Domestically speaking, however, the growth in the game has never been greater. A 2022 report by Telemundo Deportes indicated that 52% of adults considered themselves as soccer fans, as opposed to 2012. Similarly, participation has grown over 30% from 2002 to 2019 as a “first choice” sport for young people in the US — a bigger jump than any of the other big four sports of hockey, baseball, basketball and American football. The latter of which, knowingly, faces an existential crisis due to brain-related injuries, amongst other prevalent topics.
Everyone seems to want a slice of the MLS pie these days. Matthew McConaughey at Austin FC, David Beckham’s very own club, Inter Miami CF, to another new member to the league, and current MLS champion — the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), who is valued at $900 million USD — nearly double the amount of many European soccer clubs, such as the deeply beloved Newcastle F.C.
In terms of the history of the USMNT, there hasn’t been much to write home about. Sure, there’s your Landon Donovan late-winner against Algeria in 2010, Tim Howard’s “minister of defense” performance against Belgium in the 2014 Round of 16, and real history pundits like to dig deep to pinpoint that the team finished a record third place at the very first World Cup in 1930. A century on, what has come to be expected is either a group stage exit or even failing to qualify for the Cup altogether — including the past tournament in Russia. Within the past eight years, the USWNT have added two more World Cup titles to their belt, adding another spotlight on the men, who have yet to make a serious run in the modern era.
With all that said, it’s undeniable, this team just feels different.
As the youngest side going to Qatar, US manager Gregg Berhalter has his hands full with a difficult group featuring England, Wales and Iran. Performance-wise, there has arguably never been a more talented bunch. “We’re going in there with a nothing to lose attitude,” Christian Pulisic told Hypebeast. “We’re going to go in confident and hopefully shake up the tournament a bit, have the country behind us and give everything.” Add in Lille’s Timothy Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams of Leeds, Weston McKennie at Juventus and Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund and the nation could have only dreamt of this squad 20 years ago.
The usual pundits around the USMNT is that the team never faced stiff enough competition like they do in Europe or South America. But McKennie, 24, is one of the many young Americans who has top-level experience and isn’t “surprised by the players” that he has to face. “I’m playing against these players day-in-day-out and every weekend. So I think that’s what makes it different,” the midfielder told Hypebeast.
Like many Americans, McKennie’s first love was American football. He moved to Germany from age six to nine because of his father’s US Air Force service. There, he fell in love with the world’s iteration of football precisely when the World Cup took over the country in 2006. In hindsight, McKennie jokes that he felt like a “bandwagoner”, having loved that 2006 Italian team that won the title, with Francesco Totti — ‘Il Bimbo d’Oro’ — being the player he wanted to most emulate.
From having a poster of that squad in his room as a child, to getting to play with one of its heroes, Gigi Buffon — it was an “amazing experience,” McKennie recalled.
“One thing the MLS could really benefit from is adding more of a competitive factor… I feel like it’s too safe and too secure.”
Although it’s a major benefit for US talent to regularly be playing at the top clubs in Europe, he also noted that the level of competition needs to improve back home for the rest of the country to care like they do abroad.
“Just comparing to Europe, one thing the MLS could really benefit from is adding more of a competitive factor. The relegation battles, because everything is so secure. ‘Oh we didn’t do good this year, it’s ok we’re still there the next year.’ It doesn’t add any emotion, any excitement. In Europe, your job is on the line. At the end of the season, it’s crunch time. It matters and in the MLS, I feel like it’s too safe and too secure. Over in the US, if a coach loses six or seven games and doesn’t qualify for the playoffs, he’s still going to be the coach next year. In Europe, if a coach for a big club loses three or four games in a row, he’s out,” Mckennie said.
To make an American football comparison, if the NFL adopted this framework, the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders would have been regulated to the third or fourth tier by now.
“We all have the common goal of trying to put soccer on the map and show the US as a country that can compete at the highest level.”
Gio Reyna is another promising young talent. The son of US soccer veterans, Claudio Reyna and Danielle Egan, you can see the same tenacity that his parents played with and an untapped energy that has seldom been seen by an American player. As we spoke, the 20-year-old midfielder noted his love for basketball and how he sees players like Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker as being his playing equivalent on the court. “I feel like we’re at similar stages of our career — young and still coming up…and both have points to prove,” Reyna told Hypebeast.
“We all have the common goal of trying to put soccer on the map and show the US as a country that can compete at the highest level. It’s not easy. These are the tournaments where you have to prove it. In the next few tournaments also, when you have a few other guys going through, a lot of our main guys will be in their prime. In the end, it’s about all of us improving every day and trying to prove everyone wrong,” Reyna added.
Reyna and McKennie have dealt with their fair share of injuries but they both reiterate the “connection” and “chemistry” that this team possesses. “Being so young and at the same stages in our life and all of us knowing each other for so long.”
The two are amongst the ones to watch within Berhalter’s side as they open on Monday, November 21, against Wales. Despite being the entire team’s first World Cup, excluding DeAndre Yedlin who played in 2014, McKennie believes the team understands what it means to play for the national team, “because we’ve being doing it since we were 13 to 14 years old, many of us together at the same time. We know there are a lot of expectations and pressure put on this generation — due to the places we play at and where we’re at in our careers.”
While the odds are heavily against the US to hoist the trophy on December 18, years from now, many will look to this team as the genesis for the country’s long-awaited success, both domestically and abroad. Every World Cup defies expectations — Russia in 2018, Ghana in 2010 — who knows what will happen over the course of the next month.