In the last few days, a tremble has been felt on the American soccer landscape that hasn’t been felt in a while.
It was felt Saturday afternoon, when Hershey’s Christian Pulisic played in the UEFA men’s Champions League final and lifted the trophy under a star-crossed sky in Portugal, with his parents alongside him on the field.
It was felt again Sunday, when eight Americans who won trophies in Europe this season — including three Union alumni — played for their country in a friendly game at Switzerland.
This week, there might just be a full-scale earthquake.
The Concacaf Nations League’s final four, set to take place in Denver on Thursday and Sunday, will be the first time that all of the U.S. men’s soccer team’s biggest current stars play together on American soil. And it will light the match for the start of World Cup qualifying later this year when Pulisic and company are at long last able to avenge the program’s disastrous failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament.
“I’m looking forward to them fielding their best 11, playing against better teams, and seeing how they deal with that,” said U.S. legend Clint Dempsey, who will be part of CBS Sports Network’s studio crew in Denver. “Obviously, they’re going to be on home soil, so it’s going to be more of a sign of things to come in the World Cup qualifiers. You have to win those home games, and I’d like to see them get the job done in these two games to make sure they do have that confidence going into World Cup qualifying.”
The Americans play Honduras in Thursday’s semifinals, then Mexico or Costa Rica in Sunday’s final or third-place game. The Mexico-Costa Rica semifinal is Thursday’s late game.
It’s been a long time since the U.S. men played games this big, at least since the 2019 Gold Cup final, which the Americans — including Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Michael Bradley back then — lost to perennial rival Mexico. But that game was the same day as the U.S. women’s team’s triumph in the World Cup final, which was much more important.
So you wouldn’t be wrong to go back to Oct. 10, 2017, the disastrous night in Couva, Trinidad, when Pulisic knelt on the turf in tears after watching his dream turn into a nightmare.
Measured by pedigree, the 23-player U.S. roster for the Nations League games is the strongest in program history. There are players from Barcelona (Sergiño Dest), Juventus (McKennie), Champions League winner Chelsea (Pulisic), English champion Manchester City (Downingtown’s Zack Steffen), and French champion Lille (Tim Weah), plus marquee players from other clubs in Spain, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States.
Measured by accomplishment, though, this group hasn’t done anything yet. Just four members of the Nations League squad were in Couva: Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta, and Tim Ream. Eight of the 14 players who played in the 2019 Gold Cup final aren’t on this team, and Bradley hasn’t played for his country since a Nations League group stage loss at Canada three months later.
The program’s long-awaited generational change is complete now.
“This is an opportunity to show, ‘OK, this is our statement. This is where we’re trying to move. This is our foundation, and we’ve got to win Nations League to kind of show, all right, this is where we’re trying to go. This is the right direction headed for this generation,’” said former U.S. and Union forward Charlie Davies, who will also be part of CBS’ studio crew. “I want to see all the best players that we have, and see what that looks like.”
Also complete is the establishment of the preeminence of playing in Europe. Just four of the 23 players on the Nations League squad play in Major League Soccer.
The more common path now is to start in MLS, then move abroad. Eight Europe-based players on this squad made their pro debuts here, including those three Union alumni: Steffen, Medford’s Brenden Aaronson, and Bear, Del.’s Mark McKenzie.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for a player in MLS to make the A-squad. Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Sebastien Lletget has done it, and scored in the Switzerland game (a 2-1 loss). New York Red Bulls centerback Aaron Long and Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris would be on this team if they weren’t injured.
But Europe’s big leagues are the world’s biggest stages, with the most cutthroat competition between and within teams. And after decades of toil and disrespect, American players have finally become recognized by those teams for their full worth.
“A lot of American fans have really been waiting to see that group come together and play all together, which has obviously been complicated with COVID and travel and all the different restrictions,” said Kate Abdo, CBS’ soccer studio host. “For that to be able to happen, and to be able to happen in a game that that’s meaningful, I think is high pressure but also super-exciting.”
The biggest star shines
No one has planted the flag more firmly than Pulisic, who became the first U.S. national team player to play in and win a UEFA Champions League final — the biggest game in club world soccer. He has been hyped as American soccer’s golden boy since he left Hershey to join Borussia Dortmund’s youth team in 2015 as a 16-year-old. Two years ago, Dortmund sold him to Chelsea for a whopping $73 million, a transfer fee record for an American that’s likely to stand for some time.
The expectations put upon him were almost as big: a U.S. star in glitzy London, capital of the European league whose wealth and prestige are the most coveted by soccer influencers. And they came from the very top of the American game, including former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, under whose watch the program collapsed into the hole from which it has been digging out.
“We all had our kind of questions, a little bit of doubt, is now the right moment or not,” Klinsmann said of Pulisic’s move to London. “He proved us not wrong. I’d say, he proved just to himself that ‘I can handle that.’”
Klinsmann’s critics might note that while much has changed since his dismissal, some of his rhetorical sensibilities haven’t. But he was earnest when he said that watching Pulisic in the Champions League final was “just very rewarding.”
There aren’t many bigger feats that soccer players can achieve beyond winning a European Cup. But playing in a World Cup is on that list, and for American players it remains at the top.
The time is coming soon for the U.S. men to take their shot at getting back to the sport’s most famous stage. And because of that, the time has come for the U.S. men to become a big deal again.
Concacaf Nations League final four schedule
All games at Empower Field at Mile High, Denver
Thursday, June 3
7:30 p.m.: United States vs. Honduras (CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Univision, TUDN)
10 p.m.: Mexico vs. Costa Rica (Paramount+, Univision, TUDN)
Sunday, June 6
6:30 p.m.: Third-place game (Paramount+, UniMás, TUDN)
9 p.m.: Championship game (CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Univision, TUDN)