Opinion: U.S. men’s soccer team collecting young talent almost a year after last game

It’s been a while since the U.S. men have been on the field and, quite honestly, it hasn’t been the worst thing.

Between the Americans failing to qualify for the men’s World Cup in 2018, missing yet another Olympics and going more than a year without a permanent head coach, fans had pretty much lost patience with the team and its backward momentum. Even some of the players were fed up.

But as the Americans get ready to play their first game in almost a year Thursday, against Wales, there is an unfamiliar vibe about this team. An air of excitement and anticipation.

A feeling of, dare I say it, hope.

“I think the future is really very exciting,” Gio Reyna, one of the main reasons for all this warm-and-fuzzy optimism, said Wednesday. “I’m just really happy to be here and I think everybody is happy to have this new group together.”

Gio Reyna, the son of former U.S. men’s captain Claudio Reyna and U.S. women’s team member Danielle Egan, is one of the young American stars playing for a European powerhouse. (Photo: Martin Meissner, AP)

For perhaps the first time, the U.S. men seem ready to deliver on the promise of soccer’s growth in the United States. Gregg Berhalter’s roster for the Wales game is almost entirely Europe-based, for obvious reasons, but these are not guys who are parked deep on benches in England or the Netherlands.

Reyna, son of former U.S. men’s captain Claudio Reyna and U.S. women’s team member Danielle Egan, is one of German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund’s bright young stars with a goal and three assists already this season. Defender Sergino Dest last month became the first American to start a Champions League game for Barcelona. Midfielder Weston McKennie is getting significant playing time at Italian-giant Juventus.

It was midfielder Tyler Adams’ goal that gave Leipzig its first appearance in the Champions League semifinals last season. Zack Steffen isn’t Manchester City’s No. 1 goalkeeper, but he did start two League Cup games.

And this is all in addition to Christian Pulisic, a Chelsea mainstay who seems like the grizzled veteran of the Americans now despite still only being 22. Pulisic won’t play Thursday; though he joined the U.S. men for the first few days of training, he returned to Chelsea on Wednesday to continue recovering from his hamstring injury.

“It’s a pleasure to see the youthful exuberance out there,” Berhalter said. “A ton of new players, a ton of young players with a really fresh perspective, and they’re doing really well at their clubs. That’s been fun to see their progress and see their growth up close.”

The Americans might still have been a ways away from being legitimate World Cup contenders, but they seemed to be making steady improvement through the 1990s, 2000s and early 2010s. Qualifying was considered a given, and the knockout rounds were usually within reach. Their showings against the world’s top teams were usually respectable, and upsets were possible.

It became more common to see U.S. players on European club rosters, even if few caught on with the top clubs, and Major League Soccer was getting stronger.

After Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey retired, however, the Americans seemed to lose their way. It wasn’t just the losses and the failures, it was the lack of an identity. Or a plan to create one.

That culminated, of course, in the U.S. men’s stunning failure to make the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A loss to Mexico in last year’s Gold Cup final didn’t exactly provide reassurance.

But the Americans have transformed themselves, the result of both this influx of young talent and the hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the first call-up for 10 of the 24 players on Berhalter’s roster against Wales, and seven more have 10 or fewer caps. With qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar pushed back to next year because of COVID, the Americans have a chance to look at players they might not have.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” McKennie said. “We want to get in and get it done and obviously qualify. At the same time, we also were able to take advantage of this time and come out with the best possibility and best roster to get that job done, as well. It allows us to prepare a little bit more.”

The Americans will have had just two full training sessions before the game against Wales, and Berhalter cautioned that they are far from a finished product. As much talent as they have, they’re still learning how to play with one another and figuring out their roles on the national team.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a complete performance,” Berhalter said. “I’m not expecting that.”

But for the first time in a long time, it feels as if the U.S. men are on the right track. And the future that’s in front of them looks very bright indeed.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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