Commentary

Onward to 2026: Qatar performance provides blueprint for USMNT's next chapter

As the USA bowed out of the 2022 World Cup following a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands, it opened a new cycle. But in looking ahead to the next cycle, the 2022 World Cup offered clear lessons about where the team stands and revealed its strengths and weaknesses.

More so than any other previous World Cup for the U.S. team, Qatar 2022 offers the smoothest transition to the next cycle. The 1994 cycle ended, and U.S. Soccer struggled to handle a thin player pool. The 1998 World Cup ended and after replacing Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena made some needed changes — weeding out the older generation and gradually bringing in some younger players who also played very hard.

The 2002 World Cup was a success, but it tempted the U.S. team to remain static and cling to a group of players who were aging (Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, or the oft-injured John O’Brien).

The 2006 World Cup was poor and had a brutal transition afterward as the team shut down for six months in a failed attempt to hire Jurgen Klinsmann. Bob Bradley ended up building the team and having a good cycle but after 2010, Klinsmann’s shadow still loomed large and he was brought on.

Then after 2014, things became a mess. The next cycle brought disastrous results and even a coaching change back to Arena, who couldn’t save the team from an embarrassing failure to qualify for the World Cup. After a long but decent job under caretaker Dave Sarachan, Gregg Berhalter had to pick up the pieces. He began building a new core of talented players. While it wasn’t always smooth, the results in 2022 point to a team that showed it is heading in the right direction and provides a solid foundation for the next cycle.

This World Cup was successful on the field for the U.S. team but, unlike 1994, 2002, 2010, or 2014 when the U.S. team also advanced to the knockouts, there is no trap to hang onto aging players, or there is no need to reinvent a completely different system.

The U.S. team wasn’t perfect in Qatar, but the areas where it needs to improve are rather obvious. A lot of what needs to get done is to simply let the players continue to do what they’re doing and mature.

Nothing happened in Qatar to suggest that the U.S. team is on the wrong track, but here are areas and concerns for the team moving forward.

Maturity

The Dutch provided a masterclass in the value of experience in maturity in their win over the United States.

When looking at the midfielders and the forwards (the front six), none of the players who started for the U.S. team against the Netherlands in these positions had yet to turn 25.

The Dutch had an edge in talent but the bigger difference in this game was in the edge of maturity. The Netherlands made better decisions, they knew how to change the pace of the game, and they scouted the U.S. team well.

Most importantly, however, the Dutch knew how to respond to adversity better than the U.S. team. The Americans played well for stretches in each of their four World Cup games. But note the difference when faced with adversity. When Wales found a stretch where it was playing well, the U.S. team was on its heels and couldn’t get into a better groove until after Wales equalized.

Against Iran, the U.S. played very well for the first 60 minutes. Then when Iran started to play better, the U.S. team again was on its heels for the final 20 minutes – this time they were able to see the game out.



Christian Pulisic will be 27 years old when the 2026 World Cup takes place.

Compare this with how the Dutch responded to when the U.S. team played well. The Dutch scored all three of their goals at a time when the U.S. was creating more of the chances. Christian Pulisic had an early chance and the USA was better the first eight minutes, but the Dutch scored in the 10th minute. The U.S. team was pressing very well toward the end of the first half (Tim Weah had a long shot saved and Sergino Dest dribbled through the defense for a dangerous run), but it was the Dutch who scored just before half.

Then finally, the U.S. cut the deficit in half late in the second half but the Netherlands scored less than five minutes later to crush any hopes of a comeback.

This ability of the Netherlands to find another gear in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a very good and very experienced team. The U.S. was naive in the moments when it controlled the game to let its guard down defensively. The Dutch knew how to counterpunch.

There were also several other areas that showed the gap between the two teams in terms of experience.  The Netherlands knew that the U.S. team liked to play the game at a frantic pace full of energy.

Dutch coach Louis van Gaal and his players knew exactly how and when to slow the pace of the game down and turn it into a grind. When they had the chance on counterattacks and off turnovers to be dangerous, they would pick up the pace, but the mix of tempos frustrated the U.S. team.

Tactically, the Dutch also scouted the U.S. team very well and the U.S. came up short in figuring out a Plan B. The Dutch were cognizant of how the Weston McKennie-Tyler Adams-Yunus Musah midfield was the heart of the U.S. team. The Dutch man-marked the midfield with precision and forced the game out wide – knowing the U.S. team isn’t crossing well and doesn’t have great targets in the box either.

Moving forward, these are the areas where the U.S. team must improve. It must adjust to a game that changes in tempo, it must counterpunch, and it must never neglect its defense even when things are going well.

A lot of these things will happen as the team simply grows up.

A need for depth

This was a different World Cup than ever before. In normal situations, teams are together for a month before the tournament and teams can build up chemistry and endurance together. This World Cup was all about clubs dictating form – and this hurt the U.S. team. Key players like Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, and Sergino Dest all had limited minutes the first few months of the season. Luca de la Torre and MLS players have barely played. The lack of a month-long pre-World Cup camp really hurt the U.S. team.

The U.S. team had to grind out the group stage and each of the three games was exhausting to preserve the result. The Netherlands had a relatively easy group stage that did not require both the physical and mental exhaustion which the U.S. team had to exert.



The U.S. team was making mistakes it didn’t make in the group stages, from key players. Adams lost the trialing runner on the opening Dutch goal. Dest lost Danny Blind on the second goal. Antonee Robinson wasn’t on his side for the final goal. Beyond that, Musah’s first touch let him down on a few occasions.

Physical fatigue often leads to mental fatigue. The physical fatigue saw the USA make mistakes it didn’t make in the group stage.

The U.S. needs to get into a position where it trusts its depth more. This was also a different World Cup where the games were in quicker success and there was not a lot of time to recover. It made the lack of roster turnover that much more of a problem.

Positions in need

As mentioned, the U.S. team is in a great position to start the next cycle. Whether or not Berhalter is the head coach, there has never been a better time to start a cycle. There is no need for a massive overhaul or a concern over hanging onto players too long. Most of the team can stay intact.
The areas in need of improvement do exist and they are pretty clear.

Starting center forward: Like most of the team, Berhalter brought three center forwards who were all fairly young and all showed that they have work to do – Haji Wright, Josh Sargent and Jesus Ferreira. All three will remain in the program but others like Ricardo Pepi and Brandon Vazquez will also compete. This is a position that usually involves some maturity, so as these players get older, it will be an open competition.

Starting central defense: Despite Walker Zimmerman’s penalty-kick foul against Wales, he played well in this tournament. Tim Ream was excellent, and Cameron Carter-Vickers acquitted himself well against Iran. Central defense wasn’t at fault for the Dutch goals either. But Ream is now 35 and Zimmerman will be turning 30 in May. Aaron Long is also past 30. Berhalter or the next coach will have to shift through the next core of central defenders (Erik Palmer-Brown, Mark McKenzie, Miles Robinson, Auston Trusty, Chris Richards, etc) to find a pair to build around.

Backup midfielders: After the Musah-Adams-McKennie midfield trio, there weren’t a lot of options. Brenden Aaronson had his moments, but he is a very different style and might be seen as a winger (the same with Gio Reyna). Kellyn Acosta has been a decent backup to Adams. But there needs to be depth because the U.S. team has all of its eggs in the current basket. Too many options this cycle didn’t pan out in the midfield either due to injury, youth that didn’t materialize, poor form, age, or just quality (Jackson Yueill, Gianluca Busio, Johnny Cardoso, Sebastian Lletget). Even Luca de la Torre was at the World Cup but injury and a total lack of minutes in Spain hurt him at the wrong time. Berhalter or the next coach needs to build up depth in the midfield.

A good World Cup

If I was to grade this World Cup, I would give it a solid B+ for the U.S. team. Berhalter took a team with a remarkably young starting XI.

In each of the four games, the U.S. team had long stretches of playing well. This had never been the case before. In 2002, the team fell apart against Poland and was nearly eliminated. There is an argument that in 2010 the team played consistently well, but this tournament had a harder schedule.

Even in the lone loss of the tournament against the Netherlands, the U.S. played well for significant periods. This wasn’t a case where the U.S. team was pinned back and tried to bunker out a result. The chances were there for the U.S. team to score more goals. Compare the loss to the Netherlands and the loss to Belgium in 2014, it was completely different. The USA didn’t need Matt Turner to make save after save like Tim Howard.



The foundation is there. This team has both technical ability as well as speed and athleticism in key areas. The entire front six will be 24-27 years old in 2026. On top of that, there will be others emerging to push these players to prevent complacency.

Putting it together for consistently complete performances still wasn’t there, and that will be the job of whoever coaches the next cycle. But for where the U.S. team was four years ago to where it is now, it is very encouraging.

Overall, it was a good cycle for Berhalter. He moved past the older generation. He built the “MMA” midfield which has a lot of chemistry. He also did well to establish the two outside backs. He also finishes the cycle with accomplishments – Nations League, Gold Cup, and advancing to the knockout stages of the World Cup all while trying to build a young team.

Whether or not Berhalter returns to the program as his contract is up, he got a lot done this cycle.

Top photo: USA starting XI vs. the Netherland. Back row (L-to-R): Matt Turner, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Tim Ream, Antonee Robinson. Front row: Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Jesus Ferreira. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos).

13 comments about "Onward to 2026: Qatar performance provides blueprint for USMNT's next chapter".
  1. Valerie Metzler, December 5, 2022 at 8:06 p.m.

    Other than the mistake on Daley Blind's name, this is the best article I have read about the tournament, our recent history and the future prospects.  Thanks!

  2. Alan Blackledge replied, December 5, 2022 at 10:12 p.m.

    Agree, good accurate article...would've included some commentary on the set-pieces...so hard to believe we actually had a specialty coach for this...we were horrible in this aspect of the game...

  3. Bob Ashpole, December 5, 2022 at 8:29 p.m.

    What a cheerleader, suggesting all the USMNT needs next cycle is more of the same. 

    This article so frustrates me that I don't know where to begin commenting. 

    If USSF is doing so well, why is US soccer not developing the best US players?

    We develop great athletes well enough (not because of organized youth sports), but those great athletes won't have the soccer ball skills that their peers have growing up playing soccer. That puts them at a disadvantage on the ball in small spaces and under high pressure. 

    I will give you one guess as to how you develop the ability to play in small spaces under high pressure. Kids do it naturally in the school yard but add an adult coach and the activity almost always changes for the worse.  

  4. frank schoon replied, December 6, 2022 at 4:50 p.m.

    Bob, you're so right on!!!  We've got too many cheerleaders, who believe  in linear development that our boys get better each succeeding year which includes our developmental programs. I watched an espn program last night with Steve nichols, who is from England who coached here, saying, "the only 'footlballer' we have is Reyna the rest our basically runners"....I totally agree with him although Reyna has to be seen relatively to American players.

    Nothing has changed with the USSF as far developing talent. It is still hit and miss from one year to the next. Until we produce great dribblers ,great passers, and great tacticians being produced in the US,  or at least one player every couple of years that make Europeans giddy, up until that time were blowing smoke in our player development....

  5. Goal Goal, December 5, 2022 at 11:33 p.m.

    Bob right on with your comments.  U.S. Soccer coaches have pushed so many good skilled young players who were technically skilled out of the system because they could not or would not adapt to the run your arse off system.   In the the past I have been to U15 and 17 camps and witnessed  coaching directives during scrimmages that would make someone who had been involved with game via playing and coaching over a 60 year period question why.  Never giving the youngsters the opportunity to be creative with the ball but boot it up field and everyone run after it.  Skills out the window.   Big, strong and fast and endless energy.  Just watch our best players with the touch they have on the ball after receiving a pass on the run and compare it with international competition.  Enough said!  Over and out of here.

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, December 6, 2022 at 4:06 p.m.

    Gol Gol,
    I wouldn't say they Pushed the Technical Players out of the System,
    Just "Dummed" them Down to something that they, as Coaches, can Predict and Control.
    Just finished watching the Portugall/Swiss and Spain/Morocco games.
    The Difference was the Portugese had Players that were "Untameable" and the Spanish all Played like Tik-Taka Square Pass, Predictable Players..
    It's happening ALL Over the World... Even Berhalter said;
    "If you take the Shirts Off and Swap with Us and England, you wouldn't really Notice the Difference"(I paraphrase)
    This is due to the Over Coaching of the Players. Breeding Out the Quirky, Creative, Player.
    Think MLS Player... Sound, but NOT Special... Predictable, but not very Appealing.
    Hopefully our Players will Leave once they Turn 18, to get some Different Exposures, and enough of them will become "Special" and Help Us at the National Team Level

  7. Kent James, December 5, 2022 at 11:51 p.m.

    This is an excellent assessment of where we are.  We have built a core group of players that will be even better in four years.  Supplement them with a few younger players (or even players of a similar age who didn't make it to the WC team this cycle) and we should have the depth and talent to go a bit farther than we did this time, as long as we don't succumb to the pressures of hosting the tournament and having very high expectations put on them.   

  8. humble 1, December 6, 2022 at 12:29 a.m.

     Cannot deny that progress has been made from the low of 2018.  We have a long way to go.  We made it back to where we should be.  It is not a lock that just letting time pass we will be in the final 8 in 2026.  Our youngest MNT boys must play and become consistent impact players at their clubs.  One of my observations from this WC - call it the van Gaal lesson - and a pitfall we must avoid to progress - is that the WC is not the time or place for a NT cosch to learn and grow.  Too harsh, too quick, too intense.  If we want our boys to go beyond - we have to give them the gift of world class coach and staff.  

  9. Seth Vieux replied, December 6, 2022 at 1:32 p.m.

    100% - I do think the future is still bright, and hopefully a majority of this core will continue to significantly improve over the next few years. Odds are that some will (my guesses only: Gio, CP, Weah, Musah, Dest, Sargent, Pepi), some have maybe hit their ceiling and hopefully maintain it (again only my guesses: McKennie, Adam's, Aaronson, Jedi) and some will not be able to maintain and be overcome by players that didn't make this squad or emerge from seemingly nowhere (won't name any names here).
    The main point is that the player pool is light years ahead of any previous generation RIGHT NOW, and there's more than enough young talent continuing to flow into European clubs, more dual-Nats will emerge...the player pool will almost certainly continue to improve at least in this cycle (next one will possibly be the challenge as this core begins to age out). 


    What isn't sure to improve is the US coaching talent pool, and if we insist that the coach must be American (or even worse must have been a USMNT player) we will continue to hamstring the player pool. They've taken the big risks by challenging themselves in bigger leagues, we owe it to them to hire the very best coach we can possibly attract. One who has already achieved at least some modicum of success relative to the success our core players have achieved in their careers.

  10. John Polis, December 6, 2022 at 9:20 a.m.

    Thanks Brian for one of the most reasoned analysis pieces I've seen on the U.S. post-World Cup. The usual hacks have come out of the woodwork bashing not only the USA's performance in Qatar but the entire notion of the USA ever doing well at the World Cup. As you say, there was a lot of good that came out of the Qatar experience, with our obvious flaws exposed. These were the same flaws that I anticipated when I first saw the roster announced and they did manifest themselves, most specifically in the second halves of all three games. Fans and pundits are understandably upset that the U.S. didn't do better, but with our youth and inexperience, and remembering how I felt about the roster when it was announced, I think we did about as well as expected.

  11. stewart hayes, December 6, 2022 at 12:52 p.m.

    Let's wait until the whistle ending the final to review our path forward.  There was a lot to like about our team and it's potential.  We will not be the only giant to fall.

  12. Steve Rustige, December 6, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

    @stewart, we are no giant.  And @Bob, I couldn't agree more - we need an overhaul of our youth development.  We are a nation of 330 million - we can do much better!  While I think we made gains, we are not even close to being in the same class as Frace or Brazil.  Not even close.

  13. Kevin Leahy, December 6, 2022 at 6:39 p.m.

    Ask yourself a couple of questions. How did the coach perform that was hired for dead ball training? Do you think another coach could have sorted out the teams attacking issues? The issue of Jedi blowing down the left side and losing the ball or crowding out Pulisic. Pulisic always moving to the center of the field. Do you think it made the job of the #9 easier? Do you think we have anyone on the roster that can break a team down with a pass or a dribble? I believe that Musah and Dest can get there. Have seen Pulisic make some nice passes in his career. To move forward they need to find a staff that can take them there and it is not the present one!

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