“Overall, our results indicated that youth international experience is a limited predictor of participation at the super elite level of football.”
That, in short, is the conclusion of an in-depth study, published earlier this year, of more than 1,400 aspiring professional players from six European countries, conducted by a group of Norwegian sports science academics.
Longtime U.S. men’s national team watchers would likely agree, given the mixed bag that is the country’s modern history of youth national team stars at the senior level.
Identifying and cultivating talent is a murky mix of art, science, and chance, and the particular challenges of America’s unique landscape make it even harder to pin down. That hasn’t exactly been a strength here: some have gone so far as to see the failures of US Soccer’s YNT programs as a key ingredient in the USMNT’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign fiasco.
And yet, the heart of one of the many YNT cultures that once inspired high hopes among die-hard USMNT watchers finds itself staging an impromptu reunion at the senior team’s June camp, a stone’s throw from the dream of the World Cup they all shared as teenagers. .
“We’re always excited whenever we’re all back together, we always call it the ’98 reunion. And although I’m a ’99, they still consider me a ’98, so I’ll take it,” he said said a smiling Tyler Adams in Cincinnati on Tuesday. “It’s just good because we have friendships which are more important than the football part of things. But we feel like when we go out on the pitch everything transforms together.
Five members of the current team were born in 1998: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Luca de la Torre, Haji Wright and Reggie Cannon. Adams was born a few months later, but developed early enough to play a year with them for extended stretches. Most can trace their decade-long relationship back to their first appearances in national youth team activities together.
“To be honest, they haven’t really changed much,” Wright said. “It’s still the same goofy guys I knew when we were 15, 14. We’ve always gotten along well and I think they’re good people, they’re nice guys and I like being around them.
“They’re all the same players, in many ways, they were when they were younger,” the midfielder said, adding that it’s much the same with engaging personalities like McKennie.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. “Weston is completely the same.”
Arguably only Pulisic and Adams have followed a relatively steady trajectory, catching the attention of professional scouts long before their high school days and grabbing their first big breaks at Borussia Dortmund and New York Red Bulls respectively. While most gravitated to the big stages of Europe as quickly as they could – traversing the resulting peaks and valleys along the way – work visa regulations and other limitations complicated the individual perspectives.
“Everyone has their own path. And for me, going to Europe at a young age never made sense to me, because I couldn’t play professional games without a European passport,” said Adams, a young prodigy of MLS before joining RBNY’s German sister club, RB Leipzig.
“New York gave me an incredible opportunity to come in and feel like I was able to compete at a very young age. And with the head coach that we had, with Jesse [Marsch], he was committed to playing young players and I was able to go my own way. So everything went well, I would say.
McKennie, as he’s often alluded to, was notoriously left out of some major YNT rosters and took the risk of leaving FC Dallas for Schalke rather than signing a homegrown contract with MLS. De la Torre’s Spanish heritage allowed him to join Fulham’s academy earlier than most American prospects. But he wandered off to the London club and had to move to a smaller stage at Heracles Almelo to make his USMNT breakthrough.
“When I was at Fulham I was injured a lot. I was playing for a club that didn’t really see me as a player they wanted to invest in, so it was difficult. I had to really believe in myself then, even if the others weren’t,” recalled de la Torre, who said he hit his career low point in the latter stages of his tenure at Fulham.
“You just have to make the most of any opportunity that comes your way,” he said of his subsequent lateral move to the Eredivisie. “You don’t really have a choice of five or six places to go. That’s, that’s what you’re going to get, and then you have to make it work.
Wright noted, “It teaches you that not everything is permanent. Even bad form is impermanent. You can always overcome the hard times and find a good patch, a green patch.
Wright was originally seen as having the highest ceiling in the group – Dortmund spotted him when they first scouted and fell in love with Pulisic – but the Los Angeles native had to roam around six different clubs in five nations before finally making a serious breakthrough with Turkish side Antalyaspor last season.
“I think as a player, when you witness different styles of play in different countries, you learn more, instead of playing in one country all your life. I understand football a little better than when I started,” Wright said. “It’s good to get around, but I’d like to enjoy somewhere for a while.”
His teammates are clearly encouraging him to show his best and put himself at the forefront of the ongoing USMNT conversation about the difficult role of No. 9.
“Yeah, it was the duo back then, me and Haji,” Pulisic said with a smile on Tuesday. “We played a lot of games together in the national youth teams, and it’s cool to see him back. First of all, to see him so well at club level and to have him here, it’s great. He’s going to so to have his chance and yes, I’m so excited for him, I know he’s going to enjoy the opportunity.
Pulisic helped Wright do just that in Wednesday’s friendly against Morocco, handing the ball over to his former colleague to score the penalty Pulisic earned for the USMNT’s third goal in the 3-0 win.
Wright is the latest arrival in the current World Cup cycle, while de la Torre quickly moved up the depth chart in qualifying as he proved a quality option for the tough twin No. 8 at the heart of Gregg Berhalter’s favorite 4-3. 3 trainings.
“I think the guys who aren’t successful are the ones who, they get negative when things like that happen, when they’re not playing or they’re injured or whatever,” de la Torre said of of its winding road towards this indicate. “You just have to find a way to be positive, stay motivated and believe in yourself.”
The long history and close kinship of this group seems to help set the tone for the larger USMNT culture, which players and coaches have praised for its unity and confidence during this World Cup cycle.
This camp and the last gathering of the program before the World Cup in September are de facto trials, pressured occasions for the many players who cannot be sure of their place in Qatar. But a certain degree of tension is relieved by having such an influential group at the center of the team who have traveled similar roads with YNT.
“The pressure, it’s always been there… But it’s something we look forward to, something we thrive on, I feel like,” McKennie said. “Preparing for the World Cup, in this whole process that we’ve been through, is something we’ve been preparing for since we were 13, 14 years old. So I think it’s something we expected; the challenges that we expected as well, and I think we’re handling it pretty well.
The reporters got a brief glimpse of their camaraderie when McKennie arrived earlier than expected in the room where this week’s media roundtables were being held, slipping into the seating areas to pose deadpan questions to his teammates.
What is your favorite central midfield position, he asked Adams.
“Which one do you think, coach? Which do you think? Adams fired back with a smile.
“I like when you play [No.] 6 and run for me,” McKennie said.
“I like when I play 6 and you play 8,” Adams agreed. “As long as we’re on the pitch together, I like that.”
And in true Gen Z fashion, some of that chemistry has been kept alive in online gaming sessions on Fortnite and the like, especially during pandemic shutdowns.
“I would say most of the time, especially in the time of COVID, we played video games together and [be] constantly talking into our headsets,” said McKennie, a renowned joke pundit on and off the court. “A lot of players, we’ve known each other since we were 13, 14. So I think that’s what makes it easier for us to come to camp and pick up where we left off.
“So it’s been a fun journey so far. We all dream of a time like this, where we head into something like a World Cup, and being able to share that moment together.”