Life at big clubs is teaching something to USMNT's young stars, and it will be critical in World Cup qualification

Another week, another banner weekend for American soccer players in Europe. Just days after a record seven U.S. men’s national teamers took the field in the UEFA Champions League, goals Saturday by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Giovanni Reyna marked the first time that three USMNT members scored in the Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A on the same day.

Just a few years removed from the lowest point in program history, national team fans can hardly believe the blue-chip talent that is starring at the highest levels of the sport this season. Yet for all the individual success these young Yanks are enjoying with some of the most celebrated clubs in the world, they’re also learning lessons that ought to benefit the U.S. squad greatly when it attempts to qualify for its first World Cup in eight years next fall:

How to win.

One of the biggest benefits Pulisic, McKennie Reyna and their peers such as Sergiño Dest and Tyler Adams get from playing for brand-name clubs isn’t just the intense pressure to perform well enough to stay on the field, which is no easy feat at Chelsea or Barcelona or Juventus. It’s also the expectation of beating every opponent they face.

(Left to right) Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are three of the young USMNT stars playing at mega-clubs where winning is a job requirement. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
(Left to right) Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are three of the young USMNT stars playing at mega-clubs where winning is a job requirement. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When McKennie, who has been in and out of the lineup in his first season at Juve, was summoned from the bench by manager Andrea Pirlo with the Italian champions trailing crosstown rival Torino late in Saturday’s derby, his mandate was to change the match. That McKennie did, by powering home a 77th-minute equalizer that set the stage for an eventual 2-1 victory.

Reyna’s blistering strike for Borussia Dortmund earlier in the day was no less important to his employer. It salvaged an important point away to Eintracht Frankfurt, keeping BVB within striking distance of league-leading Bayern Munich.

Speaking of Bayern, Alabama-born defender Chris Richards came on for the reigning Champions League winners for the final six minutes of Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Adams’ RB Leipzig, which would’ve leapfrogged into first place in Germany with a win. That shows exactly the sort of confidence Bayern manager Hansi Flick has in the 20-year-old Richards.

Meantime, Pulisic’s first goal of the Premier League season sealed the full three points for Chelsea over Leeds, temporarily sending the Blues to the top of the table.

Winning the league would be huge for Pulisic. Same goes for McKennie, who certainly doesn’t want to be on the first Juventus team in a decade not to take home the title.

That they both scored after coming off the bench can’t hurt their chances of staying in the lineup, but it was even more important that their contributions actually helped their teams triumph.

On the flip side, Dest started in Barca’s surprising 2-1 loss to Cadiz and although he performed well, he squandered a glorious second half chance to equalize. That’s not likely to change coach Ronald Koeman’s high opinion of Dest, but excellence is always a requirement when you play for Barcelona. Losing a league game is unacceptable, and every player is under scrutiny following a defeat. That’s how it is at the other big clubs, too.

And that bodes well for the United States. For all of their promise, this young group of U.S. starlets doesn’t have much experience in the wild west of CONCACAF qualifying, which couldn’t be more different from the refined nature of the highest level of club soccer. The willingness to fight will be paramount against hard-tackling regional foes in games on bad fields in scorching temperatures.

A collective refusal to lose could be the difference between finishing first — which scrappy, overachieving American sides did during the 2006, ’10 and ’14 World Cup cycles — and falling short, as an aging U.S. team that perhaps had become too comfortable in its club situations did in spectacular fashion to miss out on Russia 2018.

“When you have guys that are playing now for Dortmund, Barcelona, Juventus, none of these [qualifying] games are going to faze them when they step onto a bad pitch,” Adams said last week during a Zoom call with reporters. “We have Sergiño playing in El Clasico against Real Madrid. I don’t think that when he goes and plays against Jamaica, he’s going to be fazed.

Adams was quick to add that he wasn’t underestimating how hard it will be to get the U.S. back to the World Cup. “I think we understand now from seeing the past team not qualify, how difficult the circumstances are going to be,” he said. “Everything off the pitch we have to mentally prepare ourselves for as young players.”

But it’s also clear that this new USMNT generation absolutely expects to win. It’s a job requirement where they work, and it’s being drilled into them on a daily basis. The refusal to lose is baked in, a mental edge that is every bit as important as sheer ability. That part isn’t in question.

“The soccer part,” Adams said, “will take care of itself.”

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