National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT's quest to "change soccer in America forever" begins in St. Louis

USMNT - St. Louis camp - practice

What’s old is new again for the US men’s national team, as well as St. Louis.

The Yanks want to make history at the 2026 World Cup they’ll co-host – under the leadership of their once and future head coach – and this week they’re taking one of their first formal steps in that direction in the spiritual home of soccer in the United States.

In the leadup to Saturday’s international friendly vs. Uzbekistan at St. Louis CITY SC’s CITYPARK (5:30 pm ET | TNT, Telemundo), they trotted out a new mantra to reflect it.

“We set out on a mission four years ago to change the way the world views American soccer,” midfielder Weston McKennie told reporters on Thursday, “and now our motto is to change soccer in America forever.”

There’s symbolism galore to that message in that locale.

Saturday marks Gregg Berhalter’s first game back at the helm after more than half a year of limbo under two interim bosses. That oft-repeated first phrase cited by McKennie became intrinsically attached to Berhalter’s leadership through the 2022 World Cup cycle, and the second one seems likely to follow suit as the coach seeks to build on his first four years in charge without letting things go stale.

“There's been a lot of good work in building our identity both on and off the field, and we want to continue that,” Berhalter told reporters when unveiling his roster for this month’s camp, which continues with a match vs. Oman at Minnesota United FC’s Allianz Field on Tuesday.

“We talk about freshness. It's not like we've been together every day for the last four years anyway. So there's that time apart that kind of renews the relationships and renews that excitement to be back together. You don't get the boredom that sometimes you get in club soccer. But we want to basically acknowledge that OK, there's been good work, but now we can take it to a different level.”

Berhalter’s USMNT return coincides with a visit to one of the nation’s first soccer hotbeds, a source of dozens of top players over the decades as well as one of the current year’s hottest stories in CITY SC, the MLS expansion side whose strong results and vibrant home atmosphere have impressed.

The Yanks have made sure to tip their caps to those who came before. The team hosted more than a dozen former USMNTers during Tuesday’s training session at CITY SC’s Washington University Orthopedics High-Performance Center, and 23 of the city’s national team alumni will be honored in a pregame ceremony on Saturday.

“I didn't know too much about the history of football here,” said US winger Tim Weah. “But seeing the past players the other day was a really, really good experience because those are the guys who paved the way for us, and for them to be here and us to honor them was an amazing feeling. And just seeing how St. Louis is putting on for football in the States right now, their MLS team is doing well, the fanbase is huge; when you watch their games it's almost a sold-out crowd, so it’s amazing.”

The USMNT have played in STL before. They opened their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign there with a 2015 win over St. Vincent at Busch Stadium, the home of baseball’s Cardinals, and routed St. Kitts and Nevis at CITYPARK in the group stage of this year’s Gold Cup. But having the first-choice squad and permanent head coach in the fold for a fixture at the glittering new soccer-first venue adds weight to this occasion.

Local product Tim Ream spoke about that aspect in a Monday media availability, and pointed to the confluence of tradition, tenacity and technique that’s made his hometown such a soccer capital. That now continues with CITY SC’s nascent academy, which has already produced three homegrown signings in Miguel Perez, Caden Glover and Tyson Pearce.

“It’s always been the sport and soccer has always been a huge part of the fabric of the city,” said the Fulham FC center back. “If you look at the number of US internationals, the number of St. Louis internationals, the number of St. Louis guys in professional environments, it’s just a product of the youth coming through. Incredible coaches around here and the appetite for the game at that grassroots level just propels players into good environments, into good situations.

“I think there’s a grit about this city, there’s a fighting spirit in this city, of all the players, that they just go to work … they create good, technical players that know how to work hard, that know how to reach and achieve their goals.”

For McKennie, the USMNT’s current mission to make the most of a potentially paradigm-shifting World Cup on home soil fits snugly into the wider context of the game’s long-range climb towards prominence in the US – spreading STL’s soccer culture to the entire country, in a sense.

“We're just people that pick up the anchor and carry it as far as we can until the next generation comes in,” said the FC Dallas academy product. “I think it's just a big collective work, big collective group in terms of growing the game here in America.

“With the World Cup coming up in the next three years, it will be massive. And I think it'd be good for the guys that have come before us to see how much the game has grown and what they kind of started, the mission that they started off, and see how it's being carried. And hopefully we can take it as far as we can and make them proud.”