When Tim Howard made his national team debut in 2002, fewer than half the U.S. roster played for European clubs and just two came off teams that had played in the UEFA Champions League.
Compare that with the young squad called up for Thursday’s friendly with No. 20 Wales in Swansea, the U.S. team’s first game in more than nine months. Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget is the only one on the 23-man roster who does not play for a top European club and nine of his teammates come off teams in the Champions League, the world’s most competitive and prestigious club tournament.
Howard, who made 12 Champions League appearances for Manchester United, says that marks significant progress.
“This generation of players is clearly the most talented group of players that this country has ever seen,” said Howard, who leads all U.S. goalkeepers in games, wins and World Cup appearances. “Playing at big clubs in Europe, playing in Champions League, these players have done it all.”
At the head of that group is Christian Pulisic. Just 22, Pulisic — who has played for Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund — already has more Champions League appearances (28) and assists (four) than any American. His four goals are tied for most by an American. Pulisic is dealing with a hamstring injury and will not play against Wales, but six other national team players suited up for Champions League games last week with giant clubs such as Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City. Three are younger than Pulisic.
“The confidence and the swagger that they’re playing with is pretty impressive,” said Howard, now a studio analyst for NBC Sports. “It’s a big deal for any player, let alone an American player, to be competing in Champions League. But for our guys not to just be sitting on the bench but to be competing, to be playing, to be counted on by their clubs, I definitely sense something different in this generation.”
That means added pressure for coach Gregg Berhalter, who two years ago took the helm of a team coming off its first failed World Cup qualifying campaign in 32 years and now finds himself managing one with great expectations.
“Although the expectations may be to win the next World Cup in this November window, we know that’s not realistic,” Berhalter said in a conference call last week. “We know it’s about building. Our first objective is to qualify for the World Cup. Then the next objective is to play well [in] the World Cup. And then we’ll go from there.”
Because of COVID-19, Berhalter hasn’t convened a training camp since January and hasn’t managed a game since Feb. 1, the longest break for a U.S. national team since 1986-87. The full roster will have less than a week together this time, playing friendlies against Wales on Thursday and against Panama on Monday in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, about 40 miles south of Vienna.
Because of the pandemic, both games will take place in empty stadiums.
In addition to being arguably the most talented U.S. national team, the squad Berhalter called up is also one of the youngest, with seven teenagers and an average age of 22 years. Ten of those players — including Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards — are still looking for their first senior international cap.
“It would mean everything to me,” Richards said. “Representing my country is, for me, the biggest achievement I can do.”
Richards, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., is representative of the new breed of national team player, having moved quickly up the professional ladder with brief stops in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS.
His father, Ken, played professional basketball on teams in Bolivia, Iceland and Australia and from a young age it looked as if his son would follow in his footsteps. But his mother, Carrie, a former youth soccer player, pushed her son into that sport to keep him active and Richards impressed, joining FC Dallas two weeks after his 18th birthday.
He didn’t play a game in MLS before moving, three months later, to Bayern Munich on loan, a move that became permanent last year.
“It’s something that, when I was growing up, I didn’t even think of as a possibility. Now I feel like most of the bigger teams in Europe have at least one American,” Richards, 20, said by phone from Munich. “Being able to call up a whole European roster is something that 10 years ago you couldn’t think about.
“Now it’s just normal. It’s really refreshing and a good [sign] for what’s to come.”
Sergiño Dest, who already has made history as the first American to play for Barcelona, says the excitement among the national team players is contagious.
“Everybody feels it,” Dest, 20, said in a phone interview. “That’s why everyone is excited that we can really achieve something in the upcoming World Cups. Everybody is hungry, everyone wants to achieve something with the U.S.”
Another good sign, Howard said, is the fact many of the European-based players are roughly the same age. The range on Howard’s first World Cup team in 2006 was 14 years — and seven players were older than 31.
Just one player on the current team is that old, and though that will change when Berhalter adds MLS veterans to the mix next year, the young core is already familiar with one another, having played together on youth national teams. Dest and Konrad de la Fuente, his teammate at Barcelona and with the U.S., even roomed together at last year’s U-20 World Cup.
And those who aren’t as close have met their coaches and teammates in regularly scheduled teleconferences in online chats.
“They’re growing together,” Howard said. “It just seems like there’s a lot of chemistry.”
It’s Berhalter’s job to perfect that chemistry and bring the team’s great expectations to light in time for next summer’s World Cup qualifiers.
“There’s a lot of question marks but you have to start somewhere,” he said. “There is a window that we have. We’re excited to get this group together.”