“Overall, our results indicated that youth international experience is a limited predictor of participation at the super elite level of football.”
That, in short, was the finding from an extensive study, released earlier this year, of more than 1,400 aspiring professional players from six European nations conducted by a group of Norwegian sports science academics.
Longtime US men’s national team watchers would probably agree, given the mixed bag that is the country’s modern history of youth national team standouts at the senior level.
Talent identification and cultivation is a murky mix of art, science and happenstance, and the particular challenges of the United States’ unique landscape make it even more difficult to pin down. It hasn’t exactly been a strength here: Some have gone so far as to finger the failings of US Soccer’s YNTs programs as a key ingredient in the fiasco of the USMNT’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
And yet, the core of one of several YNT crops that once inspired high hopes among hard-core USMNT watchers finds itself holding an impromptu reunion at the senior team’s June camp, just one step away from the World Cup dream they all shared as adolescent kids.
“We're always excited whenever we're all back together, we always call it the ‘98 reunion. And although I'm a ‘99, they always consider me a ‘98, so I'll take it,” said a grinning Tyler Adams in Cincinnati on Tuesday. “It's just good because we have friendships that are more important than the football part of things. But we feel like when we go out on the pitch, then it all transitions together.”
Five members of the current squad were born in 1998: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Luca de la Torre, Haji Wright and Reggie Cannon. Adams was born a few months later, but developed early enough to play up a year with them for long stretches. Most can trace their relationships back a decade or so to their first involvements in youth national team activities together.
“To be honest, they haven't really changed much,” said Wright. “They're still the same goofy guys that I knew back when we were 15, 14 years old. We've always got along well, and I think they're good people, they're nice guys, and I like being around them.”
De la Torre concurred.
“They're all kind of the same players, in a lot of ways, that they were when they were younger,” said the midfielder, adding it’s much the same with engaging personalities like McKennie’s.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “Weston’s completely the same.”
Only Pulisic and Adams could be said to have followed a relatively steady trajectory, earning the attention of pro scouts well before high-school years and seizing their first big breaks, at Borussia Dortmund and the New York Red Bulls, respectively. While most gravitated towards the big stages of Europe as quickly as they could – weathering the resulting peaks and valleys along the way – work visa regulations and other limitations complicated individual outlooks.
“Everyone has their own path. And for me, to go to Europe at a young age never made sense for me, because I wasn't able to play professional games without a European passport,” said Adams, a teen wunderkind in MLS before moving to RBNY’s German sibling club RB Leipzig.
“New York gave me an unbelievable opportunity to go in and feel like I was able to compete at a really young age. And with the head coach that we had, with Jesse [Marsch], he was committed to playing young players and I was able to take my own pathway. So it all worked out, I would say.”
McKennie, as he has often alluded to, was famously left off some prominent YNT rosters, and took the risk of leaving FC Dallas for Schalke rather than signing an MLS homegrown contract. De la Torre’s Spanish heritage allowed him to join Fulham’s academy earlier than most US prospects can. But he lost his way at the London club and had to move to a smaller stage at Heracles Almelo to make his USMNT breakthrough.
“When I was at Fulham, I was injured a lot. I was playing for a club that didn't really see me as a player they wanted to invest in, so that was difficult. I had to really believe in myself then, even though other people weren't,” recalled de la Torre, who said he hit the low point in his career in the final stages of his Fulham tenure.
“You just have to make the most of whatever opportunity comes your way,” he said of his subsequent lateral move to the Eredivisie. “You don't really get the choice of five or six places to go. It's, this is what you're going to get, and then you have to make it work.”
Noted Wright: “It teaches you that not everything is permanent. Even poor form is impermanent. You can always get over the rough patch and find a good patch, a green patch.”
Wright was originally perceived to have the highest ceiling of the bunch – Dortmund were scouting him when they first spotted and fell in love with Pulisic – but the Los Angeles native had to wander across six different clubs in five nations before finally breaking through in earnest with Turkish side Antalyaspor this past season.
“I think as a player, when you witness different styles of play in different countries, you learn more, instead of playing in just one country your whole life. I do understand soccer a little bit more than I did when I first started off,” said Wright. “It's good moving around, but I'd like to enjoy one spot for a while.”
His teammates are clearly rooting for him to show his best level and push into the forefront of the USMNT’s ongoing conversation about the difficult-to-fill No. 9 role.
“Yeah, that was the duo back in the day, me and Haji,” said Pulisic with a smile on Tuesday. “We played a lot of games together in the youth national teams, and it's cool to have him back in. First of all, seeing him do so well at club level and having him in here is great. So he's going to get his opportunity and yeah, I'm so excited for him. I know he's going to use the opportunity well.”
Pulisic helped Wright do just that in Wednesday’s friendly against Morocco, handing his old colleague the ball to slot home the penalty kick Pulisic earned for the USMNT’s third goal in the 3-0 win.
Wright is the latest arrival in the current World Cup cycle, while de la Torre rose rapidly up the depth chart during qualifying as he proved himself a quality option for the difficult twin No. 8 positions at the heart of Gregg Berhalter’s preferred 4-3-3 formation.
“I think the guys that don't make it are the ones that, they go negative when things like that happen, when they're not playing or they're injured or whatever,” said de la Torre of his winding road to this point. “You just have to find a way to be positive and stay motivated and believe in yourself.”
This group’s long history and close kinship seems to be helping set the tone for the USMNT’s wider culture, which players and coaches alike have praised for its unity and trust during this World Cup cycle.
This camp and the program’s final pre-World Cup gathering in September are de facto tryouts, pressure-packed occasions for the many players who can’t be certain of their roster spot in Qatar. But some degree of tension is dispelled by having such an influential group at the center of the squad who have walked similar roads together with the YNTs.
“The pressure, it’s always been there … But it's something that we look forward to, something that we thrive off of, I feel like,” said McKennie. “Preparing for the World Cup, in this whole process that we've been going through, has been something that we've been preparing for since we were 13, 14 years old. So I think it's something that we expected; the challenges that we expected also. And I think we're handling it pretty well.”
Reporters got a brief glimpse of their camaraderie when McKennie arrived ahead of schedule in the room where this week’s media round tables were being held, creeping into the seating areas to pose deadpan questions to his teammates.
What is your favored central-midfield position, he asked Adams.
“Which one do you think, coach? Which one do you think?” Adams shot back with a grin.
“I like when you play [No.] 6 and run for me,” said McKennie.
“I like when I play 6 and you play 8,” agreed Adams. “As long as we're on the field together, I like it.”
And in true Generation Z fashion, some of that chemistry was kept active in online gaming sessions on Fortnite and the like, especially during pandemic lockdowns.
"I would say a lot of the times, especially during the COVID times, we’d play video games together and [be] constantly talking on our headsets," said McKennie, a renowned banter specialist both on and off the pitch. "A lot of the players, we've known each other since we were 13, 14 years old. So I think that's what makes it easier for us to come into camp and just pick up right where we left off.
"So it's been a fun journey so far. We've all been dreaming about a moment like this, to where we're leading up to something like a World Cup, and to be able to share the moment together."