Every journey begins with a single step. The challenge, however, is knowing which way to go and how long it will take to get there.
The U.S. men’s national soccer team, currently without a permanent coach, general manager or any real sense of direction, doesn’t know either of those things. Yet it took an uneven first step on its journey to the next World Cup on Wednesday just the same, dropping a 2-1 decision to Serbia before a sparse crowd at newly christened BMO Stadium.
With the U.S. co-hosting the 2026 World Cup, alongside Canada and Mexico, the pressure already is building for the Americans to make a deep run in the tournament. The U.S. has gotten as far as the quarterfinals just once in the modern era, and anything short of the final eight in 2026 would be considered a disappointment.
Wednesday’s young, inexperienced team won’t be the World Cup one; lacking a FIFA competition window, the U.S. was unable to call in the European-based core of its roster. Instead, caretaker coach Anthony Hudson summoned five players from last year’s World Cup team and 13 others who had never appeared in a game for the senior national team.
The USMNT landed the star it needed with Alejandro Zendejas. However, his participation in January camp isn’t indicative of his long-term plans with the team.
But then the journey to becoming a World Cup player also begins with a single step and the January camp often has provided that: Since 1999, 30 men who made their first or second appearance for the national team in the first camp of a calendar year have gone on to play in a World Cup, among them Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, the three leading scorers in team history.
That’s a track record Hudson is hoping to build on, continuing the philosophy of Gregg Berhalter, who tried out 88 players while putting together the best record for a men’s coach in U.S. Soccer history in his four years in charge. Hudson’s starting lineup Wednesday including seven debutantes and three others playing just their second game with the U.S. The Americans hadn’t seen that many starters make their international debut in one game since 1988.
“Overall I was really pleased with the performance,” said Hudson, an assistant during last month’s World Cup who is running the team as U.S. Soccer mulls its future with Berhalter, whose contract expired at the end of last year. “Individually there were some really, really big performances. I thought we showed a lot of bravery. Very attack-minded. I love the fact that players were really driving to get forward.
“I’m disappointed obviously with the result. But the way they want about the game was [positive].”
Jalen Neal, a 19-year-old defender for the Galaxy, could earn his first cap with the U.S. national team Wednesday against Serbia at BMO Stadium.
Seven starters are dual nationals and two of them teamed up to give the U.S. the early lead, with Brandon Vázquez heading in Julian Gressel’s long cross from the right wing in the 29th minute. But after a solid opening half-hour, the team’s youth and inexperience showed up, allowing Serbia to tie the score on Luka Ilic’s free kick through the U.S. wall just before the intermission, then take the lead less than a minute into the second half when Nikola Stulic poked the ball away from a tentative Jalen Neal and into the path of teammate Veljko Simic, who banged home a right-footed shot from the center of the box.
Cade Cowell, one of five teenagers on the U.S. roster, had two chances to tie the score 10 minutes later, but he banged shots off both posts just 20 seconds apart. The U.S. won the possession battle handily and outshot Serbia 20-11, but just five of those tries were on target.