A golden generation is something that happens often in the world of soccer. By often, I mean that every five or so years a country’s collection of talent comes together in a perfect storm of events — talent on every level, a dynamic play-maker or two, and ages falling just perfectly into competition timelines, with seemingly everything going just right.
These generations typically coincide with new heights reached for a country or revisited as this collection is successful in major tournaments for a solid stretch of time. Think Spain winning three consecutive titles: two UEFA European Championships (2008 and 2012) and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
We’ve seen golden generations like that Spain team or the English team from the early 2000’s. Currently, Belgium is arguably in its own golden generation with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku, and Eden Hazard.
But what about the United States Men’s National Team? To some, that generation has already happened, but I strongly disagree. Talking highly of the generation that included Landon Donovan, Damarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey, isn't a bad thing. They accomplished the best World Cup finish ever in a quarterfinals loss to Germany with arguably the best Americans to play to date.
But is that America’s golden generation? I beg to differ for a few reasons.
A) Christian Pulisic is better than anyone from that generation.
B) More players are playing in Europe than ever before at a younger age.
C) We are so young as a soccer nation, it was too soon to make that designation.
Cutting right to the chase here, most people’s crowned king of American soccer, Landon Donovan, has said Pulisic is “much further along” than he was at the same age and that was two years ago. Pulisic is taking on major minutes as a teenager at one of the largest clubs in the world, something Donovan was never able to achieve. Despite some small successful stints at Everton, Donovan never found the success that Pulisic has already found, let alone what he will hopefully find.
Every golden generation is led by a superstar. Spain had Iniesta, England had Steven Gerrard, Belgium has De Bruyne. Pulisic can be that guy, But he can’t be the only one. Those other countries had guys like Xavi, David Beckham, Hazard respectively. Even Donovan had Dempsey, who some would argue was actually better. And that’s where this generation looks to succeed.
Which players could it be? We don’t know yet. But looking at the most recent USMNT rosters, there is a deep pool of talent younger than 20 years old. Looking at where all these youngsters are playing is a great indication. The supposed “golden generation” was playing in college and in MLS, with only Donovan overseas. Now take a look at where this current generation is playing.
- Christian Pulisic - Borussia Dortmund (fourth in Bundesliga).
- Weston McKinnie - Schalke FC (second in Bundesliga).
- Timothy Weah - Paris St. Germain (first in Ligue 1).
- Keaton Parks - Benfica SL (second in Primeira Liga).
- Josh Sargent - Werder Bremen (11th in Bundesliga).
- Cameron Carter-Vickers - Tottenham Hotspurs (third in English Premier League).
I could keep going, as there are dozens of Americans now spread out over Europe compared to the past. If you are going to tell me that you think from a developmental standpoint that Furman College or the Miami Fusion are going to maximize the same level of talent as the clubs above, I would ask you to reevaluate your standards.
This is only going to continue to help develop what I believe to be the best generation of soccer players we've seen to date. Development is a tough thing to project. I get that. So call me optimistic but I believe that many of these players will progress well and play huge roles in the national team over the next 10 years or more.
That’s where the timing comes into play. You can have a golden generation of players but if the competitions don’t fall well into that generation then it may not be perceived as that great. This is where I think the U.S. has been a bit unlucky with its previous teams. The 2014 World Cup team was too old with that generation being in its 30s. The 2002 and 2004 teams didn't have enough in one age direction or the other. The 2010 team was close to the right timing, and it fell in an unfortunate way to Ghana.
This generation however is set up for huge success. The 2020 campaign will feature the Olympics, a U-23 competition in which the U.S. has never done very well. But looking at recent results of U-17s and U-20s in major tournaments gives hope for this event. Look at the recent rosters from the last two friendlies and you’ll see there are 12 players eligible for the Olympics. Even better is you can basically make them into a starting squad.
Now don't jump on me for certain positions or lineups. I merely wanted to show that the U.S. could put out a lineup today with really no major holes, based on the current call-ups.
Within the next two years, you’ll see even more players come through the ranks, like Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin from Atlanta United, and many others seen on recent U-17 and U-20 teams to make this team even more formidable.
The point is these players will not only be eligible for the Olympics, but they will be heavily involved in the first team for a great time in U.S. Soccer. The Olympics should be prioritized and with the right additions — Olympics allow you to add three players over 23 — this team could be very dangerous if you add the right complementary pieces to a strong young core.
That’s only the beginning. Now you have a young core of your first team, mostly going to the Olympics, and will play at least two World Cup cycles together. In four years, the core of players will be ages 21-23. That’s a bit young but it’s a group that will already have plenty of the experience already listed on the international stage, plus more years at the club level.
I expect a rough 2022. I think we’ll be a bit young. But now fast forward eight years. The core of this group will be ages 25-28 — arguably the sweet spot of the prime of many of their careers. Add in a young generation behind this core and we could be looking, truly, at the golden generation people talk about.
A lot of things could go wrong. Injuries happen. Potential isn’t always reached. There are so many variables that to guarantee anything would be foolish. There does remain a strong chance that this core of young players could be together for the next decade and it could be something very special.
So when you ask yourself why we should care about the U.S., this is the answer. Start watching this generation as much as you can. They play a brand of exciting soccer that you want to watch. In time, you will get excited about this next crop and, before you know it, it’ll be World Cup qualifying time. What you don’t want to do is miss watching the full evolution of what could very well be the best decade of U.S. soccer to come.