The Future Is Bright for the USMNT, but Changes Must Be Made Ahead of 2026 World Cup

Megan SwanickDecember 4, 2022

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03: Head Coach Gregg Berhalter of USA shows appreciation to the fans after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Marvin Ibo Guengoer - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images)
Marvin Ibo Guengoer - GES Sportfoto/Getty Images

Within 30 minutes of the defeat to the Netherlands on Saturday in Doha, Gregg Berhalter was asked by reporters if he intended to remain on as the U.S. men's national team coach. The 49-year-old said he’d have to think about it.

You can imagine the U.S. Soccer Federation will do some critical thinking too.

In his time with the national team, Berhalter has collected notable victories, including beating Mexico three times in a year, winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup in the same summer, qualifying for the World Cup after missing it in 2018 and making it out of the group.

The USMNT has a clear culture of positivity and brotherhood, cultivated in part by the man at the helm. He's also overseen a successful dual-national recruitment process, bringing promising talent such as Sergiño Dest and Yunus Musah to American shores while keeping the best interests of each player in mind.

Ultimately, though, a sound defeat to the Netherlands in the round of 16 is just good enough. A group stage exit would be seen as failure. A quarterfinals berth would be historic success. What this team did is set a foundation; it was just enough.

But the nation and the federation have higher hopes as they prepare to co-host the 2026 World Cup, and they'll need to accelerate progress and implement changes to achieve them.

In that pursuit, U.S. Soccer should look gratefully at the foundation Berhalter built and then find the best candidate to keep building. For Berhalter, returning to the club level—perhaps on foreign shores—might be preferred after a pressure-packed tenure as manager.

TOPSHOT - USA's midfielder #08 Weston McKennie and USA's midfielder #04 Tyler Adams celebrate their team's first goal scored by USA's forward #10 Christian Pulisic during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and USA at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 29, 2022. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

The foundation is set

The second-youngest team in the tournament has World Cup experience under their belt—and the bitter taste of defeat to drive them. They believed they could do more in Qatar. With four years to work toward redemption, this crew of youth will hit their prime on home soil after four years of developing at club level.

Ideally, the men plying their trade in Europe—Musah, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and company—will continue to grow their roles at the top level. They already have youth and accomplishments. As they add more experience, they'll be lethal.

The trend of young Americans who depart for competitive, European shores will continue. On arrival, they'll need to work tirelessly to play central roles in top leagues. The program would be wise to identify players who start to excel at that level and integrate them more quickly into the senior team.

Clubs like the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas play no small role in developing young talent and getting them to Europe. They'll need to continue that contribution, and other clubs would be wise financially to join them. The benefits of developing talent and selling to Europe seem self-evident for a club, though many have yet to do so successfully.

A glaring issue as the World Cup wore on is that depth in the squad was too shallow. The drop-off in output from the first to the second half as starting players tired or were substituted became a core issue. But building on the talent pool who are proving themselves at the highest level solves that problem.

Success in 2026 will require the continued growth of young stars in Europe. It will also require younger prospects to break out at that level, adding confidence to this team's depth and rotation.

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 03: Andries Noppert of Netherlands competes for the ball with Haji Wright of USA during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Round of 16 match between Netherlands and USA at Khalifa International Stadium on December 03, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Life, liberty and the pursuit of a striker

The role of striker-savior in the 2026 World Cup is up for grabs. It remains among the USMNT's more elusive positions.

That hero might not be known yet. The hungry and hopeful are practicing for that position as we sit typing.

It could also be somebody already in the program. Jesús Ferreira is long out of form and happy at FC Dallas, but one wonders if he might grow his game abroad given the hunger acquired from this tournament. Josh Sargent and Haji Wright both had their moments in Qatar. Sargent did well against Iran before going off injured. Though Wright was imperfect, he did score one of the team's three goals. Both are doing well with their clubs and their careers still developing. Sargent will be just 26 and Wright 28 at the next World Cup.

Ricardo Pepi—spurned from the roster, now in form in the Netherlands—has a fire burning inside him. Pepi seems resolute in his intention to break back into the team. It will be a joy to track that progress. He'll be 23 when the World Cup comes to home soil.

Beyond the striker, the U.S. needs to create more chances, necessitating a style that encourages creativity. The next manager must identify creative talent and build around it.

Hope is in the future

Develop the talent, identify the talent, build creatively around them, find a striker. Sounds easy, right? That will be the work of the next four years.

Observe the progress, catalog the stories and find a way to convey them to the American public—that's the job of the pundits and writers.

The race is on, for all of us. We're looking at 2026 with hopes set high. And the main question is pending: Will we be ready?