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The USMNT player pool needs to step up to reach a World Cup final or semifinal in 2026

Big goals will need big time players

Soccer - Travel - Doha, Qatar - FIFA WORLD CUP 2022 Photo by Matthew Ashton/AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

After winning one game at the 2022 World Cup, Gregg Berhalter has put a lofty and very specific target for the team in 2026: the “goal is for us to go to a round that no US team has ever gone to” as he told Vanity Fair. What’s that mean? Taking him literally it means the Final, shifting criteria to meaning since 1990 it means the semifinal.

In any event, it means winning at least three games at a World Cup, something it hasn’t done ever. It’s a lofty goal and one that would change how the world looks at American football [sic].

It’s a while out, but the team that Berhalter called in for September will certainly have some players represent the USA in 2026. Presumably, these players, or ones who will emerge in the next 30 months or so, have the quality to reach the final or semifinal of the World Cup depending on what the interpretation of “no US team has ever gone to” is. The player pool is developing nicely and there are a number of players breaking through and becoming starters at teams in the Champions League, other continental competitions, and in top 5 leagues.

Elsewhere, younger players are breaking through in second level leagues or top flights still in the top 10 in the world. MLS is producing talented Americans still and the winter window will give players like Miles Robinson and Cade Cowell the chance to test themselves against the highest level.

Still, there are two questions that need to be answered: can Berhalter step up to make adjustments or get the team to execute his tactics as he envisions them? And, where is the superstar? Like it or not, teams that make it to the semifinal or final of the World Cup have one or several players that are among the top 10 in the world. Right now the USA does not have a player like that, but perhaps one, or two, or 11 will emerge in the next few years.

Let’s look at the pool and do the responsible thing and get unreasonably hyped about what that might look like.

Gaga Solnina - Clearly, his path to being to a top keeper in the world would go something like this: he has an awesome loan spell in Belgium, goes bald, and next season stays at Chelsea as the cup keeper and then takes over as a starter for 25-26 just in time for Pochettino to fully implement his style with the players he wants and win a bunch of trophies. We’re off to a great start.

Antonee Robinson - Jedi is a starting left back on a solid team in an extremely competitive league and has been linked with fanciful moves before to Man City and AC Milan.

Miles Robinson - He’s clearly going to move on from Atlanta United, go to Atletico Madrid and become the next Diego Godin.

Chris Richards - If he can overcome playing for Roy Hodgson impress a defensive minded manager like Roy Hodgson and get a starting spot at Crystal Palace then the next stop is either Manchester United because all of their defenders are hurt all the time or Liverpool where he can replace Virgil Van Dijk.

Joe Scally - After being critical of the amount of thinking that USA players were doing under Berhalter and hoping for a new coach that would simplify things, it wasn’t clear where the defender stood going forward. It seems like Berhalter thought it over and brought him into the fold in spite of the comments. He’s settled firmly with Borussia Monchengladbach and if he and Berhalter can resolve the appropriate amount of thinking for playing soccer it seems like he has a place on the national team. At the club level, it’s only a matter of time before Bayern Munich take him with the first pick of the Bundesliga draft in the next few seasons.

Tyler Adams - N’Golo Yankee was so close to joining Chelsea until his deal fell through but joined a fun if not potentially doomed Bournemouth side before the transfer window closed. If the Cherries stay up and Andoni Iraola can get his attack focused tactics to work in England, Adams is in a great spot to establish himself in the top flight. If they don’t avoid relegation, he’s back where he was at the end of last season. What I’m saying is maybe his new team turns into the Aston Villa of 2023-24 or he moves to Chelsea anyway next season.

Yunus Musah - There hasn’t been this much hype about an American midfielder lining up in Serie A since Michael Bradley suited up for Roma alongside Francisco Totti and started in the Champions League. The New York native is only 20 years old and when 2026 rolls around could be the best American midfielder since Darlington Nagbe and will probably solve Real Madrid’s problem of needing to replace Luka Modric.

Weston McKennie - After getting a strong start at Juventus then suffering an injury and being loaned to Leeds as the Italian club suffered a points deduction, the American midfielder finds himself in a right wingback role as the 2023-2024 season starts. Wes is a Swiss Army Knife and having a player as versatile as him is a huge asset. Hopefully his move to the backline signals the start of the Philipp Lahm season of his career.

Gio Reyna - The sky is the limit for him it seems if he stays healthy. Hopefully he foam rolls a lot or does the Kneesovertoesguy program to stay on the field.

Christian Pulisic - He needs a bit of a career re-boot and it seems like AC Milan is the place for it. He also needs to stay healthy to get consistent game time for said re-boot. Maybe he and Gio can share a Kneesovertoesguy account. He’s already settled in as a starter and has two goals to his name so far in Italy, it’ll be really exciting to see how he grows with the team as he hits his prime years.

Folarin Balogun - There’s not much more hype that could be provided her when Tifo has already said that the only other player who does what he does is Harry Kane. Right now he’s backing up Wissam Ben Yedder who scores a lot of goals but is also getting up in age. Monaco laid down what could be a $50 million chip for him and if the hype train delivers the goods, it could be a bargain.

That’s a pretty good, star studded starting XI. The team also needs depth and should have competition for starting spots by 2026.

Ricardo Pepi - There’s been something of a battle of attrition for who the top American striker is. Nearly every option since Jozy Altidore stopped being a USMNT player has followed the pattern of having a good run of form but failing to maintain consistency and eventually being replaced on the national team. Balogun might solve the top choice problem, but Pepi at 20 years old has seasons of putting up respectable goal totals in MLS and the Eredivisie. What I’m saying is if Rasmus Højlund can go from Denmark to Austria to Italy having 18 total professional goals at 20 years old and Manchester United paying $90 million for him then Pepi is worth $100 million to Barcelona probably.

Cameron Carter-Vickers - Was not called in for September games because we need to see more of Tim Ream before 2026. That said, he plays for Celtic which is already the Real Madrid of Scotland... which is the MLS of Europe... so he’s currently on the international version of FC Cincinnati. It’s still pretty impressive and Messi doesn’t even play for Partick Thistle or anything.

Some flavor of Aaronson if not both - Both of them have an absolute engine that doesn’t quit and technical ability that would be a problem for tired defenders to deal with. At some point Pep will probably go through a phase where he decides that brothers are the best way to win trophies and they’ll end up at Man City and help Erling Haaland score 100 goals one year.

There we go, the path to the World Cup final or semifinal is set. All the USMNT needs is its players to perform like they should be starting at teams who contend for the Champions League and we can plan the parade.