Earlier this summer, the United States Soccer Federation announced that its Men’s National Team would compete in a series of friendlies this fall, labeling it the Kickoff Series. With the team starting a new World Cup cycle with a new crop of young players, the USMNT is set for big matches against Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, England, Italy, and a team that has yet to be named.
Still, some of these matches are predictable. With UEFA beginning its Nations League this fall, there weren’t a lot of teams available for friendly matches. Still, as we embark on a new cycle, it’s time for the Federation to get creative in scheduling some matches against opponents that these players and the fans have not seen in a long time or ever.
The next four years are about getting our players ready to compete in World Cup qualifying so they can qualify for the 2022 World Cup. It’s about testing the team against some unknown or unfamiliar opponents, to get outside their comfort zone by traveling to some distant lands or hostile atmospheres. U.S. Soccer may want to try and schedule as many home matches as possible in familiar settings against familiar opponents because they think it will make them money. Well, that limits the options available for scheduling, as only certain teams will consider traveling here to play. That leaves a world of teams out there that we don’t consider.
Some teams will provide different tests and different styles of play and will prepare our younger players for a run through World Cup qualifying that is anything but conventional. Our road to World Cup qualifying won’t just go through places like Kansas City, Minnesota, or Denver. It will have us playing in some hostile environments or some untenable playing surfaces, and other quirks that will get our young players out of our comfort zone. Let’s prepare them for that by scheduling some matches that will keep them on their toes and give fans some new teams to see.
We rarely play teams from Africa outside of a few matches against rival Ghana or the occasional match against South Africa or Nigeria. Why not play Morocco, a team we haven’t played since May 2006? How about an away match at Egypt, which was attempted in 2011 before the Arab Spring forced the cancellation of the match? Egypt is a team we’ve only faced 3 times, one of them being in the 2009 Confederations Cup. We’ve only played Cameroon and the Ivory Coast one time each, and upstart 2018 World Cup participant Senegal? Of the USMNT’s 688-match history, they have never stood on the field to take on The Lions of Teranga. There are so many African teams that we can play, both at home and away, to test our team, because in the World Cup, African teams have given us fits in the past.
Asia has a plethora of teams that we can schedule matches against. We have a World Cup in Qatar in 2022...for now. While their team may not be the best, a friendly in Qatar in the fall time to test out the facilities (and the heat that time of year) would be a decent idea (human rights violations notwithstanding). An away trip to Australia would certainly get fans excited and would also be a formidable test. Take one of the January Camps to travel to places like South Korea, Japan or even China for some intriguing matches. Or, you face teams like India or the United Arab Emirates, teams we’ve never faced before, for a change of pace and a chance to bring along young players to test their development.
For South America, we’ve faced just about every team at home recently except one: Uruguay. We haven’t faced La Celeste since 2002 despite their recent success. Let’s travel to Montevideo. Or an away trip to Peru or Ecuador, two teams we’ve faced recently at home but rarely dare compete with on the road. Here’s a doozy: create a real road test by facing Bolivia in La Paz at 11,000 feet. Even for teams we’ve played recently, returning the favor and traveling south of the equator will expose our players to new opportunities and prepare them for anything.
In Europe, you don’t always have to play the major powers like England, Germany, or France (though I admit they are fun to watch). Intriguing matchups could include Wales (only match against them was in 2003), Croatia (only match was in 1990), Northern Ireland (never played), Norway, or even Israel. Travel to Reykjavik and face Iceland. If U.S. Soccer wants, they can even schedule a match against Denmark in Copenhagen and then hop across the bridge to play Sweden in Malmö. They can make it fun and make it interesting for fans if they want.
We can’t forget CONCACAF teams that would provide some tests for our players. Teams like Curaçao, Antigua & Barbuda, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic or St. Kitts & Nevis are teams we haven’t played before that are attempting to grow their stature in CONCACAF. Still, with CONCACAF Nations League, we may have more opportunities for road matches against some of these teams.
The creativity of scheduling for the USMNT will help excite new fans and give them some matchups that are intriguing and will keep them interested in tuning in or coming to the matches. There is a prime opportunity here, and U.S. Soccer would do well by thinking outside the box to finding opponents that give its players new tests and give fans new reasons to get behind the team moving forward.
Which team(s) do you want to see the USMNT play over the next cycle?