On that path the USMNT will be relying on several of the rising stars splashed across the transfer headlines at present, and head coach Gregg Berhalter offered his thoughts on several situations during a conference call with media. First he hinted at an imminent move for Weston McKennie, the FC Dallas academy product and current Schalke midfielder at the heart of Berhalter's plans for the USMNT engine room. He's a reported target of Southampton FC.
“Regarding Weston,” Berhalter said, “he's very focused on challenging himself and raising his level and playing at the highest level possible. And when you think about the Premier League, it's the best league in the world. So the opportunity to see Weston in the Premier League, for the national team, is exciting. We wish him the best and hope that’s concluded sooner rather than later.”
Then there’s the Philadelphia Union Homegrown duo of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, both of whom are said to be on the radar of some big European clubs. They've also been labeled as ready for such a move by their current coach, Jim Curtin.
“I think every player has a different pathway. And all we want is our players to be challenged in each and every game that they're in,” said Berhalter. “If the club coach is saying that they need a bigger challenge, then I take what Jim says at face value. He's got a lot of experience, he's been working with these players for a long time. So if they need a new challenge, hopefully it’ll work out and they'll get it.
“Major League Soccer was instrumental in developing these two players. And I'm interested to see where this all goes, because I was really excited at Brenden's performance at MLS is Back. I think he did really well. I think Mark also did well, and it'll be interesting to see where these guys end up and keep following them as they keep developing.”
Although the U.S. player pool has grown younger with players who are climbing to higher levels in international soccer, the USMNT can't wait for them to get adjusted to life in Concacaf. They have to hit the ground running.
“Last time around, we didn't get off on the right foot at the beginning of qualifying and we were always playing catchup,” said defender Tim Ream, a New York Red Bulls center back from 2010-'11. “So with the young guys now, we're looking to be on top from the very first game. They bring a youthfulness, they bring energy and they bring a technical ability – not that there wasn't a technical ability before, but I think you have the technical ability with the running and the attitude and the never-say-die that these kids have.
"They don't worry about about anything else. They just they just want to go out and perform and win, and I think that's been definitely refreshing to see with this group as it has developed over the last two and three years."
Ream shared an anecdote that epitomizes the generational shift that distinguishes the start of this cycle from the end of the last one, which ended in such infamy in Couva, Trinidad.
“I tell a funny story of when we were in Orlando and then Trinidad [for the final two qualifiers of 2017],” said the Fulham defender, now 32. “We were doing 5-v-2s and it's always the youngest guy in the box. And I was 30 at the time, and I was the youngest – and youngest player on the bench as a sub.
“So first and foremost you look at these guys who are 21, 22 years old, and they’ve brought a youthfulness and an exuberance into the team. And with that youthfulness brings legs, it brings energy, it brings excitement ... and not that that can always translate into results in Concacaf, but their abilities and their mental capacity and struggles and the things they've gone through over in Europe can only put them in a good position.”
Most teams operate along an age hierarchy of some sort, with vets expected to take responsibility and provide guidance and leadership to their younger colleagues. But the equation shifts a bit when the youngest members of your player pool are competing – and often excelling – on some of the world’s biggest stages. Two shining examples are Tyler Adams taking part in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and semifinals with RB Leipzig, or Christian Pulisic starring for Chelsea in huge matches in England.
“Listen, all these young guys, a lot of them are playing in big games already,” said Ream, who will return to the Premiership this fall thanks to Fulham’s successful promotion campaign. “So these guys, you don't have to give them too much information on what it's going to be like. We know as older guys what it's like to go away from the US and play in these games and we've had a few, not qualifiers, but games that we have had to go away. And these guys have a little bit of a taste. Obviously, it's extra motivation that there's a World Cup at the end of the road. And I think these guys are more than motivated to go out there and play in these qualifiers, to put the team back into the World Cup in 2022.”