It started with a stinging 2-1 loss. It was the World Cup Round of 16 and in extra time, Belgium broke American hearts, putting a stop to the USA’s 2014 World Cup run. The U.S. had accomplished a great deal in the tournament, having navigated through the Group of Death, which included soccer powers Ghana, Portugal and eventual World Cup champion Germany.
The USA had battled with Belgium for 120 minutes, which made the defeat even tougher to swallow, but with heads held high, the course for the next MNT quest was clear. In four years in Russia, the USA wanted to be back. In four years, the MNT wanted to go further.
The year that’s followed that World Cup run has been one of transition. To go further than ever before in Russia in 2018, the MNT have to do it with a new generation of players. To prepare these players is to give them the opportunity to grow on the field and to provide them the experience needed to make an impact in 2018.
“It’s important that young players are given a chance to gain experience and improve,” said U.S. MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Yes there may be bumps along the way, but you have to plant the seeds and give them water in order for them to grow.”
It’s a concept that’s important and one that has been realized by the MNT in both the past and present.
Though he had earned a few earlier caps, center back Carlos Bocanegra burst onto the international scene in 2003, making 13 appearances while playing for the United States at that year’s FIFA Confederations Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup. Three years later he was helping lead a nine-man U.S. squad to a 1-1 draw against eventual World Cup champions Italy in Kaiserslautern. Seven years later, he captained the MNT to a first-place group finish at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Carlos Bocanegra Captained the MNT in its Qualifying Run Towards and During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Similarly, a young Michael Bradley made his presence felt with the U.S. in 2007, playing all but one match for the U.S. in the team’s run to that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and delivering the game-winner in a 1-0 friendly win away to Switzerland that October – at the time a rare U.S. victory on European soil. Bradley ended the year as one of the team’s leading cap-winners. The current U.S. captain has gone on to play every minute of both the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, most memorably scoring a late, dramatic equalizer against Slovenia that kept the USA’s hopes of advancement alive in 2010.
Bradley Celebrates after Scoring in the 2010 World Cup against Slovenia.
One player that will hope to follow the path of Bocanegra and Bradley to Russia 2018 is 22-year-old Bobby Wood.
Having made his international debut against Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2013, the Hawaiian forward didn’t appear again until a year later against Ecuador. In 2015, Wood has been given more opportunity and taken full advantage. Coming on as a 65th minute sub in June’s friendly at the Netherlands, Wood tallied a clinical 90th minute winner off a feed from fellow youngster Jordan Morris.
Five days later, Wood was thrust into the spotlight against World Cup Champion and then No. 1 FIFA-ranked Germany, delivering late-game heroics as he again combined with Morris to produce a magical 87th minute winner, stunning the crowd in Cologne. From there, Wood moved into a better club situation, signing with Union Berlin, where he has already scored four times in his first 10 appearances.
Having taken July’s Gold Cup off in order to settle with his new club, Wood returned to the MNT for its biggest game of the year – the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico. Just like in June, Wood continued his streak of big-game goals, finding the back of the net in extra time of a game that would ultimately end in Mexico’s favor through fellow youngster DeAndre Yedlin.
With 17 appearances each this year, Yedlin along with fellow attacker Gyasi Zardes jointly lead the team as the two-most capped players in 2015. Compare that with the pair holding a combined total of just 11 caps at the start of the year, and it’s clear the MNT coaching staff has showed faith by “throwing them into the cold water.”
Just like Wood captured his first international goal in June’s friendly against Holland, Zardes got the start and found his debut international strike 33 minutes into the match against the Dutch.
Yedlin came on in the 57th minute, and 14 minutes later assisted on the John Brooks goal that launched an epic U.S. comeback.
The trio’s output hasn’t been the only strong glimpse of MNT youngsters this year. Before his assist in Holland, Jordan Morris tallied a game-winner of his own in April’s 2-0 win against Mexico.
Defenders Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks have also been given chances to learn – and yes, to struggle at times – in serving a larger goal. In order for players to one day have an impact, the only way to develop is by playing.
There were good times this year for these young players: Zardes with a pair of goals in 2015 and four assists, Yedlin’s four assists, Wood and Morris with their combined four clutch goals, Alvarado and Brooks combining in the backline for wins against the Netherlands, Germany, Honduras and Peru.
Sometimes the learning curve is shorter. Six months out from the beginning of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni had a combined five caps between them, only one of which came in World Cup qualifying. That June in South Korea, both proved to be pivotal performers as the U.S. went on an unprecedented run to the quarterfinals.
More recently, Graham Zusi had not worn the National Team jersey prior to 2012. Two years later in Brazil, he was the orchestrator of two of the USA’s biggest goals: bending in the corner kick that Brooks headed home to give the U.S. a 2-1 victory against Ghana, and setting up Clint Dempsey for the USA’s second goal in its 2-2 draw with Portugal.
Zusi Celebrates with John Brooks after Assisting on his Game-winning goal against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Today, more and more young players are getting their shot. In 2015, 16 players aged 25 or younger have earned caps with the MNT. The seeds have been planted and growth has already shown. The more opportunities they’re given to progress, the greater chance at delivering positive results for the MNT’s next generation.
Ever wondered what a day in the life of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is like? We followed WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to get an inside look at a day inside WNT training camp, a day that included a weight session and on-field practice.
After a grabbing a quick coffee, the busy day starts early for Harris and the WNT, as they are headed to a weight lifting, the first of two trainings sessions that day.
“The bus ride is always total shenanigans with the people I sit around with. Usually that group is Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger. It’s just fun and good vibes heading into our workout.”
First stop of the day: weightlifting. The WNT usually spends about 90 minutes at the gym, and each player has a specialized workout sheet that is tailored to their needs.
“At lifting I usually spend time on my shoulders and continue to strengthen my back; things I need as goalkeeper. Every day I hit the ground, so I have to make sure my arms are strong. Shoulder strength and shoulder stability are key to make sure my arms are moving well and to prevent any injuries.”
As the team exits the gym, several fans await them by the bus and most players, including Harris, stop to sign a few autographs and pose for a few selfies.
“It’s always just really cool to stop and have a chat with the younger generation after or before training sessions. They’re just awesome.”
“Our van leaves the hotel about 45 minutes before the field players whenever we go to the training. I always have a pre-training and pre-game routine of taping my fingers and hands. It’s a personal preference and to be honest, I’ve always done it. Being at training earlier helps us get some good stretching in, stay focused and it allows us to nail down techniques and work individually and collectively as a small group before we jump in with everyone else.”
For afternoon training, Harris, along with Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell, as well as goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, all pile into a team van and head to training earlier than the field players to spend some time working on their technique and specific areas before the rest of the team arrives.
“Alyssa and I have very good communication and no one has a better view or can critique one another better than each other. If we see something we tell each other and help each other out.”
After training, the players all cool down, chat with each other, hydrate and reflect on the session they just completed.
“We tend to immediately grab our protein shakes. We talk about the day, what we saw on the field, what we can fix, what wasn’t good, what was good and we just overall critique the game in every way we can to become better.”
“Once we’re back in the hotel, it’s all about treatment. Like true professionals, we must take care of our bodies and be responsible to get the treatment we need. Our bodies take a beating from all the impact at training so we take care of it to do it all over again the day after.”