IS AMERICA FOOTBALL’S NEXT SUPERPOWER?
You don’t have to go back too far in time to mention America and football in the same breath and either be on the receiving end of raised eyebrows or manage to get hold of a bloke who claims to be an ardent worshipper of Tom Brady. And by too long, I mean 2016. The latter is a less likely scenario but this more or less explained the despondent state of affairs of the US Men’s National Team. The women’s team is the complete opposite, packed with total superstars and which is arguably the greatest outfit to have ever played the sport, dominating the 2019 World Cup and the UEFA awards that followed. All of this within a year of the men failing to even book a birth at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. The contrasts in the two teams are staggering and while players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe have become global icons and pushed forward the equal pay debate, another one has been doing the rounds for a while now.
Cut to 2020 and suddenly the American footballing project seems to be taking shape, courtesy of some exceptional male talent flowing out of the States as well now. Can America be great? I can’t end the sentence with ‘again’ for more than one reason.
The United States have taken home the highest number of Olympic gold medals and has been a breeding ground for sporting heavyweights and as a country, have dished out inconceivable athletes for decades, but when the conversation veers towards football, the mood in the room seems to die down. And naturally as well; after all, it’s tough to match any conversation that picks up with namedropping Michael Phelps, Floyd Mayweather, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan and following it with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Legends in their own right, but the country has shown that it has a much higher ceiling for developing talent.
And of course, the reason is simple- for a country that’s obsessed with being at the top, the footballing generations just haven’t been at par with America’s dearest entertainment options in basketball, baseball and American football. All of this, until now.
Post 2020, the USMNT are a squad to place your bets on, packed with young mercurial talents in their rooster who are making waves across Europe in the biggest of leagues and on the grandest of stages.
The Next Gen’s Gamechangers
Let’s kick things off with the American prodigy that’s making the most headlines at the minute- Sergiño Dest. At 19, Dest with the world at his feet, a few weeks ago had Europe’s tier one clubs making rounds to the Netherlands for his signature. With newly crowned European champions in Bayern Munich chasing the right-back’s signature, the American international put pen to paper at Barcelona’s head office.
The former Ajax defender enjoyed a breakthrough season in the 2019-20 campaign and went from being on the fringes of the senior squad to being one of the most sought-after full-backs in Europe. Expected to hold a starting role at the Catalan powerhouse, the youngster surely does look like taking the world by a storm and putting the USA on the football map. For a side that has persisted with putting square pegs in round holes for the longest of times in Sergi Roberto or sticking Nélson Semedo in there, who despite being a natural right-back often looked like he was deputizing, Dest’s addition is a welcome one for both Barcelona. And for the States? Well he is the first American to ever sign for a club that despite being slandered left, right and centre for all the right reasons is undeniably a footballing cornerstone.
When the Blues splashed $73 million in 2019, they knew they were in for a big-money but a smart move to secure the young American’s services. At 21 years of age, Pulisic is undoubtedly the most exciting American player plying his trade across the pond. The youngest player ever to lead the USMNT from the tunnel, he has represented the country at every youth level, scored and created ripples each time he has pulled the national colours. When promoted to Dortmund’s first team, it was clear that Tuchel identified the potential – the speed, sharpness, strength, ice cold finishing and mature decision-making that belied his age.
His early Chelsea career might seem a bit fractured due to injury woes, but Chelsea’s new number 10 has shown glimpses of what’s to come once he regains full fitness and it is exciting. And despite their host of new signings, Pulisic remains their go-to-man.
While one American teenager looks to have fulfilled a lifelong dream of sharing a dressing room with at least one of the GOATs, McKennie looks set to start in the Champions League alongside Mr. Champions League himself, at just 22. No prizes for guessing for obvious reasons. The American midfielder played his first minutes for Schalke in the Bundesliga at age 18.
As if that statement weren’t remarkable enough, the multitalented McKennie has since shifted to an entirely different position, one in which he’s thriving like never before. McKennie started out as a combative central midfielder who was good in the air but didn’t offer much going forward. That may not have been too surprising for a teenager gifted with height and athleticism, but it was actually a denigration of McKennie’s true talents. In his shift into a new role as a traditional defensive midfielder, McKennie looks like a triple threat – an expert passer, a nimble dribbler with a rifle of a right peg who can storm into the box, but still fulfil his defensive responsibilities to a tee.
Beyond all the hype and stardom that awaits the young midfielder, will he soon take over as the USMNT’s midfield anchor? You know the answer to that.
Another sensation from the youth ranks of Borussia Dortmund, hailing from the land of Uncle Sam, Gio Reyna is just 17 years old but he knows he’s ready for stardom. After all, he grew up in the shadow of stardom but appears that he could be even better than his father, Claudio Reyna. Technically savvy on the ball and dubbed to have been blessed with the vision of a young Pablo Aimar, Reyna is a potential superstar in midfield. If you want to know what that could potentially mean, consider the fact that a certain Lionel Messi idolized Aimar.
Grabbing the opportunity by the scruff of its neck, the lad hasn’t looked back since his debut for the Black and Yellows, appearing in nearly every game since the restart. So far, Reyna has scored a very memorable goal and has dished out a pair of assists, including one against PSG in the Champions League round-of-16. The future’s bright to say the least.
And there’s others to keep an eye out for as well.
Tyler Adams is another one who has been someone that has interested scouts and pundits while he has been doing his thing at RB Leipzig. 21 and a dynamo in the centre of the park, he is another name poised, almost certainly to make it big in Europe. His ability to be malleable enough to play as a right-back is another reason why Adams looks like the real game. As of now, he gets the odd game, here and there as, but his vital late goal against Atleti in the Champions League booked Leipzig their first ever entry into the competition’s semi-finals.
Zack Steffen is another one who looks like a top prospect. Signing for Manchester City in 2019, the USMNT’s No.1 was cracking in goal for Fortuna Dusseldorf on loan for his first season before returning to the Etihad to become an understudy to Ederson this season, with the veteran Claudio Bravo making way.
Steffen has looked solid at the back in his two starts in the League Cup this season, fitting into Pep’s mould as a ‘keeper who is brilliant with the ball at his feet, a fantastic communicator, quick off his line, with a safe pair of hands.
The problems still remain
So, the question is, with teenagers from America making heads turn from across continents, involving multimillion-dollar deals, have they found the formula to cultivate prodigious talents on home turf? The answer might not be that simple.
As a global phenomenon, football has championed diversity and has been home to players from all walks of life. Stroll around on the streets of Milan, Paris or London and you are bound to find kids playing the beautiful game in every space they can. But in the US, it is a rare sight. Of course, expecting the sporting zeitgeist to change from having a catch with your dad to having a kickabout is downright silly as it’s seeped in cultural and familial roots. But for anyone who wants football to actually grow in the nation, you’d not wish for a shift, but more so a seat at the table alongside the NFLs, NBAs and MLBs of the world.
Getting back to discussing developing talent on home soil, how does one learn the absolute basics of a game if they don’t play it at all? With time and post the USMNT’s highest ever finish in the 2002 World Cup, football schools began popping up across the country. But unlike Europe, where pure talent is the ticket to a shot at professional football, you have to invest a stack of green dollar bills to even so as to register in a youth system. This in itself puts the sport in an elitist bubble. Zlatan Ibrahimović slated the US’ pay-to-play model in late 2019 and it has to be said that he was spot on.
“It has to be said that the sport is expensive, very expensive. For example, in order for my children to play in a good football team, I have to pay $3500 per child. It is not just the figure, but the whole concept. I dislike it very much because not everyone has the money needed and the sport should be for everyone because it unites people of whatever origin. Pelé became a champion without anything, he played with a ball made out of rags.”
Other countries have national teams that reflect the culture to a limited but sizeable degree. Germany is methodical and efficient. Brazil carry the uninhibited joy of the carnival, Ginga style. Italy invented a stern defensive approach, punctuated with breathtaking moments of skill. England is evolving but has a rugged mentality, no surprise for a country obsessed with the old-school mentality of hard graft and character. The Scandinavian countries have an English-style “direct” approach of banging the ball around and running hard, mostly in an effort to avoid freezing. If the Mexican team ran that much, they’d collapse from the heat. America’s hesitation to give football a chance over a century ago, has implications now as the country has consistently crashed in its attempts to discover or foster their own style of play, trying out a bundle of different ones and succeeding at none.
The Major League Soccer, America’s premium football league did manage to draw attention, build local fanbases but when you put the San Francisco Deltas and the Golden State Warriors in balance, the traction basketball teams from the Bay carry is unprecedented for even the entire MLS. Even among suburbanites and young urban hipsters, being a soccer fan carries a sort of outsider’s cachet. And the world’s biggest clubs are clearly miles ahead of any MLS club, even an Inter Miami, an LA Galaxy or an Atalanta United.
As science improves, the NFL has proven that it cannot catch up. In the past 20 years, NFL players who experienced a lot of head trauma when they played have begun to get diagnosed with the lethal Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As the issue of CTE becomes more exposed throughout the country, the number of parents who allow their children to play American football is free-falling. This has led to a flurry of kids entering the youth soccer systems across the country.
For some, the country’s gaping void of footballing culture could be bridged by a team in Paris. Americans worship Jordan and the brand’s bumper deal with Paris Saint-Germain has made the collaboration an instant classic. PSG has seeped through American pop culture with Beyoncé and Kevin Durant copping the new Paris jerseys.
But looking at the likes of Pulisic, Reyna, Adams, McKennie, Dest and the rest of the next gen is what will ultimately bridge the gap, inspire the kids to actually consider football as an avenue worth considering and make the United States a force to be reckoned with, if it wants to, that is.
As things look to take a turn for the best, with the integration of these future superstars in the national team, USA shouldn’t have a problem qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and expectations could be much higher by the time the 2026 World cup rolls around, with the tournament being hosted on home soil.
From one football fan to another, with this American crop of talent, watch out!