This week, former US boss Bruce Arena went out on a limb we didn't think existed a few years ago to declare he holds "no doubt" the US men’s national team will escape a dark cloud period by making their way through the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign to see the sunny other side once again.
It was the type of reassurance we'd want in the lingering wake of a stunning Concacaf hexagonal failure that left the US men's national team on the big dance sidelines for the first time since 1986. Since that fateful, sobering night in Couva, so many of us have spent two years and counting reaching for hope that missing out on Russia 2018 was a mere blip.
But is Arena right? Was that qualifying calamity just a perfect storm of letdown circumstances not to be repeated? Can the US pick themselves up off the mat to start a new World Cup attendance streak in Qatar 2022.
Of course, you can't notarize an official blip explanation by rebounding to qualify for just one or two World Cups. No no, this program wants to get back to being a regular invitee routinely found at the top of hex tables.
While the last couple of years have involved a lot of soul-searching and fretting about the USMNT's place in the Concacaf hierarchy, there are reasons to believe Arena's declaration is sound and the ship will then remain righted for qualifying campaigns to come. Here are three.
There's a lot that goes into a World Cup cycle, good or bad. A lot had to go wrong for the US to court disaster enough that a phantom goal could help knock them out. The good news is, in my estimation at least, the variables that led to the downfall don't seem repeatable.
Take Concacaf's competitive level of play. Helped in part by an improving MLS, several of the so-called "second-tier" Concacaf teams have closed the gap on the US and Mexico a bit. Countries like Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama got a little stronger and a little deeper.
They then proved an ability to up their game for stretches to hit historic program-high notes and, umm, end our streak of playing in World Cups at seven. Each of these countries had many good recent times authored by national team icons who now have and/or will soon leave their international playing days behind.
A lot of guile and skill in key positions will need to be adequately replaced, a task harder and slower to do for these smaller nations. The US is in a rebuilding period, but those teams appear headed for their own bumpy phases. As the entire USMNT bubble knows, growing new linchpins is a time-consuming task. It feels like the Nats have a head start on that and can soon re-open that gap for a while.
They should also bounce back stronger once better fitness luck returns. These injury bug sprees come and go, but it can't be missed that injuries have consistently taken major bites out of Gregg Berhalter's selections. So far we've seen Tyler Adams, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic together in red, white and blue on the same field a grand total of zero times. Guys like John Brooks, Weston McKennie, Jordan Morris and Timothy Weah have often missed time.
It's always harder to regain team swagger when it's not complete, let alone missing multiple key cogs and hot prospects. Once depth is no longer stretched thin and the team can go about more ideal business, USMNT bubble confidence will repair much faster.
Growing pain relief
There's no denying it. Some missed growth opportunities at the Under-20 level some years back combined with the cruelly bunched retirement of numerous national team stars set us back big. The roster needed a restock, plain and simple. Of course, the star men that came before had to fight through a development process before racking up international accomplishments. Happily, we have a squadron of notable young talent now doing the same.
They're all over the map. We have guys who are already important to big clubs in their respective leagues like Chelsea, RB Leipzig and MLS Cup champs Seattle. Several are at talent farms like Ajax, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Even behind greener full internationals such as Miles Robinson and Josh Sargent, there's a loaded Under-17 pool. Heck, the FC Dallas youth set-up could probably cobble together a full lineup of future promise.
Systems can be drilled all you like, but what usually matters in the end is a capable crew on the pitch. Blooming standouts like Adams, Pulisic, McKennie, Morris, Zack Steffen and Sergino Dest are gaining experience and confidence that should pay off big. I could go on all day dropping names like Chris Richards and Paxton Pomykal and Gio Reyna and Julian Araujo and Gianluca Busio and Joe Scally and Ulysses Llanez (you get the point). We could stack a hefty depth chart with exciting talent on a collision course with the senior team.
Even if half our strong stable of youngsters fulfills expected potential, USMNT happy days would come back to us, possibly hit new heights and probably stick around.
It's all about balance
Real quick, scroll back up to gander at all the players mentioned thus far. You may notice a pleasant even distribution around the field. Go ahead, draw up an actual working formation from the names. You'll see a lineup and bench pieces that could cause trouble now. There's no barren spot on the field and it's fun just to imagine them combining into a unit.
I often say balance is the key to everything. That goes double for soccer. Winning teams need solid pieces that fit together, they need flexibility and depth, they need to stop wishing for a left back (and yes, there are even a handful of good prospects aiming to fix that). I'm not sure if a more evened-out field cover in the squad will cancel all those fiery "he's out of position!" debates or light more off, but settling them both on and off the field will be much more fun either way.
It's not just a straight depth chart thing, either. Tilt our squad outlook on another axis, and you'll find the names mentioned above also strike a good balance across age levels. Chart everyone in the pipeline and it starts to look like a wave pool. The young risers won't arrive all at once (which would be one of those annoying "good problems"), but they should consistently arrive in groups over the coming years.
Frankly, I'm ready to move on from feeling down about the last few years. Even a conservative estimate of the double dose of USMNT roster balance we're set for is the best reason for World Cup optimism going. Now we just need to start that new qualification streak, prove Arena right and take it from there.