Following the first six games of the Ocho, a media narrative has tried to gain traction that excuses the inconsistent performances on the age of the players.  There is no doubt most of the players are young.  But are they so much more inexperienced than prior teams?

You might ask, well, if their average age is younger than past teams, how could they not be less experienced professionally?  It is a good question, and the answer is that the development of players in the USA has radically changed.  In the past, kids went to college at 18 and stayed amateur, playing the unique NCAA game on a limited schedule, until they were drafted by MLS teams or moved abroad at 21-22.  So, the starting Defensive Midfielder on the 2002 World Cup team, Pablo Mastroeni, could be 25 and thus three years older than Tyler Adams is now.  But Adams has been a pro since 16, with 6 years of experience.  Mastroeni went to North Carolina State for four seasons and didn’t turn pro until he was 22.  

If you look at past rosters, there were some older players that had more experience even with the delayed start.  But the difference isn’t that great.  Here is the lineup against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup versus the lineup against Costa Rica last month:

2002

age

years pro

Years Top

       

Berhalter

28

8

0

Sanneh

30

6

3

Pope

28

6

0

O’Brien

24

4

4

Mastroeni

25

4

0

Reyna

28

8

8

Wolff

25

4

0

Donovan

20

3.0

0

McBride

29

8

0

Lewis

28

6

1

       

Average

26.5

5.7

1.6

 

2021

age

years pro

Years Top

Dest

20

2

2

Miles

24

4

0

Richards

21

1

1

Jedi

23

4

1

Wes

22

4

4

Adams

22

6

2

Musah

18

1

1

Aaronson

20

2

1

Pepi

18

2

0

Weah

21

3

3

       

Average

20.9

2.9

1.5

 

The average ages are starkly different.  The 2021 team is, on average, almost 5 years younger.  But the 2021 team is only a little less than 3 years less experienced.  A number that is being reduced every day as the current players play.

The final column for both teams is the average seasons playing in a Top 5 league.  As you can see, the “inexperienced” team of “kids” has equivalent time at the highest level.  This is another consequence of the change in development path.  NCAA soccer is just not a good development environment for players looking to turn pro.   So, Americans coming out of college usually had to start their careers in second divisions or minor leagues.  If they started in MLS, very few were even allowed to be sold to Europe.  So, by the time a player settled, learned the game, and got good enough to get the interest of an EPL team, for example, they might be 24 like Clint Dempsey or 28 like Brian McBride.

The team against Costa Rica was missing several first-choice players.  If we add them in, then the “inexperienced” team is more experienced:

2021

age

years pro

Years Top

Dest

20

2

2

Miles

24

4

0

Brooks

28

9

9

Jedi

23

4

1

Wes

22

4

4

Adams

22

6

2

Musah

18

1

1

Pulisic

23

5

5

Sargent

21

3

3

Reyna

18

1

1

       
Average

21.9

3.9

2.8

 

The two 18-year-olds still bring the Years Pro number down a bit.  But you can see that experience at the highest level of the game is almost double even as the average age is still 4+ years younger.

So, while the current team is young, they are not wildly inexperienced by historical standards.  

Panama…

It seemed no performance was explained away as the vicissitudes of a “young and inexperienced” team than the loss in Panama.  It was a historically bad result, very few games have been lost over the last two decades against Central American teams not named Costa Rica.  But was it due to the team being young?  Here is the lineup that started the game:

 

Moore

25

4

0.5

McKenzie

22

5

0

Zimmerman 

28

8

0

Bello

19

4

0

Musah

18

1

1

Acosta

26

8

0

Lletget

29

6

0

Arriola

26

9

0

Zardes

30

8

0

Weah

21

3

3

       
Average

24.4

5.6

0.45

 

This lineup is the oldest we have fielded so far!  If you take Musah out, who is the only first choice player in the eleven, then you get a team that averages over 25 years old.   What stands out is this older group has almost no experience at a level above MLS.  The meager Top 5 experience was negligible with Weah pretty much the only player with more than a year at that level followed by the youngest player, Musah.  Shaq Moore had a cup of coffee a few years back in La Liga and then that is it.

If you, again, take Weah and Musah out (two new generation players), you have a lineup with the age profile of the 2002 team, with the same professional experience, but none of the top league experience.  This is the Lost Generation affecting qualifying again.  Dropping an important point or more, in a historically bad result.  It has been an emphasis of Berhalter to try and find players in the Lost Generation and force them into the team.  But when they were given a chance, together, in this game they came up short.  Just like they always have.

Former players will say that Top 5 experience or Champions League experience is no substitute for “Concacaf” experience.  I was a fan of all of them, but let’s face it, much of the previous USMNT players that say such cliches never played in the Champions League.  Certainly, never played for Champions League contenders like Barcelona or Chelsea.  If we look at the data above, age doesn’t seem to be an issue.  But experience in the top leagues in the world does seem to be.  

Going forward we need to change how we think of the words “young” and “experienced”.  It is very plausible that 22-year-old Pulisic has far more experience than 30-year-old Zardes.  That experience at the top of the world soccer pyramid trumps age.  That the coach that played so many older, but really less experienced, players together made a major miscalculation.