Ready or Not, a Young U.S. Team’s Moment Arrives

DOHA, Qatar — Together they share the convivial closeness of fraternity brothers. They are blessed with fresh legs and unlined faces. They don’t know any better than to be brimming with confidence.

They are the United States men’s soccer team, and they are young — very young. With an average age of 25 years 214 days, they will be the second-youngest of the 32 squads when the World Cup begins on Sunday in Qatar, according to Nielsen’s Gracenote, a data provider. Only Ghana, with an average of 25 years 108 days, has a younger 26-man squad.

They are America’s first Gen Z World Cup team. Time will tell whether they represent, as many hope, a golden generation. For now, at least, they have their youth, the endless possibility of tomorrow and that pleasantly anxious feeling that they might be at the starting point of something really, really good.

“One of them didn’t know who Prince was,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta, at 27 one of the older players on the squad, said about his younger teammates. “It’s like, ‘Wait, how old are you again?’”

“We look at our youth as an advantage,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, top right.Credit…Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Age is but a number, of course, and it tells only a sliver of the story when evaluating a team against a field of opponents. For a single group of players, though, it can be a narratively significant data point, a marker of a place in a developmental arc. More broadly, and potentially more worryingly for this year’s U.S. team, historical statistics show that a surplus of young players does not augur well for a team’s performance at a World Cup: At the past 12 World Cups, only five teams — Poland (1974, 1982), Brazil (1978), Sweden (1994) and Germany (2010) — have finished in the top four with squads whose average age was under 26, according Nielsen’s Gracenote.

This tournament, therefore, arrives at a fascinating point in time for the American men. Never has the U.S. national team gathered so many players competing with top teams in the world’s best leagues: a Champions League winner, but also players who have lifted trophies in England, Germany, France and Italy. But at the same time, these are athletes who are clearly still finding themselves, still coming into their own, still ascending to the peaks of abilities.

Are they ready for the biggest sporting event in the world? Or has the tournament arrived a few years too soon?

“We look at our youth as an advantage,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, a World Cup debutant at 29. “We know that we have the energy, the intensity and the capacity to cause teams trouble.”

Just how young are these players?

Christian Pulisic, the team’s captain and best player, was born on Sept. 18, 1998, the day “Rush Hour” came out in movie theaters. Striker Jesus Ferreira was born on Dec. 24, 2000, when Destiny Child’s “Independent Women Part I” was the No. 1 song in the United States. Forward Gio Reyna was born on Nov. 13, 2002, five months after the United States national team, captained by his father, Claudio, was eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in South Korea.

“I was in my mom’s belly,” Reyna said of the match that ended that run, a 1-0 defeat against Germany that included a notorious goal-line handball. “I just know they got robbed.”

Christian Pulisic was the first American to play in the Champions League final and the first to win the title. Credit…Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Reyna, who turned 20 this week, and defender Joe Scally and midfielder Yunus Musah, both 19, are the three American players not yet old enough to legally buy an alcoholic beverage in the U.S.

Their teammate Brenden Aaronson, 22, pointed out earlier this year that the team, while young, was not short on experience. Many of them, including Aaronson, turned professional as teenagers, and many of them currently play in pressure-packed domestic competitions like England’s Premier League and elite continental competitions like the Champions League. (There were 10 Americans on Champions League rosters this season.)

“A lot of the guys on the team have been in huge games in their career so far,” Aaronson said. “It’s a young squad, but I think there’s a lot of, I guess you could say, old heads on this team.”

That has not prevented some of the (slightly) older players from feeling ancient among their teammates. “Some of these guys weren’t even born when 9/11 happened,” said defender DeAndre Yedlin, who is 29.

Yedlin, a veteran of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, is the only player on the roster with any previous experience in the tournament, a direct result of the team’s disastrous failure to qualify for the 2018 event in Russia. That humiliation — the first World Cup absence for the United States since 1986 — led to a total overhaul of the program.

Gone were the old coaching staff and former stalwart players. (Only five players — Yedlin, Pulisic, Acosta, Morris and Ream — remain from that campaign.) In their place arrived a crop of unproven prospects and a new marketing slogan — “Only Forward” — that sought to orient the team’s brand toward the future.

The Americans, then, have the potential, but may not yet have the pedigree. Their collective youth, of course, is a conscious choice by Coach Gregg Berhalter. But there is not exactly a gang of American stars in their late 20s demanding to be selected ahead of the current squad. The lack of national team contributors born in the early to mid-1990s has led pundits to talk about a “lost generation” for the program.

That left the young players, over the past few years, to learn on the fly, navigating the highs and lows with few wise veterans to lean on for support. But the trial by fire has been a bonding experience. Team members play video games together online. They hang out together on road trips. They claim not to have cliques in the squad.

Weston McKennie and other young stars made their debuts with the national team after it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.Credit…Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“As a team, our biggest strength is our chemistry, our brotherhood that we have to be able to stick up for one another,” said midfielder Weston McKennie, 24. “We’ve all known each other for so long. We’ve always played against each other growing up or played with each other. Some of us have even lived together.”

World Cup squads often include young players to provide a jolt of energy to a veteran group, but they are often safely relegated to bench roles. The young Americans, on the other hand, constitute the core of Berhalter’s team.

During the qualifying stage, for instance, the United States fielded 10 of the 11 youngest starting lineups used by teams that eventually earned tickets to Qatar. The Americans’ youngest lineup, used in October 2021 in a match against Costa Rica, had an average age of only 22.2 years. All but one of the 14 lineups used by Berhalter in the qualifying tournament had average ages younger than 25.

Teams with starting lineups this young typically do not make deep runs at the World Cup.

According to Nielsen’s Gracenote, almost every one of the 44 teams that have played in a World Cup final — or the final group in the 1950 tournament, which closed with a four-team round-robin stage — fielded a starting 11 averaging at least 26 years old. The only exceptions were Argentina in 1930 (24 years 116 days), West Germany in 1966 (25 years 176 days) and Argentina in 1978 (25 years 254 days). The first two were defeated by older opponents, while the third won in extra time on home soil.

Of the 76 teams to play in World Cup semifinals or the 1950 final group, only six fielded starting lineups with an average age under 26 in those matches.

Berhalter himself has seen the benefits that youth, smartly employed, can provide in the context of a World Cup team. He was a player on the U.S. team in 2002, when a side energized by the young talents Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley outperformed expectations, and in 2006, when the Americans finished last in their group with a team that, in Berhalter’s eyes, lacked the hunger of young players.

Coach Gregg Berhalter was a member of two U.S. World Cup teams as a player.Credit…Mike Stobe/Getty Images

At the 2010 World Cup, Donovan, by then 28, scored a memorable last-gasp goal against Algeria to help the U.S. advance from the group stage. But he said the team’s comeback tie against Slovenia in the match before that game was just as important that summer, and one that lingered in his mind as an example of how calm, veteran voices can guide teams through sticky situations.

“Being down, 2-0, at halftime is like being down, 4-0, in a normal game, but we had enough leadership to get something out of the game,” Donovan said. “When I look at this team today, if they have a hiccup early, if Wales scores in the first five minutes, are they able to dig and get something out of the game?”

The current American players have also seemed aware of the pitfalls of youth. In September, after they were humbled by Japan, 2-0, in an exhibition match, Adams suggested they had more to learn. Japan had unsteadied the United States with a high line of pressure, and the Americans were not savvy enough in the moment to adjust.

“Our team is young,” Adams said that night. “I think today we were maybe a little bit naïve.”

At the World Cup, where a single poor performance, even in the group stage, can be the difference between elimination or advancement, that could mean disaster.

That inexperience has some wondering if this World Cup arrived too soon for this particular United States team, if its fans should instead rest their hopes on the 2026 tournament, which will be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico, when this young core of American players will be older, more experienced and, presumably, a bit better.

The players, at least, said they did not have the time to think that way.

“For us, it’s right now,” McKennie said. “For us, it’s to be able to leave our mark and work toward our goal, changing in the way the world views American soccer, and I think that the time is now to be able to do that.”

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