Tyler Adams plays against Mexico in a friendly match on Sept. 11, 2018 in Nashville, Tenn.
The next generation of U.S. men’s soccer players is already taking over.
Following the team’s stunning failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a pair of friendlies this past week — a 2-0 loss to Brazil, and a hard-fought 1-0 victory over rival Mexico — have given American soccer fans a glimpse of who might take the field not only at the next World Cup, but at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as well.
With an average age of 23 years, 5 days, the U.S. starting lineup against Mexico marked the sixth in a row with an average age under 24.
“This group, I think, certainly wasn’t planned, but now out of necessity is going to be the core group, the heart and soul of the 2022 World Cup team,” said two-time Olympian and World Cup veteran Alexi Lalas, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “And that many of them can also be involved in the Olympic experience, I think just reinforces just how young, and, yes inexperienced, the team is going to be as we start this cycle, but also reinforces how we can’t afford to let this opportunity pass.
“The Olympics, other than the World Cup, is something special, especially from an American perspective,” he added. “It gives you wonderful context and it gives you a depth of experience on and off the field that we haven’t been able to utilize over the past couple of cycles.”
Olympic rosters are restricted primarily to players under 23, or in the case of Tokyo, those born on or after Jan. 1, 1997. Once teams qualify for the Games, they can replace three players with more senior veterans regardless of age.
Team USA hasn’t qualified for an Olympic Games since Beijing in 2008, missing out under coach Caleb Porter in 2012 and again under Andreas Herzog in 2016. It was the first time the United States had missed two Olympic tournaments since 1976 and 1980.
If the U.S. is to end that streak in Tokyo, players like Tyler Adams are likely to play a big role.
With appearances in six of the last seven matches — and his first international goal to beat Mexico on Tuesday night in Nashville, Tennessee — the 19-year-old New York Red Bulls midfielder is seen as a likely cog in Team USA’s World Cup and Olympic future.
“He’s a winner, this kid,” interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan said of Adams after the Mexico match. “I’ve been really pleased in terms of his growth with the ball in tight spots. We know that he can run and cover ground and win tackles and compete, but at the next level, now, can you do the next part which is have a presence with the ball and pick your spots?
“It just keeps getting better. I think he’s showing that he’s emerging as a guy that everyone is starting to look up to a little bit.”
Adams has been a regular in the Red Bulls starting lineup for almost two years. He, along with 21-year-old Wigan defender Antonee Robinson, 20-year-old Swansea City defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, 20-year-old Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie and 18-year-old Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Tim Weah, are prime candidates for the 2020 Olympic team.
McKennie started the play that resulted in Adams’ goal against Mexico. He sent a ball wide left to Robinson, who laid a rolling cross back across the top of the penalty area for Adams’ easy finish.
“As a young guy, you’re not always going to have the best game because you lack a little bit of experience,” McKennie said following the Brazil match last Friday in New Jersey. “But many of our guys are at good clubs, getting good opportunities, and the national team also is a good place to come and get as much confidence as you can, play against these teams and know, ‘Hey, I’m here to show myself, I’m here to show why I can play here and I’m here to show why I belong here.’”
Qualifying for the 2020 Games in the Concacaf region won’t be held until October 2019. But already it’s on the minds of those likely to be charged with the challenge.
“Obviously, it’s a while off, but I think we’re going to be looking like we’ll be in good shape when we go into it,” Carter-Vickers said. “We talk about it, every now and then, but it’s not something we talk too much about at this moment in time.
“The ‘97 (birth years) and below, there are lot of good players in that, a lot of confident players as well, so when it comes time to go into qualification, we’ll be ready and up for the task.”
Robinson experienced some growing pains against Brazil when Douglas Costa used his speed to sprint down the left side of the U.S. defense and create the first goal. Despite the players’ inexperience, Sarachan still has confidence in the core.
“Tyler, Weston, the group mentioned, are good young players,” he said after the Brazil match. “I’m not going to take one game where they had some good and bad moments. That’s the purpose of these types of games to expose them to the next level.
“That generation as a group of guys can do great things.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.