Will USMNT earn its “Golden Generation” tag at Copa America?

When the term “Golden Generation” is attached to a group of players, it’s the ultimate mixed bag.

On the one hand, the expression points to the high level of excitement surrounding a team. The talent level is so high that fans — and yes, even a few pundits and coaches — begin to dream about what might be possible. They can let themselves dream about previously unexplored heights, the kind that if they’re achieved, they warm the heart years later as you sit by the fire.

But such a label can be a trap as well — the expectations are so high that they become unrealistic and, rather than inspire the players, they can weigh heavy on a group.

It is precisely this scenario that the U.S. men’s national team finds itself dealing with now as it heads into the 2024 Copa America.

Historically, the U.S. men’s program hasn’t had a whole lot to crow about. It’s high water mark at a World Cup was its semifinal showing in the inaugural edition back in 1930. In the modern era, the U.S. managed a quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup. In the context of a Copa America, there have been two semifinal appearances, one in 1995 and another at the Copa America Centenario in 2016. Credible showings all, but nothing worth jumping up on a table and screaming at the top of one’s lungs.

So why the excitement about this generation of U.S. players? It all has to do with the caliber of the clubs that pay their wages, as well as what they’ve achieved with those clubs.

U.S. winger Christian Pulisic hoisted the UEFA Champions League trophy with Chelsea back in 2021 and is coming off a career season with AC Milan. Midfielder Weston McKennie enjoyed a similarly successful spell this season with Juventus, helping them to the Coppa Italia in the process.

The number of U.S. players annually taking part in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League seems to regularly hit double digits. In a recent friendly against Colombia, the USMNT fielded a starting lineup comprised entirely of players attached to clubs in the top five leagues of Europe.

Yet, the excitement generated by such success with their clubs is tempered by the reality that, at international level, this generation has yet to surpass the ones that came before it. When the U.S. men reached the round of 16 in 2022, they achieved something that the U.S. men had already done four times prior in the modern era of the team. Winning a Concacaf Gold Cup or Concacaf Nations League, likewise, has long been considered routine.

A so-called “Golden Generation” needs a “Golden Moment” — a signature win or best-ever tournament finish — and without one, the label feels premature.

“They still have to win something of importance, and I think that as of today, they have not done that yet,” said former U.S. international and current analyst DaMarcus Beasley. “Do I think they have the capability? One-hundred percent. I’m a big fan this group, a big fan of how much talent they have.

“But they have yet to put it together when it comes to a big game, whether that’s a friendly or whether that’s a tournament. So it just remains to be seen if this is truly our Golden Generation.”

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Herc blames Berhalter for USMNT’s problems finding a striker

Herc Gomez discusses USMNT’s biggest weakness heading into Copa America 2024.

That’s an assertion that U.S. captain Tyler Adams isn’t fighting. He notes that the “Golden Generation” tag is usually applied to teams “that haven’t won anything in the last 10 years,” or even longer. Think England of the mid-2000s, or even the most recent vintage of Belgium, whose current crop hasn’t quite made the international breakthrough so many predicted for it, despite possessing an immensely talented group.

Adams is mindful that achievements at club level aren’t enough.

“I think that when you look at our team and the group of players that we have, we are a talented group of players for sure,” he said prior to the USMNT’s 1-1 friendly draw with Brazil last week. “But I would say that the biggest thing when I think about this team is: That individual success doesn’t correlate directly to team success, and that’s what we’re working towards right now.

“So, it’s great to have everyone playing at a top club around the world. It’s probably the first time in a long time in U.S. soccer that we can be recognized at such a high level. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to have direct success. We’re working towards that success right now.”

For defender Joe Scally, the “Golden Generation” tag isn’t something that is occupying the team’s thoughts: “We never even talk about that at all,” he said.

Labels aside, expectations can still creep into a team’s psyche like a king tide. The water seeps in slowly, and before you know it, you’re enveloped by it. And it’s not just the fans and media that are feeding expectations about the current U.S. men’s national team. Head coach Gregg Berhalter had made his own contribution, speaking openly of taking the U.S. to a place — at least in the modern era — it has never been before. In the context of a World Cup, that means a semifinal. For a Copa America, that means the final.

The talk heading into this Copa America has oscillated a bit. There have been comments, like those from Haji Wright, that the World Cup is the main priority. While true, the timing feels like a way of limiting expectations — the World Cup isn’t until 2026. Other comments have focused on creating the aforementioned “Golden Moment.” Scally mentioned wanting to “do something great for the country.” That is the direction into which Adams is leaning as well.

“I think that you have to have goals. You have to have expectations of what you want to achieve as a group,” Adams said. “But I think building off of 2022, that was a good benchmark of where we’re at right now. We’ve navigated a group stage as a young group. That was important to do with not a lot of World Cup experience.

“Obviously, now it’s about being able to win knockout games and big games, and we have yet to do that. So we need to continue to work towards that, and I think obviously Copa America is going to be a great opportunity for us to do that. But there’s work to be done still.”

The path to reaching that goal won’t be easy. Group C, which includes Bolívia, Panama and Uruguay, is one the U.S. should be able to get past, though there are no guarantees.

Bolivia is a wild card — less is known about them than the other teams in the group, though the Bolivians won’t be able to lean on the benefit of playing at altitude like they do in their home qualifiers. In a tournament setting, Panama has given the U.S. fits on more than one occasion. Uruguay is enjoying an impressive run of form under new manager Marcelo Bielsa.

If the U.S. progresses to the quarterfinals, the Americans will likely face one of two teams they faced in recent friendlies, those being Brazil or Colombia. Getting past either team will require a monumental effort, but it’s an opportunity for this USMNT to show that it is indeed capable of something special, labels be damned.

The USMNT has the experience now. It has been tested at a World Cup. Can it reach its goal? Or even go beyond?

If the U.S. doesn’t, however, what does that mean for Berhalter? So far in his tenure he has proven to be adept at meeting expectations, but nothing more. Would the U.S. Soccer Federation brass dare fire a coach for not being able to beat Brazil? That would be harsh, but it’s what happens when expectations around a team increase.

For now, Adams is thinking of what a win would bring rather than the alternative.

“I think [a knockout stage win] would put a lot of confidence in our team,” Adams said. “We have the belief that we’re able to do that, but now it’s about executing more than anything. Our team gets in situations and we need to be able to execute. That’s the bottom line.”