Busio, Philadelphia defender Mark McKenzie, Toronto forward Ayo Akinola, FC Dallas defender Bryan Reynolds, Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal, etc.
We always put our faith in prospects; the future is always bright, right? But in this case, the USMNT’s future prospects might already be its most proven players. And in 2026, Pulisic, Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Dest, Sargent, Aaronson, Richards, etc. will be in or nearing their prime ages. The 2022 World Cup roster could be the USA’s most talented men’s yet, and it will only gain in experience in the years that follow. Hosting the 2026 World Cup could not have been more well-timed.
We don’t yet know how good a manager Berhalter is or will be for this team, nor how long he’ll be at the helm. He had only been on the job a little more than a year when the coronavirus stoppage happened, and he had to that point been fielding a huge array of players, trying as many different looks as possible while only somewhat trying to win. But while managerial tactics and talent always matter, player talent makes the biggest difference. The U.S. didn’t have enough of it in 2018, but it might have a breakthrough-level amount soon.