With a dispiriting 2019 coming to an end for the USMNT, it is time to look ahead at what the new year holds, including a critical tournament final that could shape the program for the next decade.
2019 held a terrible continuation of the World Cup qualification failure from the previous cycle. Sure, the U.S. Men’s National Team finally appointed a new coach, but Gregg Berhalter’s results didn’t inspire much confidence in a fanbase that is beginning to believe that its side should be included in the world’s elite.
The USMNT lost to Jamaica in a friendly, lost to Canada in a Nations League match and were beaten soundly by Mexico in both a final and a friendly. These are the highlights of the bad results, but the overall lack of cohesion the program produced made watching matches almost a chore.
2020 once again brings with it an opportunity to change the downward narrative that is now associated with the USMNT. Perhaps the most important result that the program as a whole can produce isn’t even the senior team but the U-23 side. And so, with that in mind, let’s break down what the year has in store.
The beginning of the year starts off with the obligatory January camp. This is a uniquely American ordeal that is an opportunity to allow the US management to take a look at emerging MLS players. For years the usefulness of this camp has been in question, but this year’s edition holds a bit of special intrigue.
According to reports, the January camp will be held in Qatar with an eye toward gaining experiences ahead of the 2022 World Cup. The roster will be primarily MLS players yet again, but I always like to get a look at who the coach thinks might gain a spot for important upcoming qualifying. The matches scheduled are against Iceland and El Salvador. The Iceland squad likely won’t resemble their full-strength side but one composed of Scandinavian-based players that run on the same MLS type schedule.
The final friendly, March 26th, before the real action is set to begin is against a world-class opponent in the Netherlands. This should excite fans as it is a rare opportunity for the USMNT to test themselves against difficult opposition in a road environment. I wouldn’t expect a full-strength Netherland squad, but even a B team would be a fun match.
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During that late March friendly, the U-23s will be taking part in what could be a decade-defining qualification tournament in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying led by long-time MLS coach Jason Kreis. In still-unnamed groups, the USMNT U-23 side takes on regional rivals Mexico, Honduras, and Canada among others to gain one of the two available spots in the 2020 Olympic games.
The Olympic tournament itself takes place from July 23-August 8 and takes obvious importance. Being located in CONCACAF, the USMNT have limited opportunity to gain experience in big tournaments and this Olympics is a chance for just that. Another point to drive that home is the potential on this particular U-23 side. Take a look at the roster and this could quickly be called a golden generation for US soccer.
However, before the Olympic final, the USMNT proper takes on what I believe to be an important task in the Nations League semi-finals and finals. In June, the USMNT take on Honduras in the Nations League semi-final at a yet unnamed location and then the winner of Mexico and Costa Rica in the final, should they make it.
There is a good deal of debate in USMNT twitter circles that questions the validity of this tournament, but there is no question that a poor showing will further dig the program into a hole, while a trip to the finals and a quality match against Mexico can begin to mend fences.
The final thing to take in for USMNT fans in 2020, aside for perhaps a few yet to be named friendlies, will be the beginning of 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying. What has been coined as ‘The Hex’ is a six-team round-robin table in which the top three nations advance to the World Cup and the fourth enters a playoff.
The nations taking part in the Hex are yet to be determined but the opening two matches will take place during the August 31st – September 8th international window. The next two international windows in October and November will also include two matches apiece.
After the failed qualification debacle that took place in the previous World Cup cycle, I don’t feel the need to emphasize the importance of those first six fixtures. The USMNT should never have their qualification campaign come down to the final few matches, let alone the last match.
Following 2020, we will most certainly know the direction of the USMNT program. Will it be a carry on of disappointment leading to further indifference from the fan base or can Berhalter dig the nation out of the muck to a solid qualification footing and Olympic glory?