The next step for the USMNT in the World Cup cycle after the Gold Cup loss

Kyle Bonagura, ESPN Staff Writer July 18, 2023, 1:14 PM ET

CloseCovers the Pac-12. Joined ESPN in 2014. Attended Washington State University.

The United States’ elimination from the Gold Cup last week represented a checkpoint of sorts. For most of the year, various iterations of the team congregated after the FIFA World Cup with a pair of interim coaches and a vague understanding of how the team would be herded forward.

It wouldn’t be the ideal way to start a new World Cup cycle ahead of the tournament’s return to home soil in 2026, but the last seven months have always been seen as inconsequential regardless of who’s roaming the sidelines.

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A brief recap is as follows: After coach Gregg Berhalter’s contract was not renewed and then expired on December 31, his assistant, Anthony Hudson, guided the team through a pair of friendlies in January (vs. Serbia and Colombia), the two CONCACAF Nations League group stages matches (vs. Grenada and El Salvador), and a friendly match against Mexico. When he departed to take the job in Qatar, the baton passed to BJ Callaghan, who coached the team to victory in the Nations League semifinals and final (vs. Mexico and Canada respectively) and through five matches in the Gold Cup — even after Berhalter was hired back June 17 – where the team was knocked out by Panama in the semifinals.

In total, the US won six games, drew five and lost once (twice if we include the game against Panama on penalties). They outplayed their opponents 31-8 and 53 players earned at least one cap.

For the most part, Berhalter’s two former assistants also maintained the status quo. There are natural tweaks that come with different opponents and rosters, but the style and player selection are all very familiar.

Here’s a look back at the last few months, and some things to look out for in the coming months:

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Welcome, Bale

Without a doubt, the most important development since the World Cup came when Folarin Balogun, the New York-born, England-raised striker, pledged his international future to the USMNT. Strikers were the team’s glaring weakness throughout World Cup qualifying and in Qatar, and the arrival of Balogun immediately changed the attack. He scored 22 goals in all competitions on loan from Arsenal with French club Stade de Reims last year — he is fourth in the Ligue 1 goalscoring table — and at 22 years of age has the potential to develop into a global star.

Although he only played two games in red, white and blue, his Nations League appearance against Mexico in Canada provided a glimpse of what was to come.

Where should Gio Reyna play?

Callaghan’s most significant difference from Berhalter lies in the way he uses Reyna. Except for a 15-minute stint as striker against the Netherlands at the World Cup, Reyna was used exclusively on the wing under Berhalter. He has the freedom to roam, but he is not a central attacking midfielder. That turned in the Nations League to great effect, when Callaghan shifted Reyna down the middle and played her in front of two midfielders (Jonah Musah and Weston McKennie, and Musah and Brenden Aaronson). There are a lot of factors at play here, but Reyna in that position — with Balogun in top spot — makes the team look more dangerous than at any point in years.

Bringing Reyna in forced some tough decisions, namely what to do with that famous “MMA” (“Musah, McKennie, Adams”) midfield? The group worked well together in Qatar, but were lacking collectively in the final third. call for experimentation in the fall.

With Reyna, there’s also an elephant in the room that needs to be accounted for. Berhalter admitted in his re-introduction press conference that there was “work to be done” in mending his relationship with Reyna after the embarrassing family drama they were involved in played out in the aftermath of the World Cup. This will remain a topic until these two demonstrate that they have cleared the air.



Gomez: USMNT upset BJ Callaghan in Gold Cup vs. Panama

Herculez Gomez talks about BJ Callaghan’s team selection for the USMNT Gold Cup semifinals vs. Panama.

A fresh start, confirmed

Several key players are training with new clubs in Europe.

Christian Pulisic, AC Milan: Pulisic’s time in West London was a series of ups and downs, but in the end – from an American point of view – it was defined by a lack of consistent chances, stemming from multiple injuries. With a new club in a new league, this was a big turning point in Pulisic’s career. He is entering his prime and the hope is that he will have a key role at Milan. We’ve seen that on an international level, but now is the time for Pulisic to produce at high levels in Europe (and stay healthy).

Brenden Aaronson, FC Union Berlin: After a $30 million move to Leeds United from FC Salzburg, Aaronson featured in 36 of 38 games in the Premier League but was looking to move elsewhere after the team were relegated. With Union Berlin, Aaronson joins a team in the UEFA Champions League who will not be bothered by the defensive deficiencies present at Leeds.

Timothy Weah, Juventus: Weah’s move to Juventus may be viewed differently depending on the perspective. For the player, it is an impressive move to a big club where he may have a definite role waiting for him in the starting XI. It’s all fantastic. However, reason for some skepticism from the USMNT’s point of view is that its role is on the right flank – a position the national team does not use.

Weah was used progressively farther back of the pitch during his time at Lille, and that is what caught Juventus’ attention. Still, he’ll be doing a lot of what he did as a right winger for the US, where he’s laying wide and widening the backline.

Ricardo Pepi, PSV Eindhoven: For all that has been made about MLS players going to Europe, Pepi’s last two years have served as a reminder that going to Europe for Europe’s sake is not always the best way forward. Every situation is different. Fair or not, Pepi’s move to Augsburg seems to cost him a spot on the World Cup roster and a move to PSV feels like a best-case scenario. After an impressive 12-goal season at relegated (Groningen) side, Pepi could be a Golden Boot challenger at the club’s Champions League.



Why are there no players from the USMNT on the ESPN FC 100 list

Herc Gomez explains why it’s no surprise that no player from the USMNT or the Mexican national team has made the ESPN FC 100 list.

On the move?

The transfer carousel isn’t over yet, and here are a few more players to watch out for:

Tyler Adams, Leeds United: Adams was one of the bright spots in a largely dismal season at Elland Road, and he should have plenty of suitors to keep him in the top flight. He has been linked with a number of clubs, but so far nothing has materialized.

Weston McKennie, Juventus: McKennie’s loan spell at Leeds didn’t work out, and he’s now back at Juventus with an uncertain future. McKennie is reporting for pre-season, but reports in Europe suggest he is unlikely to be taking part in the club’s American tour and will not return.

Yunus Musah, Valencia: Could we see Musah teaming up with Pulisic at AC Milan? That possibility has been hinted at for weeks, with La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting Monday that Musah has agreed personal terms with the club. He doesn’t need to move on, but it will be interesting to see him and Pulisic together.

Sergiño Dest, Barcelona: The 2022-23 season was largely a lost season for Dest, who fell out of favor at Barcelona and was used sparingly during his loan spell at AC Milan. Dest said last week that he intends to fight for his place at Barca, but he would be better off finding somewhere to play consistently if he doesn’t land a role during pre-season.

Cross the pond?

Brandon Vazquez and Jesus Ferreira: During their time in MLS, it’s hard to see Ferreira or Vazquez seriously challenging Balogun or Pepi on the depth chart. That being said, both players are nearing the stage of their careers where it’s time to level up. But, again, they shouldn’t be leaving just to leave; they must find a club where they will be used. Better to start every game in MLS than to be an underdog in Europe.

Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson: Zimmerman and Robinson were both key players during World Cup qualifying, and they have nothing left to prove in MLS. It’s time to see how their game translates elsewhere.



Would moving to Europe benefit USMNT Jesus Ferreira’s career?

Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar believe Jesus Ferreira is ready to move to a European club.

What’s next?

Berhalter’s return to the sidelines will be at St. Louis on September 9, in one of four friendlies the team has played this fall. Given the lack of continuity over the last few months, that’s when the 2026 cycle will really begin. However, before focusing on the World Cup, the team can first prepare for next summer’s Copa America.

Uzbekistan, September 9, St. Louis, Miss.

Oman, September 12, Minneapolis, Minn.

Germany, October 14, East Hartford, Conn.

Ghana, October 17, Nashville, Tenn.

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