World Cup: The 2022 USMNT’s power is its diversity

(L-R) Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Jesus Ferreira will help lead a diverse USMNT at the 2022 World Cup. (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

Weston McKennie is from Little Elm, Texas, and Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Walker Zimmerman is from Lawrenceville, Georgia, and his American teammates from America, Colombia, the Netherlands and England. They are Black and white and biracial. Their parents are Ghanaian, Japanese, Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Surinamese, Trinidadian and Tobagonian, Liberian, Jamaican, Native American and Latvian Jewish.

They are the 2022 U.S. men’s national team, and they, like the country they’ll represent at the World Cup, derive their power from their diversity.

They are the sons of presidents and migrants; of soccer stars and of absentees.

They are from conservative towns and liberal ones, from private schools and public ones, from privilege and far less.

They speak at least seven different languages. They’ve lived in at least 13 different countries. They listen to old-school hip-hop and reggae and Taylor Swift, and everything in between.

They are Christian and Muslim, and varying levels of religious — and one, DeAndre Yedlin, has embraced Buddhism. They are as old as 35 and as young as 19.

They are as diverse, culturally, racially and otherwise, as any team U.S. Soccer has ever fielded. And in part because of their differences, not in spite of them, they are also one of the most tight-knit.

They will go to Qatar over the coming days to play for a country in which differences increasingly divide, in which rhetoric and politics are increasingly polarized, and in which hate is seemingly on the rise. Nobody is under the illusion that they, a soccer team, can heal those divisions, or mend the many aspects of American society that are broken. But they can serve as an example.

They embody the embracing of difference and the seeking of understanding. They have, as head coach Gregg Berhalter said, been an “absolute joy to be around, when you see all these backgrounds coming together.” They have bonded over everything from video games to food to golf, all while challenging one another to “Be The Change” that they want to see in society more broadly.

And if nothing else, they will make an impact within their sport. “Everyone knows that access is a problem, and soccer is largely viewed as a rich white kid sport,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone said at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in May. She and many others want to change that perception. And this USMNT, on this massive stage, can help.

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 12:  Weston McKennie #8 of the United States is congratulated by Christian Pulisic #10 and Tyler Adams #4 after scoring a goal during the second half of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifier match against Mexico at TQL Stadium on November 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The United States defeated Mexico 2-0.(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
(L-R) Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic have been celebrating goals together since they were kids. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) (Kirk Irwin via Getty Images)

Forming a multi-cultural ‘brotherhood’

Their chemistry has been forged intentionally and organically, over multiple years, as Berhalter and his staff pulled in players from across the country and around the world.

Some of the bonds had already sprouted on youth national teams last decade. McKennie and Pulisic — one the son of an Air Force officer, one of soccer players; one Black, one white; one outspoken, one reticent — sat together on one of their very first bus rides at a training camp. “Actually, he was probably my first friend on the national team, back when I was 13 years old,” McKennie said years ago. Forever a jokester, Weston would squirt an empty water bottle into Christian’s ear. “He thought I was the most annoying kid,” McKennie said with a chuckle, but they formed a friendship that persists today.

Luca De La Torre, from San Diego; and Haji Wright, from Los Angeles; and Tyler Adams, from Wappingers Falls, New York, were also on some of those youth teams. And on Adams’ heels in the New York Red Bulls academy was Tim Weah — the son of George Weah, soccer royalty, now Liberia’s head of state.

Academies, in general, crafted the core of the 2022 USMNT. They crafted Josh Sargent, from O’Fallon, Missouri; and Jesús Ferreira, the son of former FC Dallas star David, from Santa Marta, Colombia.

But coaches plucked from everywhere, including college. Aaron Long, from Oak Hills, California, went to UC Riverside. Matt Turner, from Park Ridge, New Jersey, went to Fairfield. And Zimmerman went to Furman.

And together, although separated for most of the year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, they cultivated an environment that players — in some cases, kids — wanted to be a part of.

That environment helped convince Sergiño Dest, a then-18-year-old Ajax star from Almere, Netherlands, to take advantage of his American passport — which he held thanks to his dad — and commit his international future to the United States.

It helped convince Yunus Musah — who is, in his own words, “Black,” “African,” “American,” “Muslim,” “Italian,” “English,” “an immigrant” and “a citizen of the world” — to choose the U.S. over Ghana, Italy and England.

And this “brotherhood,” as players often call it, became even more powerful.

It is built on soccer, of course, on accountability and collective ambition. But it is also built on camaraderie, in team meal rooms, where iPhones go away and players learn about one another’s lives. It is built via pingpong and “Fortnite” and “Mario Kart”; via cards and fantasy football, via virtual-reality golf and actual golf.

It creates a culture that values every voice and makes everyone comfortable — which is exactly what’s so often absent at lower levels of the sport in the United States.

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 10: Kellyn Acosta #23 of the United States during a Concacaf Nations League game between Grenada and USMNT at Q2 Stadium on June 10, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by John  Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Kids around the world — not just in the U.S. — will have someone to look up to on the 2022 USMNT. (Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images) (John Todd/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

Why representation on the USMNT matters

Soccer is, in theory and often in practice, a wonderfully accessible, egalitarian, global game. But American soccer, for decades, hasn’t been. Its pay-to-play structure, when fused with centuries of systemic racism, erected economic, geographic and cultural barriers that have stymied millions of Black and brown kids.

Those barriers impeded minority representation at the highest levels, and fed the erroneous but understandable assumption that soccer is a white middle-class sport. “I played basketball [growing up], all my friends played other sports,” Hugh Roberts, a Black defender and veteran of second-tier pro leagues, told Yahoo Sports in 2020. “Subconsciously, you don't even give soccer the attention, because there's no people who look like you.”

The 2022 USMNT, on the other hand, will give a vast majority of American kids a representative to look up to.

It will not fix the system. It has, in some cases, been aided by academies that provide scholarships at the very top of the youth soccer pyramid. Those scholarships make “a huge difference,” Berhalter said, “but in terms of the amount of players we're affecting, it's only the elite players. What we need to do as MLS clubs, as part of U.S. Soccer, is — how do we expand that? How do we get into underserved communities and give players the opportunity to play, with standards that get them excited about the game?”

Shortly after Cone took over U.S. Soccer’s presidency, she commissioned research to help answer that question. The top of the pyramid, she said, “is looking pretty good right now,” but “it’s really that base that I’m concerned about.”

And at the Aspen summit in Washington, D.C., she promised: “I am not going to rest until I know that every kid who wants to play our game has not only the access to our game, but has the opportunity to succeed in our game.”

That, of course, is a monumental task, and the broader problem is one that a World Cup alone cannot solve. But it can puncture the perception.

For two weeks in November and perhaps December, this USMNT can make a difference just by being who they are. They can, implicitly, tell millions of kids that the game is for everyone, and amplify a message that U.S. midfielder Kellyn Acosta — who grew up Black and Asian in predominantly white spaces — sent earlier this year.

"Don't be afraid of who you are,” Acosta said — to soccer players, but more so to everybody. “Embrace your identity. Embrace your culture and your heritage."