There has been a lot written, most of it justifiable, about the "Lost Generation" of talent in US men's national team age groups. The 1990-through-1994 birth years were relatively barren in comparison to the four five-year cohorts that had directly preceded it, the ones that had produced the likes of Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Brian McBride, or Clint Mathis, Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard, or Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, or Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Benny Feilhaber.
Those guys had all played huge roles not just at every World Cup from 1998 to 2014, but in qualifying for them. Those guys above, and dozens of others, had had what it took to get results in Honduras, never lose against Caribbean teams, protect home field against almost all comers, and grind through the Hexagonal time after time after time.
We all know that didn't happen for the 2018 World Cup, and we all know there are myriad factors as to why (I still say that coaching, both at the beginning and at the end of the Hex, was the biggest reason). One of the more determinative was lack of top-end talent in that entering-its-prime, 1990-94 birth year cohort. Guys like DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood have been good players for the US, and others in that group – John Brooks, Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget – have made contributions at various stages throughout their national team careers including, at times, during the last qualifying cycle. But none of those guys, individually or collectively, raised the team to where it needed to go, and that remains a big reason why the USMNT watched last summer's World Cup from home.
When there were moments of desperate need in previous cycles there always seemed to be at least one or two players entering their prime who were ready to step onto the field in a qualifier and announce themselves by winning a huge game. Mathis and Josh Wolff in the first Dos-a-Cero way back in 2001 were and are the very best example, but are just one of many (Pope vs. Mexico in 1997; Pablo Mastroeni when Chris Armas went down; even Mix Diskerud vs. Mexico in what was to be the final Dos-a-Cero in 2013 all come to mind). Maybe Lletget would've been that guy if he'd been able to stay healthy, or maybe it could've been Morris or Aron Johannsson. Maybe if Walker Zimmerman, Nick Lima and Aaron Long had been identified and progressed through the system earlier the defense wouldn't have been as fragile, and we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. There is probably a slice of the multiverse where that is true.
But not here. Not for us.
Regardless, that's all looking backwards. And the point of this is that, since the loss in Couva, the US fanbase as a whole has looked forwards, and done so with the great hope that the subsequent age-groups would produce more top-end talent and fill the US roster with players who would make the 2018 cycle's failures seem like an aberration rather than the start of a trend.
Given the success of the three cohorts following the Lost Generation (the 1995/6es, the 1997/8s and the 1999/2000s) at the last three U-20 World Cups – the US have made it to the quarterfinals in each of them, the only nation who can claim as much – there's been reason for optimism. Given that players from those cohorts have steadily matriculated from youth national teams to professional starters and, in increasing numbers, full USMNT regulars, the reasons for optimism seem to be founded on more than just age-group dominance. Given that there were more players from those teams and those cohorts knocking on the door over the past few months in the aftermath of this summer's Gold Cup, it seemed logical to hope that more help was on its way.
And now, with this roster, it's here. Gregg Berhalter has called in a lot of familiar faces, but he's also turned on the faucet and begun what most USMNT fans expect will be a steady trickle of young, exciting, dynamic talent into the team. They will have to prove they can do the job, but if they're doing so already for Ajax, or for FC Dallas, or under Matias Almeyda, or playing against Club America, is there a reason to think they can't do the same for the US? If Reggie Cannon, at age 20, can step on the field in the Gold Cup final against Mexico and more than hold his own, what's to stop his club teammate Paxton Pomykal from doing the same against El Tri in a friendly? If Miles Robinson put the clamps on Las Aguilas' $20 million attack in the Campeones Cup, why not expect him to do the same against the rest of Concacaf, for both club and country?
The first eight months of 2019 were Phase 1 of the Gregg Berhalter era. He established his team's principles of play, he put three of his biggest young stars – Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Zack Steffen – in position to be the core leaders of the team going forward, he bid adieu to a cadre of veterans, and he got his team to really compete for the Gold Cup title, though they eventually came up short of winning it.
Now it's onto Phase 2: Adding more of that next young group of players, integrating it with the core group, getting them minutes in friendlies and Concacaf Nations League, and building both depth and cohesiveness throughout the roster. Everything over the next 12 months is about preparing for World Cup qualifying, which begins at this time next year.
This is the part we've all been looking forward to, for almost two years. It's finally here.
A few notes on the roster
• The inclusion of Sergino Dest, a dynamic, 18-year-old, attacking fullback for the US U-20s this past spring and for Ajax this summer – he's already played for the Dutch giants in the Johan Cruyff Shield, then twice in league play and twice in Champions League qualifying – comes as a sigh of relief for many who worried Dest would abandon the US for the Netherlands (he's a Dutch-American dual national) should his home country come calling. These friendlies don't cap-tie him, but he's been a core part of the US youth teams for the past four years, and this call-up looks like a prelude to next month's Nations League games, which would permanently cap-tie him.
It's not a done deal yet but it's trending in that direction.
• To paraphrase a take on the roster expressed to me by three different folks: The best part of this group (aside from Dest accepting the call-up) is that Pulisic is listed as a forward and not a midfielder. I thought it was a worthwhile experiment this summer to play Pulisic in the middle as a No. 10, but he doesn't offer enough defensively or in possession to play that spot against the likes of Mexico, and keeping him central robs both him and the team of his best feature: His dynamism as a winger either bursting into the open field or cutting inside to combine.
Chelsea know that already:
If the Super Cup was any indication, Christian Pulisic's Chelsea future looks bright ✨ pic.twitter.com/MRg0csnjJt— B/R Football (@brfootball) August 15, 2019
• With Pulisic likely playing on the wing, the big question will be about how the midfield lines up. My guess is that this will be Pomykal's chance to debut in that left-sided No. 10 role – the one that Pulisic played this summer. While Pomykal's not an elite chance creator from that spot, he's super clever about his combination play and movement, and should sort of naturally interchange with Pulisic (who, as mentioned, loves to cut inside).
If you think back to this summer, Pulisic and Paul Arriola – the left winger in the Gold Cup – spent a ton of time swapping spots during the run of play. And while Pomykal isn't elite at creating chances from Zone 14, he actually is when he flares out wide:
I don't just have "hopes" for how these guys work together; I have expectations.
• With Tyler Adams injured and Bradley not called in, it seems like Wil Trapp is going to get another look at d-mid. Alfredo Morales – who, at 29, is one of the oldest players on the roster – is another factor at that spot, though he more often plays as a roving destroyer rather than as a sit-and-protect orchestrator as Berhalter prefers.
• Don't take the absence of Bradley and Altidore to mean that we've seen the last of those guys in Red, White & Blue. Toronto FC are in the midst of a playoff race and have two games during the international date, so Berhalter was probably doing the Reds a solid by letting those two guys stay with their club.
• In addition to Pomykal and Dest, it's likely that their U-20 teammate Tim Weah would've been here had he stayed healthy, but he picked up a knock recently for Lille. It's still not clear where Weah's best spot is in the short-term, but long-term my guess is he's a winger in Berhalter's system.
• Another member of the U-20s I'd have liked to see in this camp is FC Dallas's Brandon Servania. He's been excellent all summer, and given how thin the US are at d-mid, I'd argue it would've made some sense to give him a call. Servania isn't an Adams-level prospect at the spot, but he's shown the ability to do some stuff on both sides of the ball:
Didn't know Brandon Servania had this in his locker. pic.twitter.com/vfqWglp8ax— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 14, 2019
• Pulisic, Morris, Corey Baird (who's played very well over the past six weeks) and Tyler Boyd (who's starting for Besiktas) should be the group on the wing. Arriola withdrew from the camp due to family considerations, as reported by Steven Goff of The Washington Post.
Up top, Josh Sargent and Zardes are the only center forwards on this team. Sargent hasn't played much for Werder Bremen so far, but it shouldn't matter – he's got to get the bulk of No. 9 minutes in these games.
• Guys from the post-Lost Generation age-group on this roster:
- 1995s: Steffen, Jesse Gonzalez, Roldan
- 1996: Baird
- 1997s: Robinson, Jackson Yueill
- 1998s: Pulisic, McKennie, Cannon
- 2000s: Sargent, Dest
• Yedlin, Matt Miazga and Duane Holmes, like Adams and Weah, probably would've been here but for injury.
Here's the full roster:
|GK||Gonzalez, Jesse||FC Dallas|
|GK||Guzan, Brad||Atlanta United|
|GK||Johnson, Sean||New York City FC|
|GK||Steffen, Zack||Fortuna Düsseldorf|
|D||Cannon, Reggie||FC Dallas|
|D||Lima, Nick||San Jose Earthquakes|
|D||Long, Aaron||NY Red Bulls|
|D||Lovitz, Daniel||Montreal Impact|
|D||Ream, Tim||Fulham FC|
|D||Robinson, Miles||Atlanta United|
|M||Lletget, Sebastian||LA Galaxy|
|M||McKennie, Weston||Schalke 04|
|M||Morales, Alfredo||Fortuna Düsseldorf|
|M||Pomykal, Paxton||FC Dallas|
|M||Roldan, Cristian||Seattle Sounders|
|M||Trapp, Wil||Columbus Crew SC|
|M||Yueill, Jackson||San Jose Earthquakes|
|F||Baird, Corey||Real Salt Lake|
|F||Morris, Jordan||Seattle Sounders|
|F||Sargent, Josh||Werder Bremen|
|F||Zardes, Gyasi||Columbus Crew SC|