SPORTS USMNT Year in Review | FOX Sports

USMNT Year in Review | FOX Sports

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As the United States men’s national team looks ahead to a consequential 2024 — a year during which it will compete for a third consecutive CONCACAF Nations League title as well as host the star-studded 2024 Copa América — it’s time for us to look back at the USMNT’s roller-coaster 2023.

The year began in almost unfathomably dramatic fashion, with the news that U.S. Soccer Federation was commissioning an independent investigation into coach Gregg Berhalter and the parents of one of the program’s most promising young players, Gio Reyna. 

The year ended with another conspicuous defeat at Trinidad and Tobago, though that wasn’t enough to prevent the Americans from losing the two-leg aggregate goals series and qualifying for next summer’s Copa on home soil. Meantime, the U.S. won a major regional trophy in the months between.

Here’s how 2023 went down for the U.S. men:

USMNT kicks off the new World Cup cycle mired in drama 

Even before the 2022 World Cup ended that December, sources told FOX Sports that U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart wanted to retain Berhalter for the 2026 World Cup cycle following the USMNT’s run to the round of 16 at Qatar 2022. 

That all changed days into the new year, when a decades-old domestic incident involving Berhalter and his longtime wife was reported to Stewart by Danielle and Claudio Reyna, both former national teamers themselves. The law firm the federation retained to conduct the independent investigation determined that the Reynas had retaliated against the coach for revealing that he’d almost sent Gio home from the World Cup for poor behavior. It also corroborated Berhalter’s version of events, clearing the way for him to be rehired. 

But Stewart had by then left the USSF for a similar position with Dutch power PSV Eindhoven. Matt Crocker, Stewart’s replacement, arrived in April, and in June surprised many when he rehired Berhalter over former Premier League manager and USMNT assistant Jesse March. 

Berhalter returned to the sideline in September. Reyna, who missed that camp because of injury, was recalled in October. He has started all four games for the national team under Berhalter since, scoring twice in a 4-0 friendly win over Ghana. The hatchet seems to have been buried for now. But intense scrutiny surely will remain on the Berhalter/Reyna dynamic not just in 2024, but all the way through the 2026 World Cup that will be co-hosted by the U.S. 

Tyler Adams’ injury-ravaged 2023 elicits worries 

One of the biggest USMNT stories of 2023 revolved around someone who didn’t appear for the squad at all. 

After captaining his country at the 2022 World Cup and playing every minute of that tournament with distinction, two separate hamstring surgeries kept heart-and-soul defensive midfielder Tyler Adams from suiting up for the national team this year. 

Adams is scheduled to return to the field in February, but his heath remains a significant concern for the U.S. — not just because of how important Adams is both on an off the field, but also because the position he plays is perhaps the shallowest of any in the player pool. 

Berhalter (and interim coaches Anthony Hudson and B.J. Callaghan) plugged the void with a number of players — the more attack-minded Reyna, Luca de la Torre and Malik Tillman and defensive-leaning veteran Kellyn Acosta and newcomer Lennard Maloney — but none has made the position his in Adams absence. The hope is that it won’t matter, that Adams will be ready and available to reprise his role behind fellow midfielders Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah when the 2024 Nations League finals kick off in March. After Adams’ nightmare 2023, U.S. fans can’t help but wonder if that will actually happen.

Folarin Balogun becomes the latest prized recruit

Under Berhalter, a number of key dual-citizens have chosen to rep the red, white and blue over other countries, including USMNT starters Musah and Sergiño Dest. But the program’s biggest get of 2023 happened during the coach’s eight-month hiatus, when New York-born, London-raised former England U-21 international striker Folarin Balogun petitioned FIFA to permanently switch his allegiance from the Three Lions. 

For a team that has never had enough firepower up front, the now 22-year-old’s arrival in May was a coup. Before he’d even suited up for the U.S., Balogun became the first American to score more than 20 goals in a top-five European league with Reims in France’s Ligue 1. He immediately walked into the U.S. lineup in June, starting the 3-0 Nations League semifinal win over blood nemesis Mexico in Las Vegas. He scored his first goal for the USMNT in his next match, a 2-0 triumph over Canada in the final. Balogun scored twice more before the year was over, including a beauty in that friendly rout of Ghana. 

His arrival also elevated the competition for the starting job: Ricardo Pepi, 20, has been a goal machine in 2023, mostly off the bench, for club and country since whispers of Balogun potentially joining the U.S. team began to circulate last March. Both forwards started the Americans’ final match of 2023, and they appear poised to battle for playing time for many years to come. 

Time for Gio Reyna to leave Dortmund? Ricardo Pepi vs. Flo Balogun? | SOTU

Time for Gio Reyna to leave Dortmund? Ricardo Pepi vs. Flo Balogun? | SOTU

Americans repeat as Nations League champs 

When Hudson abruptly left the interim post for a head coaching job in Qatar, Callaghan was handed the reigns for both the Nations League final four and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The circumstances were less than ideal. But Callaghan was well respected among the players, and he benefited mightily from the strong locker room culture he helped Berhalter foster over the previous four-year cycle. 

Meantime, the U.S. had the good fortune of facing a Mexican team at its lowest point in decades. In front of a crowd of more than 61,000 mostly El Tri fans at Allegiant Stadium just off the Las Vegas strip, the Americans played their chief rivals off the field. Christian Pulisic scored on either side of halftime, and Ricardo Pepi added a third before the match devolved into chaos, with Dest and McKennie sent off for retaliating after Mexican fouls and two El Tri players shown red cards, too. 

Somehow, the most lopsided USMNT win over Mexico in more than 20 years was overshadowed by the news of Berhalter’s return, which broke just before kickoff. Berhalter was reintroduced at a hastily arranged press conference in Vegas the following day, though Callaghan stayed in charge though the summer. 

The Nations League final was against Canada, which the U.S. failed to beat in either of its two qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup as the Reds finished atop CONCACAF. 

But the Canadians were no match for the Americans this time, with the U.S. strolling to an eventual 2-0 triumph even without Dest and McKennie. It was the USMNT’s second straight Nations League title — one that left no doubt about which country is the region’s strongest right now. 

U.S. qualifies for Copa despite (another) loss in Trinidad 

After a mostly third-string U.S. side was eliminated on penalties by Panama in the Gold Cup quarterfinals in July, Berhalter took over for a pair of September exhibition wins over Asian Football Confederation representatives Oman and Uzbekistan. The competition level increased considerably the following month, when the Americans welcomed four time World Cup champion Germany to Hartford, Connecticut for the first of two more fall friendlies. 

The Germans 3-1 victory served as a reality check for Berhalter and his team, though they responded strongly against the Black Stars a few days later. November brought the return of meaningful games, a home-and home against historic foe Trinidad and Tobago with a Copa America berth on the line. It was T&T that the U.S. famously beat in 1989 to break a 40-year World Cup appearance drought, and the same opponent that snapped the Americans’ streak of reaching soccer’s marquee event at seven with a shocking upset in 2017. 

Can USMNT win Group C in Copa América! | SOTU

Can USMNT win Group C in Copa América! | SOTU

The U.S. struggled to break down the Soca Warriors in the opener in Austin, Texas, before the floodgates eventually opened late in the eventual 3-0 win. The U.S. was well on its way in the second leg in Port of Spain after Antonee Robinson made it 4-0 on aggregate with a potentially consequential away goal. But a moment of madness from Dest reduced the visitors to 10-men on the way to a 2-1 loss. Despite reaching both the Copa and the finals of the 2024 Nations League, it was an unsatisfying end — but perhaps a fitting one — to an extremely strange year for the national team.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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