Importance of USMNT in UCL
“Every World Cup and European Championship winner since 2000 has been in the top five nations for most players in the Champions League that same season,” says Simon Gleave of data analysts Gracenote.
Just about every model of world cup success hinges on the above. To compete consistently, you need players and the best players. The best players can be found in the Champions League. The USMNT has produced upsets in the World Cup but never been consistently successful. The win over Portugal in 2002 was followed by a terrible loss to Poland, but then the best run by the team to the quarterfinals. The horrible loss to Czech Republic in 2006 was followed by a great performance against, eventual winners, Italy. 1994 had an upset over Colombia, 1998 was a disaster. Inconsistent.
The USMNT is inconsistent at the World Cup because they have rarely had Champions League players. Maybe 1 or 2 a year. Some of the great players in USMNT have never played in the Champions League at all. Players like Bradley, McBride, Dempsey, Donovan, Pope never played in the Champions League. But there was a time when there seemed to be serious progress with the clubs Americans were playing at.
In the first game of each of these competitions, here is the number of starters that had played in a Top 5 league at some time, and those that had never played.
The 2010 WC team would have been all players from Top 5 leagues, but Charlie Davies was injured in a car crash. The USA probably played its most consistent soccer in that tournament. It was probably the only upset the USA has ever been on the losing end of when they lost to Ghana. Expectations were that things were looking great going forward. However, instead of making the natural progression from a team full of Top 5 players to a team with a good number of Champions League players, the team steadily regressed.
The 2014 team had 2 players start the first game that had never played in a Top 5 league. But three of the starters had recently moved to clubs outside the Top 5. A trend that would continue as there were very few Americans moving to Top 5 leagues during the period and players ageing out of the top levels of competition.
Another way the 2014 team covered up the growing lack of talent was by bringing in dual nationals. Two of the starters who were in big 5 leagues were Americans that had grown up in Germany. Another three were on the bench along with two other dual nationals who grew up in Scandinavia.
Between the 2014 world cup and the 2017 Hex, more of the veterans would move from Top 5 clubs to lesser leagues. They would continue to feature as there were very few Americans coming along to push them out.
In Couva, you had 5 USMNT players that had never played in a Top 5 league. Going a bit deeper, you had 3 more players that had not played in a Top 5 League in anywhere from 1-4 years. Only three players on the field that day were playing for a club in a Top 5 league. One of them was a teenager.
As we moved into 2019, the trend continued. In the Concacaf Nations League game at home against Canada, 6 players started that had never played in a Top 5 league. That is not because they were young. The average age of the 6 players was almost 26. Two of the players were no longer in Top Clubs, so only three of the players on the field were currently playing in a Top 5 league. Again, one was a teenager.
But the last sentence of each of the previous paragraphs is what can give us hope! The trend since 2010 seems to be reversing in front of our eyes. Not only do we have a large amount of young talent playing in Top 5 leagues for the first time since the early 2000s, but many of these players are also playing in the Champions League.
If Tim Weah had not been hurt and Simon Mignolet had not decided to semi retire to Brugge, the USA would have had seven players play in the Champions League this season. Seven USMNT in UCL! In the canceled March friendlies, the USMNT could, if Berhalter had chosen and everyone was fit, lined up with 10 starters that either played on a club in the Champions League or in a Top 5 league. With 3 more USMNT in UCL on the bench. The second CB is the only position with no such player at the moment.
Most of these USMNT in UCL players are young. All the Champions League players are under the age of 25, six under the age of 22. A couple of more kids break through and a couple of 2nd division players make a move (one was already supposed to have moved to Serie A and will probably do so whenever life returns to normal) to the first division and Berhalter is going to start having selection problems, in a good way. When we come out of quarantine, if the coach can handle so many young players at once, it is going to get very good, very fast.