Patrick Grudberg ‘24
October 10th, 2017, was a dark day for soccer in the United States. But it didn’t start that way – the morning was filled with anticipation and excitement. All the U.S. needed to do was win or draw versus Trinidad and Tobago and they’d clinch their place in the 2018 World Cup. Despite a lackluster qualifying process, third place was theirs for the taking. But, as most of us know, the events that night led to one of the darkest moments in United States soccer history.
Despite Trinidad already being eliminated, the Americans quickly fell behind 2-0. This came as an even bigger surprise considering Trinidad, who had been eliminated already, started many young, inexperienced players. Christian Pulisic clawed a goal back early in the second half, but it was too late; the game finished 2-1. Yet, their fate wasn’t sealed. Panama and Honduras, both trailing the U.S. in standings entering the match, faced difficult opponents in Mexico and Costa Rica. If they lost, the U.S. would still limp into a qualifying place. But by cruel fate, both Central American squads somehow won and leapfrogged the United States. Panama was going to the World Cup. The United States was not.
American sports fans, previously unaware of the soccer team’s ongoing qualifying process, quickly got news of the result and ridiculed the U.S.’s performance. Taylor Twellman, an ESPN soccer analyst, famously ranted with his repeated phrase “what are we doing?!” The darkness looming on the edge of town had settled over the American soccer community. And, for the most part, it remained that way for the next few years. Gregg Berhalter was appointed manager in December of 2018, but the team faced a crisis; their core was aging, with legends like Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey losing their magic touch that helped the Americans reach two straight knockout round appearances in 2010 and 2014. Little did we know, a generation of promising, young stars were in the pipeline, looking to restore hope to American fans across the nation.
For a few years, Christian Pulisic was the only young star featured in the squad. But by 2021, the team had been completely rebuilt from scratch. Alongside Pulisic were now the likes of Tyler Adams (a physical, ball-winning defensive midfielder), Weston McKennie (a box-to-box all-around force), and Brendan Aaronson (a crafty, skillful winger with flowing curly locks). Fans like myself were quickly filled with hope. This would be the generation to lead us back to the World Cup where we belong. And, as hoped, the United States finished third in qualifying and clinched their spot in the 2022 World Cup. The boys were back.
Friday, April 1st, was the complete opposite of that dark October day five years before. The World Cup draw would be announced that afternoon. During my biology class, I nervously watched nations fall into place in their respective groups. England in Group B. Then, by fate once again, the United States. A rematch from South Africa in 2010, which saw the two draw 1-1, would happen on Black Friday. Iran and Wales would soon follow, and the U.S.’s group was set.
This year’s group, compared to the USMNT’s “group of death” in 2014 (featuring Germany, Portugal and Ghana) is much more manageable. England will be tough, but I expect Berhalter’s squad to challenge for that second place spot and move onto the round of sixteen. Regardless, unlike the past five years, we finally have hope again, and youthful hope at that – a generation of superstars bound to help Americans fall in love with the beautiful game. A deep World Cup run would certainly help that.
Does the team have flaws? Of course. They lack a true, clinical striker. The goalkeeper question, though obvious to some, is still up for debate (Matt Turner vs Zach Steffen). And, most of all, Gregg Berhalter’s leadership has been questioned by many, including myself. Will he adapt to the physical, less aesthetically pleasing style of soccer necessary to win in international competitions? Who knows. At the moment, all I care about is the fact that in a month’s time, we’ll be watching Thanksgiving football one day and U.S. vs England the day after. For a few weeks we’ll come together as a nation, divided as we’ve been in decades, to root for a promising group of American stars, many not old enough to legally drink. If all this isn’t enough to pique the interest of a casual soccer fan, I’m not sure what will.