Photo: Marjorie Elzey
Earlier this month, Miles Robinson left the field due to what was described at the time as a “bad” injury. Eventually it was revealed that the young defender had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendonending his 2022 season.
Obviously this is bad news for Atlanta United, for whom Robinson had appeared in every game for so far this season. But it also introduces chaos for the United States men’s national team.
Robinson has been a key figure for the USMNT, with head coach Gregg Berhalter giving him the start in five of the six World Cup Qualifying games played in 2022. It was expected that his name could be written in pen on the teamsheet between Jedi Robinson ( no relation) and Walker Zimmerman.
But now his injury has thrown all that preparation, all that chemistry, out the window just 186 days from the kickoff of the 2022 World Cup.
The most obvious player to replace him is a player with USMNT experience, proven ability playing in one of the best leagues in Europe, and with something to prove as he heads into the summer with no contract at his current club. John Brooks is the easy answer to the USMNT’s problems, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right answer.
A bold prediction
This may come as a shock to some readers, but the United States isn’t expected to win the 2022 World Cup.
The team is promising, the team is exciting, and the team has great potential for the future. But much of that potential is as yet unrealized. The team is young, the youngest it’s been in a long time. And that youth suggests many things, specifically the just-mentioned potential for the future. But it also suggests inexperience.
To be clear, the problem isn’t that Christian Pulisic doesn’t know how to preform in a high-pressure environment. Or that Tyler Adams hasn’t dealt with a hostile playing environment. It’s that Yunus Musah doesn’t have the playing time with Sergiño Dest to know exactly where to expect the ball when Dest goes on an overlap. That knowledge, the chemistry that gets talked about so much, only comes from time. And this young USMNT simply doesn’t have the time playing together to have that chemistry yet.
To be clear, that’s not a criticism of any USMNT coach past or present. It’s about the youth of this team. The same youth that makes them exciting also makes it a temporal reality that they haven’t spent a lot of time together. At least not the amount of time that’s necessary to a collection of good players into a great team. And for that reason they may do well at the 2022 World Cup, but there’s no reason to expect they’ll be able to win. They need more time for that.
At least, say, four years.
A plan for the future
If 2022 is too soon, 2026 might be just right.
When the World Cup returns to the United States (and Mexico and Canada), Pulisic will be 27. So will Reggie Cannon. Ricardo Pepi will be just 23. They will be players coming into their prime, augmenting their natural talent with years of hard work and the maturity of knowing that they’ve been here before. Whatever “here” happens to mean at the moment.
Granted any one of those names, or any of the other promising young players recently on a USMNT roster, may fall off. Injury, a loss of youthful energy, or simply being found to be not quite as good as we hoped, could take them out of the running to be the player that brings the US to the promised land. But with so many players showing so much promise it’s hard to believe that no one will be meeting, or even exceeding the hopes we have for them today. We just have to give them the chance to get there.
And they won’t get there if John Brooks is getting all the experience.
He’s in his prime right now at 29, but that means he’ll be 33 by the time 2026 comes around. Not so old that he couldn’t still be playing, but old enough that it isn’t likely he’ll be in USMNT form.
Instead, let Mark McKenzie, Cameron Carter-Vickers, or Chris Richards have the chance this time. In the best case scenario they gain experience and grow into the roles they’ll need to fill for the USMNT to make a serious bid at winning the World Cup on home soil.
But even the worst case scenario, that they are found wanting, isn’t so tragic when you remember that the United States wasn’t going to win in 2022 anyway.