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The Big USMNT Debrief: Everything That Needs to Happen Before World Cup 2026

  • 5 December 2022
  • Owen Murray

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It’d been so long, in football terms, since the USMNT’s last appearance at a World Cup that we’d almost forgotten what laid at the end of the path. Infatuated with the idea that we could do anything and defeat anyone, we lost sight of what comes after the likely result.

The United States Men’s National Team may have lost, but they reminded America of the emotional convergence that such a tournament brings to the nation. For the next four years, the squad and their constituents will be eagerly preparing in unison for football’s imminent arrival on the continent.

The best way to start is to debrief what we’ve learned from this tournament. While Gregg Berhalter’s side were held at arm’s length for the majority of their Round of 16 loss to the Netherlands, their group stage exploits provided a strong basis on which those players who’ll make up the 2026 squad can be analysed. One of the youngest squads in this year’s tournament will largely return in four years, and they’ll only get better with time.

This nation, this squad is in it for the long run, and this was but the beginning. The end of the road was never in Qatar, it runs through their home in four years’ time. We’ll be ready. Will they?

The Midfield (MMA, as pioneered by Dean Jones)

Unquestionably, the most successful aspect of the Americans’ tactical setup was their midfield trio of Weston McKennie (24), Yunus Musah (20) and captain Tyler Adams (23). Musah’s flashes of on-ball finesse hinted at an untouchable dribbler, McKennie was vital to the two-way transitional game Berhalter often manoeuvred the USMNT into, and Adams covered the most ground of any player in the group stage, putting out fires left and right.

Barring injury, that midfield will likely be the American manager’s starting three in 2026, and they’ll be in their prime. Adams has found a home at Leeds United under Jesse Marsch, where he frequently faces the best in the world, and McKennie, despite struggling for playing time at Juventus, has proven to be serviceable at the sharp end of the most difficult competitions. After his tournament, Musah won’t be at Valencia for long, either. 

The midfield thrived in matches where they were asked to quickly transition, moving the ball up the pitch and playing in one of Christian Pulisic, the striker, or Timothy Weah. They were similarly successful when the ball came back the other way, allowing time for the marauding fullbacks to recover from the rushes upfield.

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One look at Adams’ heat map from the tournament shows his absurd capacity for covering the field. He moves the side up the field, finding the half spaces in the attacking half to facilitate the creation of chances for the US. Although he’s not the creative diamond that many teams possess, he’s valuable from a different standpoint, allowing a release valve that frees Musah and McKennie to move up the pitch and open gaps. Without him, this side doesn’t function the same, and without that threat, the scenario in which the front three became stranded happens a lot more often, and Pulisic is left to play hero ball.

Remarkably, Pulisic wasn’t the be-all/end-all of this team. He was often left to drift, finding the ball and driving at defenders. He was in the right place to score against Iran largely because he wasn’t relied upon as the sole creative force in this team. If this side wants to make a run in 2026, the maintained cohesion of this midfield will be the first, key component.

The Kid from Park Ridge, NJ

The story of Matt Turner has blown up during the tournament, but let me wax lyrical one last time. He grew up in Park Ridge, where he didn’t begin playing football until he was 16 years old. He then walked on at Fairfield University, where he became the starting goalkeeper. When he made an error from a free kick in a match that made the Sportscenter Not-Top-10, he nearly quit the sport altogether.

Then, he went undrafted and was eventually signed by the New England Revolution, where he fought his way to a starting spot and eventually a Supporters Shield and MLS Goalkeeper of the Year title. That gave way to a transfer across the pond to Arsenal, where he’s appeared largely in cups. He didn’t play for the national team until January 2021, where he saved a penalty kick on his debut. From there, he didn’t give up, winning the starting spot in Gregg Berhalter’s side and providing a stellar performance through four matches at the World Cup.

The USMNT was the sole nation to concede zero goals from open play in the group stage, and Turner was a huge reason why. He’ll turn 32 during the 2026 World Cup, and while Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath will be fighting to dethrone him, he’s the king for a reason. 

Behind a defence that was the oldest (and slowest, centrally) unit of this team, he was often influential, making nine saves throughout the tournament and proving essential to the American build up. In the data viz, you can see the large majority of his passes out of the back are short, to his fullbacks and Adams. That shows a cool head under pressure and the ability with his feet to give his side maintained possession of the ball, something that would give the Americans their chances throughout the group stage.

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That’s evident of their style as well, where they aren’t afraid to want the ball. It’s something we’ve said over and over about the top teams, and it’s something the US already has ingrained in their play. With players who get on the ball with purpose, they’ve got the chance to capitalise on confidence. 

It’s not out of the question that Turner is the starter in 2026, especially if he can find a starting spot in Europe. He’d be capable as well, proving to be amongst the very best in the pool. The surprise omission of Steffen from the World Cup might remain a relic of the Berhalter reign, but he’s undoubtedly lost ground from a few years ago when he appeared the number one of the future. The upcoming tournaments will decide who dons the shirt for the next World Cup, something that will have a massive influence on the style and effectiveness of possession in this side. Each netminder has their benefits, but it’s Turner’s spot to lose.

Moving Forwards

The official US Soccer tagline is Solo Pa’lante (Only Forwards). That’s the exact mentality this squad, staff, and organisation need to have for the next four years. Yes, this is a disappointment. It’s a gut punch to see such a talented side lose, even being tactically and skillfully outmatched. They only need to look to that motto, though, to realise that this team is moving one direction: forwards. 

The first question that US Soccer needs to answer is whether they retain Gregg Berhalter as the manager. It’s not as cut-and-dry as many make it out to be, mostly due to Berhalter’s familiarity with the domestic league; the subject of calling up MLS players is hotly debated amongst supporters. 

Some believe that, due to MLS’ perceived inferiority, there is no place for domestic players in the squad. The omission of players like Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi for MLS equivalents was a point of contention throughout the buildup to the tournament, but Berhalter’s supporters argue that those MLS players provide a valuable resource for any manager, and the incumbent’s familiarity with the league is beneficial from that standpoint.

In the USMNT’s loss against the Netherlands, it was clear that Berhalter was tactically outclassed by Louis van Gaal. The slow reactions to changes within the game and a failure to successfully adjust the personnel in order to deal with an unexpected approach by the Dutch spelled the end for a bright young side. Additionally, the strange saga surrounding Giovanni Reyna caused confusion, leading to a weakened available squad. 

The truth is that, should the federation decide that Berhalter is not their manager for the next four years, they should move relatively quickly to find and integrate a replacement. The pool of top-level managers interested in the job is shallow, but it’s important to (as they did with Berhalter in the wake of the 2018 failure to qualify) move with haste in order to allow the maximum available time for a manager to learn the squad. Especially because this team has a guaranteed spot at the next tournament, they can focus their efforts on building towards a brighter future.

Finding Competitive Friendlies

First and foremost, that comes from playing competitive friendlies. In the last year, the USMNT have played Mexico, Jamaica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, El Salvador, Canada, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Uruguay in friendlies. Their volume of matches scheduled successfully maintained a level of form for the team, but the opposition failed to provide a challenge for a team who’d soon face England and the Netherlands.

One of the best ways for this team to improve in those vital matches is to play them often. If they can find those friendlies against top-15 teams in the FIFA rankings, it creates an opportunity to take this Netherlands game to the laboratory. Many of these players frequently face elite sides with their clubs, but there’s no chance for them to solve that problem together.

In the four-year plan that’s beginning to take effect now, the first long-term goal should be these friendlies. They will allow the new manager to find familiarity with the squad, who’ll grow together as a group that will largely compete in their primes at the 2026 World Cup. Keep an eye on their announcements in the coming months.

The Importance of International Tournaments

The United States will compete in the Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Nations League in the next year and a half, the highest level of competition conventionally available to the federation. The defending champions, the US must remain amongst the best in the region. In two finals against Mexico, they managed to stake their claim for the title despite finishing third behind Mexico and Canada in qualifying. Those are some of the best chances they’ll have to play as one of the big fish. Nations often drop into a low block against them, forcing this side to create their chances in a way they failed to do when confronted against Wales and a surprise lack of pressing from the Netherlands.

However, the goal of increasing the volume of competitive, high-level matches available to this squad continues into the Copa América. Even with a winter World Cup, CONCACAF neglected to move either the Gold Cup or the Nations League from 2023; due to a desire to play consecutively with the next Euros, the tournament was moved from 2023 to 2024, opening time for the USMNT to be invited as one of the foreign teams often asked to add numbers. The chance to compete with teams at the sharp end of this year’s World Cup is invaluable to the plan, looking to simulate those matches they hadn’t played before the 2022 tournament. 

In essence, the variety of opponents this squad will face before the next World Cup is essential to their hopes of making a true run into the next edition. The talent is undoubtedly there, but they’re too infrequently tested. By competing in these top-level tournaments against the best teams, they take a huge step towards their next level.

The youth of this side means that they’ve got the core of their squad for the next four years. Adams and Christian Pulisic will be 27, McKennie will be 28, Musah will be 24, and Weah will be 26. If they were good here, the expectation will be sky-high in 2026. In the words of a defiant Christian Pulisic in the wake of their loss, “We never want to experience this feeling again”. You’d better believe it, because every single player in the squad does, and that’s what makes them special.

See you in 2026.