I can tell you exactly where I was on October 10, 2017.
It was a fall evening in Atlanta, and the United States men’s national team was in a must-win scenario as it took on Trinidad and Tobago in Couva. I remember the images of an overwhelmingly-flooded Ato Boldon Stadium days before the game because, of course, it’s Concacaf and that kind of thing happens, I guess.
But there I was, in a crowded Ri Ra Irish Pub (RIP) in Midtown Atlanta, at least confident that the USMNT would do its job. Simply put, a win would have put it in the World Cup.
It didn’t happen, obviously.
One of the images that will always stick with me, I guess, is the shock and anguish on the faces of the fans gathered there. Granted, the United States of America, of all places, isn’t exactly the United Kingdom when it comes to the world’s game, but qualifying for the World Cup in a country of over 300 million is supposed to be a given, right? Especially after you haven’t missed it since 1986 and made it to a second-straight Round of 16 in 2014, 4 years after one of the most dramatic moments in the team’s history played out in South Africa to get you to your first Round of 16 since ‘94, right?
If anything, the night brought us one of the most memorable television moments in sports history. You know the one.
Fast forward to now, and the USMNT is back in the World Cup. Let’s not pretend the trip there was a smooth one, either.
Sure, there were the high moments: the 4-1 rout at Honduras, Dos a Cero in Cincinnati, beating El Salvador in a freezing-cold (and snowy) Columbus, the draw at Azteca in probably the last USA-MEX qualifier in its current form, the Gold Cup final over Mexico in an absolutely scorching (I was there) Las Vegas thanks to a Miles Robinson extra-time header, and the heroics of both Ethan Horvath and Christian Pulisic in last year’s Concacaf Nations League final against El Tri.
But then there were the lows: the loss to Canada (!) in Hamilton, the draws that should have been wins, and the overall frustration of watching a team that just seemed bereft of ideas offensively. There was Robinson, on a stratospheric rise from a standout at Syracuse University to Best XI MLS defender and national team mainstay, lying helplessly on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf, his Achilles torn and his place in a center-back pairing with Walker Zimmerman in Qatar gone in a matter of cruel seconds. There were the other injuries: not nearly as serious as Robinson’s but ones that left you wondering if they could at least stay healthy long enough to at least make it on the plane.
But the U.S. made it, as imperfect as it was.
Even as I’m typing this, it’s hard to believe that Christian Pulisic, who’s been with the program for what seems like ages but only just turned 24, is playing in his 1st World Cup. Four years ago, Captain America was supposed to be helping front the United States attack in Russia. Instead, he was forced to watch it from home, a mere spectator just like you and me.
Since then, some fresh, young faces have emerged.
There’s Sergiño Dest, who just turned 22, one of the world’s up-and-coming fullbacks who trained in the famed Ajax academy but opted to represent the country his father emigrated to as a child.
There’s Gio Reyna, a 20-year-old, the son of one of the most legendary players in United States history, poised to make his own mark on the sport. He’s also playing with memories of his brother, Jack, who lost his battle with cancer 10 years ago.
There’s Timothy Weah, 22, the son of another footballing great, following in the footsteps of his father and looking to make his mark in the game. Not sure if he’ll eventually be a head of state like his father, but we’ll see.
There’s Yunus Musah, almost 20, born in New York but raised partially in England, a youth international with the Three Lions before eventually making the switch to play for the country of his birth despite having his pick of 4, yes, 4 countries.
There’s Jesús Ferreira, almost 22, born in Colombia, raised in Texas, and an export from one of the top youth academies in the country. He was in the hunt for MLS’s Golden Boot for much of 2022. He probably won’t be in MLS much longer, though.
There’s Brenden Aaronson, who turned 22 last month, from about a half-hour outside of Philly, who also came through the MLS youth circuit, tore it up in the league for a couple of years (scoring on his MLS debut against...Atlanta United) and is now playing for an American coach in the Premier League. A real-life one from Wisconsin that grew up around the game, not a fictional one from Kansas that was previously a successful college football coach.
There’s Josh Sargent, almost 23, a red-headed Midwesterner who made the move to Germany as a 17-year-old and is a father of an 11-month-old who should be in the USWNT discussion in time for the 2043 Women’s World Cup.
The names I just mentioned? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a Reyna, a Musah, a Joe Scally (19) could be around in 2038, after the “old” guys like Jedi Robinson, Christian Pulisic, and Matt Turner have hung them up. Heck, Pulisic, along with Tyler Adams, Robinson, and Weston McKennie (and maybe even Sargent, Dest, and Ferriera) should have enough tread on the tires in 2034 for one last go-around. But more eyes of USMNT fans will be on that 19-24-year-old core than, say the late-20s/early-to-mid-30s guys in the group that draw their share of hate watchers and critics. Will the moment prove too bright for the youngsters? Is the hype justified? From a whole-squad standpoint, older players included, did Gregg Berhalter get the roster right?
At the time I’m writing this, which is in the early morning hours of November 20, 2022, there are still many questions to be answered about the United States men’s national team as it prepares for its opening match on Monday against Wales, a country in its 1st World Cup since 1958 but features one of the best players in the sport in Gareth Bale. I suppose we’ll be a step closer to knowing the answer to them at about 4 p.m. ET on Monday (about midnight in Qatar) when we’ll be either celebrating a win/hard-fought result or commiserating after a loss with England looming on Black Friday.
Either way, a new chapter’s about to be written. No one’s sure what the ending will be yet. Let’s hope together that it’s a pretty happy one.