World Cup

The USMNT failed at Copa América. Are its players good enough to succeed at 2026 World Cup?

The USMNT failed at Copa América. Are its players good enough to succeed at 2026 World Cup?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They play at AC Milan and Juventus, at PSV Eindhoven and Borussia Dortmund, at four different English Premier League clubs, at Monaco and Celtic. They are often described as a “golden generation”; they have stimulated unrivaled hype. They have battled in the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga, in waters previously uncharted by male U.S. soccer players.

And yet, here they were on a brutal Monday night at Arrowhead Stadium, bruised and beaten 1-0 by Uruguay, banished from the 2024 Copa América.

Here they were, bodies empty, butts on grass, stares searching, perhaps for answers to the question on millions of minds: What, for the U.S. men’s national team, had gone so flagrantly wrong?

In Kansas City, and across the country in front of screens, eyes sought out their head coach, Gregg Berhalter.

But in the bowels of Arrowhead, and in the minds of critical thinkers nationwide, scrutiny also shifted onto the players.

They are widely regarded as the most talented collection of USMNTers ever, but, well, are they really as good as Average Joe thinks they are?

The answer is that they could be; but no, right now, they aren’t. The prestige of their employers has oversold their present-day abilities, and perhaps propelled expectations a bit too high, too soon ahead of the 2026 World Cup.

Of the 26 players who just limped out of the Copa América, 15 spent last season in the Big Five European leagues. Three played in the Champions League. One scored massive goals in the English FA Cup quarterfinals and semis. Fullback Sergiño Dest, who also played in the Champions League, missed the Copa due to injury.

How many, though, have starred for their clubs? How many start consistently? How many are anything more than role-playing cogs, as opposed to protagonists who can drive a national team?

The ‘golden generation’ of the U.S. men’s national team? (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

Christian Pulisic has established himself as the latter, but, well, have any others? Of the rest, only Antonee Robinson was an every-game starter at a Big Five club.

Many have their places at prominent clubs in part because of who those clubs think they can become, rather than solely because of who they currently are. And their European migration is unprecedented in part because those prominent clubs are much more willing and able to sign Americans than the same clubs were decades ago.

They are, to be clear, still easily the most talented generation of American players ever. They are also at those clubs because they are technically or tactically adept, having been developed by a reformed (though still flawed) youth pipeline. They are, to the naked eye and to data, more skilled than most of their USMNT predecessors. When they went to Qatar and reached the World Cup knockouts, they did so as the youngest of the 32 teams at the tournament. Sky-high hopes for a 2026 World Cup at home — a quarterfinal, or perhaps even a semifinal — were justified.

Where some outsiders erred, though, was in expecting them to make four-year-sized leaps immediately. We are still less than halfway to 2026. The leaps, thus far, have been limited.

Their progress as a group, meanwhile, has been even more restricted, perhaps non-existent, and that’s why Berhalter must go. Even if international soccer is 90% driven and defined by the people playing it, the 10% that’s coaching is the most changeable — so it’s worth changing. This group of promising-but-not-principal players needs a coach who can elevate them. Berhalter is not doing that.

But they are not out of the Copa América because Berhalter is a bad coach. “I don't think this tournament really had anything to do with the staff or the tactics,” Gio Reyna said Monday. They are out because of a bonehead red card; and, more broadly, because they don’t yet have the top-end talent to beat Uruguay (or Brazil or Colombia), nor to overcome a 10-v-11 disadvantage against a lesser foe like Panama.

Some would also argue they are out, in part, because they think they are better than they are; and that, with Berhalter’s starting 11 seemingly set in stone, players got too comfortable.

None of these, however, are reasons they can’t excel in 2026. They were still the second-youngest squad at the 2024 Copa América, behind only Costa Rica. Thirteen of the 14 outfield players who appeared in Monday’s match were 26 years old or younger; the suspended Tim Weah, 24, would have been another.

Some of those 13, such as Robinson and Weston McKennie, are probably at or near the peak of their career parabolas. But others, like Reyna and Tyler Adams, have been limited by injuries, and still have acres of room for growth if they can stay healthy. Folarin Balogun, 22, has the tools and the underlying numbers to become an elite striker. Yunus Musah, 21, should continue to grow. Dest, 23, should recover from his injury.

In their current state, they are nowhere near a World Cup semifinal. But a lot can change in two years; 23-plus months; 710 days.

“We got time to improve until then,” Pulisic said Monday. “I think everyone has to take a step back, and we need to find our identity again. … I'm not exactly sure what's missing. But, um, yeah — I think we are on a good path, and I think we can expect good things.”


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