It started with a stinging 2-1 loss. It was the World Cup Round of 16 and in extra time, Belgium broke American hearts, putting a stop to the USA’s 2014 World Cup run. The U.S. had accomplished a great deal in the tournament, having navigated through the Group of Death, which included soccer powers Ghana, Portugal and eventual World Cup champion Germany.
The USA had battled with Belgium for 120 minutes, which made the defeat even tougher to swallow, but with heads held high, the course for the next MNT quest was clear. In four years in Russia, the USA wanted to be back. In four years, the MNT wanted to go further.
The year that’s followed that World Cup run has been one of transition. To go further than ever before in Russia in 2018, the MNT have to do it with a new generation of players. To prepare these players is to give them the opportunity to grow on the field and to provide them the experience needed to make an impact in 2018.
“It’s important that young players are given a chance to gain experience and improve,” said U.S. MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Yes there may be bumps along the way, but you have to plant the seeds and give them water in order for them to grow.”
It’s a concept that’s important and one that has been realized by the MNT in both the past and present.
Though he had earned a few earlier caps, center back Carlos Bocanegra burst onto the international scene in 2003, making 13 appearances while playing for the United States at that year’s FIFA Confederations Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup. Three years later he was helping lead a nine-man U.S. squad to a 1-1 draw against eventual World Cup champions Italy in Kaiserslautern. Seven years later, he captained the MNT to a first-place group finish at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Carlos Bocanegra Captained the MNT in its Qualifying Run Towards and During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Similarly, a young Michael Bradley made his presence felt with the U.S. in 2007, playing all but one match for the U.S. in the team’s run to that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and delivering the game-winner in a 1-0 friendly win away to Switzerland that October – at the time a rare U.S. victory on European soil. Bradley ended the year as one of the team’s leading cap-winners. The current U.S. captain has gone on to play every minute of both the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, most memorably scoring a late, dramatic equalizer against Slovenia that kept the USA’s hopes of advancement alive in 2010.
Bradley Celebrates after Scoring in the 2010 World Cup against Slovenia.
One player that will hope to follow the path of Bocanegra and Bradley to Russia 2018 is 22-year-old Bobby Wood.
Having made his international debut against Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2013, the Hawaiian forward didn’t appear again until a year later against Ecuador. In 2015, Wood has been given more opportunity and taken full advantage. Coming on as a 65th minute sub in June’s friendly at the Netherlands, Wood tallied a clinical 90th minute winner off a feed from fellow youngster Jordan Morris.
Five days later, Wood was thrust into the spotlight against World Cup Champion and then No. 1 FIFA-ranked Germany, delivering late-game heroics as he again combined with Morris to produce a magical 87th minute winner, stunning the crowd in Cologne. From there, Wood moved into a better club situation, signing with Union Berlin, where he has already scored four times in his first 10 appearances.
Having taken July’s Gold Cup off in order to settle with his new club, Wood returned to the MNT for its biggest game of the year – the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico. Just like in June, Wood continued his streak of big-game goals, finding the back of the net in extra time of a game that would ultimately end in Mexico’s favor through fellow youngster DeAndre Yedlin.
With 17 appearances each this year, Yedlin along with fellow attacker Gyasi Zardes jointly lead the team as the two-most capped players in 2015. Compare that with the pair holding a combined total of just 11 caps at the start of the year, and it’s clear the MNT coaching staff has showed faith by “throwing them into the cold water.”
Just like Wood captured his first international goal in June’s friendly against Holland, Zardes got the start and found his debut international strike 33 minutes into the match against the Dutch.
Yedlin came on in the 57th minute, and 14 minutes later assisted on the John Brooks goal that launched an epic U.S. comeback.
The trio’s output hasn’t been the only strong glimpse of MNT youngsters this year. Before his assist in Holland, Jordan Morris tallied a game-winner of his own in April’s 2-0 win against Mexico.
Defenders Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks have also been given chances to learn – and yes, to struggle at times – in serving a larger goal. In order for players to one day have an impact, the only way to develop is by playing.
There were good times this year for these young players: Zardes with a pair of goals in 2015 and four assists, Yedlin’s four assists, Wood and Morris with their combined four clutch goals, Alvarado and Brooks combining in the backline for wins against the Netherlands, Germany, Honduras and Peru.
Sometimes the learning curve is shorter. Six months out from the beginning of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni had a combined five caps between them, only one of which came in World Cup qualifying. That June in South Korea, both proved to be pivotal performers as the U.S. went on an unprecedented run to the quarterfinals.
More recently, Graham Zusi had not worn the National Team jersey prior to 2012. Two years later in Brazil, he was the orchestrator of two of the USA’s biggest goals: bending in the corner kick that Brooks headed home to give the U.S. a 2-1 victory against Ghana, and setting up Clint Dempsey for the USA’s second goal in its 2-2 draw with Portugal.
Zusi Celebrates with John Brooks after Assisting on his Game-winning goal against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Today, more and more young players are getting their shot. In 2015, 16 players aged 25 or younger have earned caps with the MNT. The seeds have been planted and growth has already shown. The more opportunities they’re given to progress, the greater chance at delivering positive results for the MNT’s next generation.