Earnie Stewart officially becomes the first US Men’s National Team General Manager on August 1. Despite ambiguity about the position, one definitive responsibility is hiring the manager of the US National Team. It’s an important hire: the new manager enters a landscape where the program is coming off of a brutal, historic low of missing World Cup 2018, yet has the urgency of a strong performance when hosting World Cup 2026 in 8 years. It’s up to the new manager to reset the trajectory of the entire program.
Of course, the manager also leads the player selection process. After missing the World Cup, continuity matters less. With this in mind, I focused on the trends of players making their first US National Team appearance. I included players who made their debut from 1994 through today. This timespan covers multiple World Cup qualification cycles and six managers:
- The final stage of Bora Milutinovic (1994-1995)
- Steve Sampson (1995-1998)
- Bruce Arena (1998-2006; 2017)
- Bob Bradley (2007-2011)
- Jurgen Klinsmann (2011-2016)
- Dave Sarachan (2017-2018)
Here are the patterns that emerged from the data.
Bradley and Klinsmann tried new players most often.
Bradley cleaned house in 2007, giving 16 players their first cap. Like today, 2007 was a favorable climate for exploration: it was early in the World Cup cycle, the US under-performed in the previous cycle, and with the Gold Cup and Copa America that summer, there were more available national team minutes.
In that first year, Bradley identified key contributors for the rest of the cycle: Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, Herculez Gomez, Jay Demerit, Jonathan Bornstein, and Maurice Edu all played in the 2010 World Cup (Charlie Davies likely would have made it without his injury.) After a slower 2008, Bradley continued to explore possibilities from 2009-2001, giving at least 9 players their first cap in each of the following 3 years.
Klinsmann talked often about getting out of a comfort zone, and his new player selection process fit that narrative. While Klinsmann did not have as much success as Bradley with his 1st-year debut players, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson, John Brooks, and Matt Besler, and DeAndre Yedlin all received their first caps and went to play in the World Cup that cycle.
Arena tended to cap fewer new players each year. Ironically, Arena thought he would rely on a core group in 2017, but capped in the 2nd-most new players in his time with the US.
MLS made an immediate impact in player identification, but that impact has normalized.
The biggest shift between the tenures of Milutinovic and Sampson was MLS’ launch in 1996. An established top-flight league immediately created a smoother development pathway for the US national team. That initial class of MLS-based players included Eddie Pope, Eddie Lewis, and Frankie Hejduk, all of whom would represent the US in a World Cup. Sampson and Arena relied upon MLS more frequently than did Bradley or Klinsmann for finding new national team players. Today, despite the seemingly constant league expansion, the debut US players split fairly evenly between domestic and abroad.
Players usually receive their first cap between 20 and 23
More players received their first cap at 22 than any other age, with 20, 21, and 23 the next most frequent ages. The youngest player capped was a 16-year old Freddy Adu at 16, while 33-year old Preki was the oldest. It’d be interesting to compare this to other countries and see the influence of college and a national league that tends to skew older for domestic players. One quirk in the data: the list of those who earned their first cap at 18 is fascinating:
- Jovan Kirovski
- Landon Donovan
- DaMarcus Beasley
- Jonathan Spector
- Michael Bradley
- Jozy Altidore
- Julian Green
- Emerson Hyndman
- Rubio Rubin
Timothy Weah, Josh Sargent, and Tyler Adams all joined this list in the past year – Sarachan has focused on the youth. Given that Arena, Bradley, and Klinsmann had similar age distributions, I’d anticipate that all of the debuts over the next cycle would skew back toward those three.
The 4 types of player debuts
When evaluating the age of the player’s US national team debut andhow many caps they ultimately earn, 4 types of player profiles emerge:
- Legends. Cluster 1 is elite company: each player won more than 100 caps for the US, and all made their debut at 23 or younger. The list reads like a current and future soccer hall of fame: Claudio Reyna, Donovan, Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Altidore, and Bradley.
- Key Contributors. Cluster 2 includes players with roughly 40 or more caps. These players tended to debut on the younger side, but not exclusively. Representative players in this group through the years are Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis, Oguchi Onyewu, and Alejandro Bedoya. However, there are players holding down the older end of the age curve, such as Chris Armas, Brian Ching, Clarence Goodson, and Jermaine Jones, who would make 40 or more appearances for the US.
- Younger Debut, Fewer Appearances. Cluster 3 includes those who debuted young, but did not win as many caps as players in Cluster 1 or 2. This cluster also skews toward more recent players, and they haven’t had as many opportunities to join Cluster 1 or 2. Guys who made a handful of appearances are here, but so are those who made 20-30. Some of the players from the late 1990s/early 2000s who appear here are Ramiro Corrales, Edson Buddle, Cory Gibbs, and Sasha Victorine.
- Older Debut, Fewer Appearances. Cluster 4 is similar to Cluster 3, except these are players who debuted at 24 or older. There are also more players with 1 or 2 caps in this group, but some like Preki, Jimmy Conrad, and Jay Demerit, would win more than 20.
What matters for the next manager?
From this analysis, I’m of the belief that the next manager should not hesitate to call-up a younger player with potential. The new manager also should continually keep an open mind toward new players. As we’ve seen with Germany, Spain, Italy – and maybe even ourselves – in recent World Cup qualifying cycles, a year can be an eternity in international soccer. Particularly after our worst campaign ever, we cannot become complacent.
Yes, I know that lead image isn’t from Reyna’s first cap, but I don’t think any photos exist from that USA-Norway game in 1994. Here is a screenshot of Reyna’s shot for Cobi Jones’ game-winner from some YouTube highlights: