Can the USMNT Win the 2026 FIFA World Cup?

By Ben Morris in FIFA World Cup
| February 23, 2021 4:42 am PST
Can the USMNT Win the 2026 World Cup?

After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT hit an all-time low. But since then, American soccer has been on the rise – in a big way!

The influx of US nationals playing for elite European clubs, coupled with a deluge of homegrown youngsters coming through the MLS system, has led to many people asking – can the USMNT win the 2026 World Cup?

Of course, we have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar first. But with the United States set to co-host soccer’s biggest international tournament alongside Canada and Mexico in 2026, it feels like the USMNT could achieve something special on home soil.

In this post, I assess the current crop of American players and discuss why the United States could win the 2026 World Cup. I also predict the USMNT starting XI for the home tournament in five years’ time.

But first, let’s take a look at how the US had fared in previous World Cups.

What Does the USMNT’s World Cup Record Look Like?

The United States managed to finish third at the very first World Cup back in 1930, with just 13 teams competing at the inaugural tournament in Uruguay.

Four years later, the US was knocked out of the competition as the lowest-ranked team, losing to host nation Italy 7-1 in the first round.

After being forced to withdraw from the 1938 tournament in France, the USMNT’s next World Cup appearance came in 1950. Brazil was the host nation that year, but the United States failed to make it past the group stage.

Subsequently, the US failed to qualify for nine consecutive World Cups between 1954 and 1986, leaving American soccer in turmoil. But since the 90s, the USMNT has featured regularly on the international stage.

USMNT WORLD CUP RECORD (1990 – 2014)
Year Host Nation Stage Reached Overall Position
1990 Italy Group stage 23rd
1994 USA Round of 16 14th
1998 France Group stage 32nd
2002 Japan & South Korea Quarter-finals 8th
2006 Germany Group stage 25th
2010 South Africa Round of 16 12th
2014 Brazil Round of 16 15th

The United States qualified for six straight World Cups between 1990 and 2014, reaching the knockout stages on three occasions during that period.

Led by USMNT legends like Landon Donovan, Cobi Jones, and Brad Friedel, the US made it all the way to the quarter-finals when Japan and South Korea hosted the tournament in 2002, falling to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

But as you can see, the US hasn’t been able to make it past the quarter-finals since emerging back on the scene in 1990. In fact, the United States failed to qualify for the previous tournament altogether, missing out in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Ultimately, it’s fair to say that the USMNT has invariably struggled to make its mark on the World Cup.

But things could be about to change.

Is the USMNT Entering a Golden Generation?

Not so long ago, it felt like there were only a handful of Americans plying their trade overseas. The English Premier League and the German Bundesliga have always been home to a few US players over the years, but never too many.

However, in recent times, the number of Americans playing in Europe has skyrocketed.

Not only are multiple young USMNT stars currently playing overseas, but many of them belong to elite European clubs. Better still, they are being given plenty of first-team chances, with a number of US nationals now important figures for some of the biggest teams on the planet.

Let’s take a look at some of the young Americans who are making a name for themselves across the pond. If the USMNT is to challenge at the 2026 World Cup, these players will likely be at the heart of the action.

Weston McKennie

  • Age: 22
  • Club: Juventus

Weston McKennie was loaned from Schalke 04 to Juventus for the 2020/21 season and has made an instant impact in Italy. Shining alongside Cristiano Ronaldo on a regular basis, the Texan has quickly become a pivotal player for Andrea Pirlo’s side, frequently chipping in with goals and assists.

Sergino Dest

  • Age: 20
  • Club: Barcelona

After establishing himself as one of the best young full-backs in world soccer, Sergino Dest left Ajax for Barcelona last year. Under Ronald Koeman, the 20-year-old has nailed down Barca’s right-back spot and looks set to play a key role for the Spanish giant in years to come.

Giovanni Reyna

  • Age: 18
  • Club: Borussia Dortmund

If Giovanni Reyna turns out to be even half as good as his father, he will almost certainly enjoy years of success with the national team. Son of former USMNT hero Claudio Reyna, Gio is already one of Borussia Dortmund’s best players – and he’s still only 18!

Christian Pulisic

  • Age: 22
  • Club: Chelsea

It’s easy to forget that Christian Pulisic is still just 22. After breaking through at Dortmund at such a young age, it feels like he has been around for ages. Now at EPL giant Chelsea, Pulisic is widely regarded as one of the most talented forwards in the Premier League.

Tyler Adams

  • Age: 21
  • Club: RB Leipzig

Having come through the ranks at the Red Bulls, Tyler Adams swapped New York for Leipzig in 2019 – and he hasn’t looked back. The versatile midfielder often operates as a full-back or winger for Julian Nagelsmann’s exciting team, with bags of Bundesliga experience already under his belt.

ASSESSING THE USMNT’S EUROPEAN YOUNGSTERS
Player Age USMNT Caps Goals Assists
Christian Pulisic 22 34 14 10
Weston McKennie 22 21 6 4
Tyler Adams 21 12 1 1
Sergino Dest 20 4 1
Giovanni Reyna 18 2 1

As well as the five players covered above, there are numerous other young Americans playing for top European clubs at the moment.

Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Owen Otasowie (Wolverhampton Wanderers), and Antonee Robinson (Fulham) are just a few more names that are destined to be part of Gregg Berhalter’s upcoming plans.

Still, it’s not just overseas clubs that are producing first-rate American youngsters at the moment. Indeed, MLS looks set to play a big part in the USMNT’s 2026 World Cup ambitions.

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Can MLS Help the USMNT to Win the 2026 World Cup?

In the past, MLS wasn’t exactly renowned for producing homegrown talent. Every so often, one or two Americans would outshine the high-profile overseas players in the league. But if they were good enough, they were often snapped up by European clubs.

Fast forward to today – Major League Soccer is practically brimming with exciting youngsters.

Thanks to an increase in – and improvement of – MLS academies, American soccer is booming. The rate at which homegrown players are entering Major League Soccer is quicker than ever before – and that can only be a good thing for the national team.

In total, ten MLS clubs currently have affiliate teams operating in the USL Championship – the second tier of US soccer.

MLS CLUBS WITH USL CHAMPIONSHIP AFFILIATE TEAMS
MLS Club USL Championship Affiliate Team
Atlanta United FC Atlanta United 2
Colorado Rapids Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
DC United Loudoun United FC
Houston Dynamo Rio Grande Valley FC Toros
LA Galaxy LA Galaxy II
New York City FC San Antonio FC
New York Red Bulls New York Red Bulls II
Real Salt Lake Real Monarchs
Seattle Sounders FC Tacoma Defiance
Sporting Kansas City Sporting Kansas City II

With many MLS clubs using their affiliate team to give rising stars valuable game time, Americans are now getting more first-team experience at a young age. This enables players to develop quicker, ultimately giving the USMNT more options.

Of course, the best young American players are always going to leave for overseas clubs. That isn’t going to change anytime soon, if ever. But if Major League Soccer clubs continue to put an emphasis on developing homegrown talent, the United States’ chances of winning the World Cup in 2026 are only going to improve.

In fact, the wide pool of American youngsters currently operating in Major League Soccer enabled Berhalter to select an all-MLS roster at the beginning of 2021, with the majority of the squad aged 23 and under.

What Does the Latest USMNT Roster Tell Us About the Future?

Due to worldwide travel restrictions, Berhalter was forced to select an all-MLS roster for the USMNT’s international friendly against Trinidad and Tobago in January.

Under normal circumstances, the United States’ squad is usually packed with players that play in Europe. But with the current limitations, the head coach had no choice but to only pick Major League Soccer players.

In previous years, this would have been a disaster for the US team. But this year, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Berhalter’s latest 25-man squad was made up entirely of players belonging to MLS clubs, including ten uncapped players. The USMNT ended up thrashing Trinidad and Tobago 7-0, with 20-year-old FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira bagging two goals and three assists in just his second international match.

Remarkably, the average age of Berhalter’s recent roster was only 23 years and 302 days, while the squad averaged just ten caps. It is worth pointing out that those numbers are skewed massively by veteran forward Jozy Altidore, who has 115 USMNT to his name.

In total, 16 of the 25 players fell into the U23 bracket, meaning 64% of the roster will be age-eligible for the 2021 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship in March.

Below is a list of all the players aged 23 and under in the January 2021 USMNT camp.

  • George Bello – Atlanta United (19)
  • Julian Araujo – LA Galaxy (19)
  • Tanner Tessmann – FC Dallas (19)
  • Jesus Ferreira – FC Dallas (20)
  • Andres Perea – Orlando City (20)
  • Daryl Dike – Orlando City (20)
  • Sam Vines – Colorado Rapids (21)
  • Matt Freese – Philadelphia Union (22)
  • Benji Michel – Orlando City (23)
  • Mauricio Pineda – Chicago Fire (23)
  • Kyle Duncan – New York Red Bulls (23)
  • Aaron Herrera – Real Salt Lake (23)
  • Jonathan Lewis – Colorado Rapids (23)
  • Jackson Yueill – San Jose Earthquakes (23)
  • Miles Robinson – Atlanta United (23)
  • JT Marcinkowski – San Jose Earthquakes (23)

Better still, a whopping 15 different MLS clubs were represented in the squad, pointing towards a wealth of talent across Major League Soccer.

By the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around, the majority of the latest USMNT roster will be in their prime playing years. It is certainly an en exciting time for US soccer.

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Predicting the USMNT Starting XI for the 2026 World Cup

For a bit of fun, let’s take a look at what the USMNT starting line-up could be when the United States co-hosts the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico.

This is all hypothetical, of course, but it will be interesting to look back on in a few years’ time and see how close these predictions are to the real thing, right?

Remember – the 2026 World Cup is still five years away. A lot can change between now and then, but this will give us an idea of what the USMNT could look like when the famed tournament hits US shores.

Goalkeeper

  • Zack Steffen

With Ederson dominating between the sticks for Manchester City, Steffen isn’t likely to break into Pep Guardiola’s starting XI anytime soon. However, he is definitely good enough to play in the EPL.

If he continues to prove himself in cup competitions for Man City, the Pennsylvania native could easily earn himself a move to another big club.

Defenders

  • Sergino Dest
  • Mark McKenzie
  • Chris Richards
  • Sam Vines

Dest looks set to be Barcelona’s first-choice right-back for the foreseeable future, while Richards has a big career ahead of him at Bayern Munich.

McKenzie recently left the Union for Belgian side Genk and has already shown that he’s got what it takes to partner Richards at the center of the USMNT defense.

Currently 21, Colorado youngster Vines has the potential to be the United States’ best left-back by 2026. In fact, many believe that he already is.

Midfielders

  • Brendan Aaronson
  • Weston McKennie
  • Tyler Adams
  • Giovanni Reyna

If Reyna carries on the way he’s going, he could easily be one of the world’s best players in a few years. He’s already a Bundesliga star at 18, so just imagine what he’ll be like at 23.

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, McKennie and Adams will almost certainly be the preferred central midfield pairing for the USMNT for years to come.

After being named in the 2020 MLS Best XI, Aaronson left Philadelphia for Red Bull Salzburg recently. His creativity will surely see him remain a key figure for the USMNT in the coming years.

Forwards

  • Christian Pulisic
  • Jesus Ferreira

Pulisic has already racked up over 100 Bundesliga appearances and 50+ EPL appearances, chipping in with numerous goals and assists along the way. If he continues in that manner, he could become one of the best players on the planet.

Having burst onto the international scene in style against Trinidad and Tobago, big things will be expected of Ferreira from now on. By 2026, he may be one of the national team’s most important players.

What Can the USMNT Achieve at the 2026 World Cup?

At this stage, it is obviously pretty difficult to foresee exactly how the United States will fare at the 2026 World Cup. I mean, the tournament is still five years away.

But as things stand, the signs are certainly promising.

Never before have we seen so many gifted American youngsters in the same generation. Previous US teams have only really contained two or three household names at any one time, yet future teams have the potential to be stacked with truly world-class players in every position.

From goalkeeper Zach Steffen to defenders like Sergino Dest, from midfield gems such as Gio Reyna to exciting forwards like Christian Pulisic – the USMNT has a genuine chance of achieving something special in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, triumphing over the European and South American giants of the international game won’t be easy. After all, only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, with five European and three South American nations clinching soccer’s top prize.

But if American players continue to shine overseas and MLS continues to churn out a deluge of homegrown stars – who knows! Maybe the USMNT could actually win the 2026 World Cup.

Still, it is unlikely that the United States will become one of the greatest World Cup teams in history.

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