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Comparing The Next USMNT Generation

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January 2024
Many people believed that when the Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams’ generation matured into becoming the core of the United States Men’s National Team, it was an inflection point in talent development in the United States. The foundation and infrastructure for development in the country started to grow considerably during this time and many hoped that this was the level of talent we should expect from generation to generation. The optimists dared to believe that it would only get better. 

Fast forward four years and now that promising generation of talent is the veteran core, albeit a still youthful veteran core. Pundits and fans are now looking at the next wave of players and wondering whether it will provide the same influx of talent that can push the current core group to continue to grow and compete for their role on the U.S. Men’s National Team. Many are worried that the talent coming through in the next wave is not developing at the same rate as the last collection of players and there may be a dip in quality. It’s still early days, but here is my take on how the next crop of players are looking. 
Ricardo Pepi, 2003 born center-forward for USMNT
Source: Jorge Martinez

How do you define a generation?

I define a generation in four year time spans. I prefer to call them “waves” because generation feels too grand. I contextualize them in World Cup cycles. Each wave is in a phase relative to their role on the USMNT, either the veteran phase, prime phase and the emergent phase. Here is how I define these waves during this current World Cup cycle culminating in 2026:

Veteran Phase (1995 - 1998 Birth Year)
Prime Phase (1999 - 2002 Birth Year)
Emergent Phase (2003 - 2006 Birth Year)

How have each of these waves materialized for the USMNT and how is the next emerging core looking so far in comparison to the others?

Position by Position Analysis


Veterans: Zack Steffen (‘95), Ethan Horvath (‘95), Drake Callender (‘97)

Goalkeepers are outliers and sort of break my generational framework because their development skews later than other positions. Matt Turner, for example, is from the 1994 class and is entering his prime as a goalkeeper. While all of these guys fall into the “veteran phase” they are really just hitting their prime.

This wave did not deliver on the goalkeeping front. For all of the USMNT’s historical challenges, goalkeeper has usually been a position of strength. This wave has been middling at best. Steffen and Horvath have not had great careers in Europe and Callender became a full-time starter in MLS in 2022. 

Steffen was the number one for the USMNT for a couple of years, but has regressed and is now fighting to be a backup. Horvath has been reliable as a backup for several years and Callender is starting to get looks, but isn’t likely to make an impact on the USMNT in a major way. 

Prime: Roman Celentano (‘00), Patrick Schulte (‘01)

This group is looking even less promising than the last wave if you compare where they are today to where the last wave was at the same time. Celentano and Schulte are both still considering young keepers and they may go on to have more consistent and successful careers than the last wave, but neither player have the talent ceiling to match number one’s from generation’s past like Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Freidel or Brad Guzan. 

Emerging: Gabriel Slonina (‘04), Chris Brady (‘04), Antonio Carrera (‘04), Diego Kochen (‘06)

This is a position group where the future looks more promising than the current incumbents. All four of these players have USMNT level talent and all of them have the talent to be better than our current best. 

Slonina, Brady and Kochen all have legitimate paths to making the 2026 World Cup team thanks to the weakness

There is still a long way to go in each of these player’s development, but they all have a chance to raise the ceiling of this position group in the future. 


Veterans: Matt Miazga (‘95), Cameron Carter-Vickers (‘97), Miles Robinson (‘97), Erik Palmer-Brown (‘97), Auston Trusty (‘98)

This wave of center-backs have been “okay”, but far from outstanding. Carter-Vickers and Robinson have had the most significant USMNT careers to date. Trusty is the late developer of the group and is also currently playing in the best league. But he hasn’t had as many chances to make a mark on the USMNT. CCV, Robinson and Trusty all have a good chance to be part of the center-back group for the 2026 World Cup.

Prime: Mark McKenzie (‘99), Chris Richards (‘00), Maximilian Dietz (‘02)

Similar to the veteran group, this group lacks depth, but it does have a higher ceiling, primarily because of Chris Richards. Richards is the most likely center-back in the pool to be a starter at the 2026 World Cup. McKenzie has a good chance to make the 2026 World Cup roster as well, but needs to show more consistency and likely needs to take a step up in league level. Dietz is not currently in the USMNT mix, but he is young and could enter the picture in the next couple of years. 

Emerging: Jalen Neal (‘03), Brandan Craig (‘04), Josh Wynder (‘05), Noahkai Banks (‘06), Matai Akinmboni (‘06)

There are not as many players in this group as I would like there to be and none of these guys are a sure bet, but there is talent within this group. Neal is the only player from this emergent group that is on track to have a chance to penetrate the USMNT roster before 2026. Craig and Wynder would have to really accelerate their professional careers to have a chance. 

The two 2006 players have a lot of talent, but I am not sure if they will be in a place to push for a USMNT spot by 2026. Banks might have the highest ceiling of the group. If he can move through the FC Augsburg organization quickly and become a starter during the 2025 - 2026 Bundesliga season, he could sneak his way onto the World Cup roster. 

If I had to guess, one or two of these players will become USMNT regulars, which puts them even or below what the two prior groups have delivered. It is possible that the one or two that make it from this group go on to have better careers. 


Veterans: RB, Shaq Moore (‘96), LB, Antonee Robinson (‘97), LB/RB DeJuan Jones (‘97), Reggie Cannon (‘98), Marlon Fossey (‘98)

Thank goodness for Jedi Robinson. Without him this group would look pretty bleak. Robinson is playing the best ball of his life and looks like a top 15 left-back in the world right now. He has had a hold of the starting left-back job for the USMNT for the last few years and it doesn’t look like anyone will be challenging him for that spot ahead of the 2026 World Cup. 

Moore made a World Cup squad, but that’s likely the peak of his USMNT career. The rest all have uphill battles to get into the World Cup picture ahead of 2026.

Prime: LB, Sam Vines (‘99), RB, Sergino Dest (‘00), RB, Bryan Reynolds (‘01), RB, Joe Scally (‘02), LB, Kristoffer Lund (‘02), LB, John Tolkin (‘02), LB, George Bello (‘02)

This group has greater depth and more talent than the last wave. Dest is one of the most talented right-backs the USMNT has ever had at its disposal and Scally and Lund are both the top back-ups at their respective positions for the USMNT. 

It is going to be tough for anyone to pass Dest at right-back before 2026 and Scally, Reynolds, Lund and Tolkin all have a viable path to the 2026 World Cup if things go their way. I wouldn’t completely count Vines and Bello out, though their chances look far less likely.

Emerging: LB, Jonathan Gomez (‘03), LB, Nathaniel Brown (‘03), RB, Justin Che (‘03), LB, Caleb Wiley (‘04), LB, Noah Allen (‘04), Reed Baker-Whiting (‘05)

This group has pretty good depth and a few players that could eventually develop into important USMNT players. Wiley has the highest ceiling of all the LB and could be an eventual successor at left-back to Jedi Robinson. I don’t think any of the right-backs will overtake Dest during his prime, but Reed Baker-Whiting could become a useful back-up that can play on the left and on the right. The others could push for a backup spot if their development goes well over the next two to three years.

This group looks more promising than the 1995 - 1998 group, but not quite as strong as the 1999 - 2002 group.

Defensive + Central-Midfielders

Veterans: DM, Kellyn Acosta (‘95), CM, Cristian Roldan (‘95), CM, Julian Green (‘95), CM, Keaton Parks (‘97), CM, Jackson Yueill (‘97), CM, Eryk Williamson (‘97), CM, Weston McKennie (‘98), CM, Luca de la Torre (‘98)

Without Weston McKennie, this would look like a poor wave of sixes and eights. McKennie is looking like one of, if not, the best center-midfielder that has ever put on a USMNT shirt. It’s very unlikely that he isn’t a nailed on starter once again for the next World Cup in 2026. De la Torre is the current third choice center-mid for the USMNT and my guess is he will have a lot of competition for that spot heading into the 2026 World Cup, but it’s his spot right now. 

Acosta, Roldan and Green have all made World Cup rosters, but none are still in the USMNT picture. The rest of the group are highly unlikely to get any caps of significance with the USMNT in the future.

Prime: DM, Tyler Adams (‘99), DM, Lennard Maloney (‘99), CM, Timothy Tillman (‘99), CM, Paxton Pomykal (‘99), DM, James Sands (‘00), DM, Johnny Cardoso (‘01), CM, Tanner Tessmann (‘01), DM, Aidan Morris (‘01), CM, Yunus Musah (‘02), CM, Gianluca Busio (‘02)

This group has better depth and overall quality than the veteran group and boasts two USMNT starters in Tyler Adams and Yunus Mush. Both players are likely to have critical roles for the USMNT heading into the 2026 World Cup. 

From the rest of the group, Johnny Cardoso is the player that is ascending the quickest and is the current favorite to be Tyler Adams’ backup at the six position. Some believe that Cardoso has the ceiling to potentially surpass Adams before the 2026 World Cup, but he’ll need to establish himself in Europe and have some breakout performances with the United States before those projections should be taken seriously.

Busio is sitting behind Luca de la Torre for the backup number eight spot and if he can get back into Serie A next year and perform well, he could surpass de la Torre. The same could be said for Tanner Tessmann. Maloney has been in the last two USMNT camps, but I would not bet on him sustaining a role within the group until 2026. The rest are unlikely to break through into the USMNT in a considerable way at their current trajectory. 

Emerging: DM, Daniel Edelman (‘03), CM, Jack McGlynn (‘03), CM, Rokas Pukstas (‘04), Owen Wolff (‘04), DM, Obed Vargas (‘05), CM, Benja Cremaschi (‘05), Noel Buck (‘05), CM, Niko Tsakiris (‘05), DM Pedro Soma (‘06), DM, Matthew Corcoran (‘06)

This group likely won’t produce a player of Weston McKennie or Yunus Musah’s caliber, but there is depth and some high quality talent that could really strengthen the floor of this position in the intermediate future. 

Pukstas, Cremaschi, Vargas, Buck, Tsakiris and Soma are all players that have the potential to be solid USMNT contributors in the future. Pukstas, Cremaschi, Buck and Tsakiris could all push for the third and fourth spot at center-mid leading up to the 2026 World Cup and could become starters further down the road. 

McGlynn, Vargas and Soma could also be in the mix, though their path to breaking through looks a little more challenging at this time. Soma is most likely someone who will start to impact the pool in the next World Cup cycle. 

Attacking-Midfielders + Wingers

Veterans: W, Paul Arriola (‘95), W, Emmanuel Sabbi (‘97), W, Christian Pulisic, (‘98), W, Alex Zendejas (‘98), AM, Djordje Mihailovic (‘98), AM, Alan Sonora (‘98)

Christian Pulisic, like Weston McKennie for the midfield group, saves this wave. While the depth here is very poor, Christian Pulisic is already one of the best USMNT players of all time and will be a leader heading into his second World Cup in 2026. Zendejas is still in the USMNT mix, but will have to play much better for the United States in the future if he is going to have a chance to make the 2026 World Cup roster. The rest of the group is very unlikely to be in the mix ahead of 2026. 

Prime: W, Timothy Weah (‘00), AM/W, Brenden Aaronson (‘00), AM/W, Tayler Booth (‘01), W, Konrad de la Fuente (‘01), AM, Gio Reyna (‘02), AM, Malik Tillman (‘02), W, Bernard Kamungo (‘02), W/AM, Griffin Yow (‘02)

This is an impressive group that has more depth than the prior group thanks to Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Malik Tillman and Brenden Aaronson. Reyna will be one of the most important players on the USMNT heading into 2026. Weah is the starting right-winger for USMNT and nobody is pushing to take his spot at the moment. Tillman is one of the most talented attackers in the United States pool. Aaronson has been a core contributor for USMNT for a few years and currently looks like a good bet to make the 2026 World Cup roster, though his club career needs to improve for that to remain a good bet. 

Booth has the talent to stay in the USMNT mix over the next few years. Kamungo’s soccer career has taken a very unique path, but he is an ascending player that could be in the winger mix in the next couple of years. 

This group, remarkably, has the potential to secure five of the likely six attacking-mid / winger spots on the 2026 World Cup roster.

Emerging: AM/W, Brian Gutierrez (‘03), AM, Paxten Aaronson (‘03), AM/W, Diego Luna (‘03), W, Kevin Paredes (‘03), W, Cade Cowell (‘03), W, Luca Koleosho (‘04), W, Esmir Bajraktarevic (‘05), W, Kristian Fletcher (‘05)

It’s going to be tough to pass up Gio Reyna and Malik Tillman as the primary central playmakers for the USMNT. It will take something going wrong with those two or a massive jump by Gutierrez, Aaronson or Luna to become USMNT regulars as an attacking-mid. 

Koleosho is the only player currently good enough to be a USMNT regular, but he has not committed his international future to the United States. He is currently committed to Italy. If he does switch to the United States, he would likely become the third choice winger and could challenge Tim Weah for the starting right-wing spot ahead of the 2026 World Cup. 

Paredes and Cowell are two wingers that are both getting USMNT looks, but have not solidified themselves as lock selections. Gutierrez, Luna, Bajraktarevic and Fletcher have the ability to compete for USMNT roster spots in the future at the winger position. Any of them could make the USMNT roster as the third or fourth winger for the 2026 World Cup. 

This group has more promising depth than the 1995 - 1998 wave, but lacks a prospect as promising as Christian Pulisic. The 1999 - 2002 class is by far the most promising group thanks to high level talent and good depth. 


Veterans: Jordan Pefok (‘96), Haji Wright (‘98), Brandon Vazquez (‘98)

This group does not have a ton of caps between them, but Haji Wright did score a World Cup goal and he is the only striker in any of these groups that can say that. It will be difficult for Jordan to get back in the USMNT mix and Vazquez has an uphill battle as well. Wright is the most likely to break through because of his ability to play winger, a position that lacks depth within the USMNT. 

Prime: Josh Sargent (‘00), Jesus Ferreira (‘00), Daryl Dike (‘00), Folarin Balogun (‘01), Duncan McGuire (‘01)

This is a pretty impressive group with all things considered. Balogun is currently the starting number nine for the USMNT and one of the most talented strikers the United States has ever had. Sargent is also a big talent and a World Cup player from 2022. He will likely be a strong contender to make the 2026 World Cup as well. Ferreira, Dike and McGuire will have to take big steps forward to content for a spot. 

Emerging: Ricardo Pepi (‘03), Giulio Misitano (‘05), Rodrigo Neri (‘05), Keyrol Figueroa (‘06)

Ricardo Pepi is the only player from the “Emerging” group that is a consistent contributor for the USMNT. He is an elite young talent that will be competing for the starting striker spot heading into the 2026 World Cup. The younger players are long-shots to make the 2026 World Cup given the depth at the position. Misitano is not United States eligible, but could become eligible in the future and is a very talented player with USMNT level potential. The other two are more likely to make noise in the next cycle if their development goes to plan. 

Final Thoughts

Is the next wave of United States soccer talent worse than, better than or equal to two the groups before them? It’s too early to say, but my early opinion is that they have equal to or greater depth than the groups before them, but as of right now, I don’t see as many players that will raise the ceiling of the USMNT in the near future. It’s harder now, more than ever before to break into the USMNT and I’d predict that around two to five players from the emergent group will make the 2026 World Cup and I’d be surprised if more than one get a World Cup start in 2026. 

The most likely players to make a push towards a 2026 World Cup roster selection from the emergent group include: Gabriel Slonina, Chris Brady, Diego Kochen, Jalen Neal, Noahkai Banks, Caleb Wiley, Reed Baker-Whiting, Rokas Pukstas, Benja Cremaschi, Noel Buck, Luca Koleosho, Kevin Paredes, Brian Gutierrez, Diego Luna, Esmir Bajraktarevic, Kristian Fletcher and Ricardo Pepi.

Does this mean that talent development in the United States is faltering? I wouldn’t go that far. The pandemic had a big negative impact on this next group and I think that the depth is a very positive signal, but the United States still isn’t producing enough high end talent. To end with good news — the next wave, 2007 - 2010 classes, are looking like an incredibly exciting and talented group. 

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