‘Where’s Brian McBride when you need him?’ – Five lingering Copa America questions for the USMNT to answer

Ryan Baldi
United States coach Gregg Berhalter, striker Folarin Balogun and Barcelona defender Sergino Dest
The USMNT have key questions to answer

The United States begin their 2024 Copa America campaign on home soil this weekend in hope of a strong showing as invitees to the South American championship.

There is no shortage of talent in the current incarnation of the USMNT, with several Europe-based stars and household names at manager Gregg Berhalter’s disposal.

Yet with indifferent recent results and growing expectations ahead of their joint hosting of the World Cup in two years’ time, any optimism is combined with a hefty helping of cautiousness.

Here are five lingering questions that hang over the USMNT going into the Copa America.


How much do they miss Dest?

An ACL tear sustained in April not only means the USMNT will be without star right-back Sergino Dest for the Copa but the former Ajax and AC Milan player is unlikely to return until 2025.

After a tumultuous couple of years struggling to live up to expectations following a €26million move to Barcelona, the 23-year-old was enjoying a fruitful loan spell back in the nation of his birth with PSV. With two goals and six assists in 25 league outings for the Eindhoven club, he was a key cog – along with international colleagues Malik Tilman and Ricardo Pepi – in an Eredivisie title triumph.

And Dest has long been key to how the USMNT want to play. While he still has defensive deficiencies in his game, he is one of the most skilful and attack-minded full-backs in Europe, able to dribble, create and excite.

With Dest now out of the picture at the Copa America, Berhalter has alternatives for the role on the right side of the backline, but none boast the kind of skillset that makes the Netherlands-born man so integral.

Nashville SC’s Shaq Moore presents an experienced option. The 27-year-old has played in Europe and has 19 caps to his name.

The more likely Dest stand-in, however, is Joe Scally. The versatile 21-year-old defender already has three full seasons of Bundesliga football under his belt with Borussia Monchengladbach and was chosen to start both pre-tournament friendlies this month.

But Scally, who can play anywhere across the backline, is a player of a strikingly different profile to the dynamic Dest. Berhalter will have to rethink his plans for how to build from the back and attack down the right flank.

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Who plays up top?

Another selection issue which has plagued the USMNT since long before Dest’s injury is the question of who should play as the team’s central striker.

Goals have been hard to come by for a while now for Berhalter’s side. At the last World Cup, they scored just three goals in four games. And while they have since racked up sizeable scorelines against international football minnows like Grenada (7-1), Saint Kitts and Nevis (6-0), Trinidad and Tobago (6-0) and Oman (4-0), they have struggled for firepower against stronger sides. In matches this year against Serbia, Slovenia and Germany, they either drew a blank or scored only once.

Even through differing fortunes in their two pre-Copa America warm-up friendlies, they mustered just a goal apiece – thrashed 5-1 by Colombia before a creditable 1-1 draw with Brazil.

The USMNT’s issue is not a lack of creative power. Their most talent-packed department is the attacking midfield and wing positions, where they have Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah and Tilman, all of whom star for major European clubs. Plus there’s the talented yet out-of-form Gio Reyna and Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson.

And in midfield, AC Milan’s Yunus Musah drives forward to support the attack and Weston McKennie is coming off a season with Juventus in which he delivered a career-best assists tally.

It is the presence of a dependable No.9 to spearhead their frontline that the USMNT lack. Folarin Balogun, who was heavily recruited by the USSF to declare for the States after representing England at youth level, was supposed to be that player. But his form has dipped at club level after a €30 million move from Arsenal to Monaco last year and he is yet to deliver on his promise in the international game, with three goals in 12 appearances.

PSV’s 21-year-old striker Pepi led the line against Brazil. And while talented and possessing a very traditional skillset as a penalty-box-prowling No.9, he is not a regular starter at club level. He averaged a goal every 65.7 minutes in the Eredivisie last season, but he started only once in the entire campaign. At this stage of his career, he is best utilised as a super-sub.

An alternative option is Haji Wright. Many of the 26-year-old’s youth and senior international appearances have come as a striker. But although Wright is coming off by far the best and most consistent season of his career, with 19 goals for Coventry City, his leap in form came with him playing off the left wing.

Where’s Brian McBride when you need him?


Can Reyna recover?

Among a handful of the most talented players the United States has produced this century, at 21 years old Reyna still has ample time remaining in his career to deliver on his vast potential.

The Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s form over the last three seasons, however, traces an alarming trajectory.

After breaking into the Bundesliga giants’ first team as a teenager, Reyna looked destined to follow a similar path to stardom to Pulisic, who’d come through at the same club a few years earlier. The son of former USMNT and Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna appeared to be a creative midfielder with a feel for the game well beyond his tender years, shining in Germany and in the Champions League.

These last three years have not been kind to Reyna, though. He has battled injuries of various seriousness and, when in periods of health, has never looked close to the teenage sensation who previously elicited such excitement from USMNT and Dortmund fans.

Since the beginning of the 2021-22 season, Reyna has started just 12 league games. That encompasses a disastrous spell on loan in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest over the second half of last season, where he started only twice. He did not score at all last season and, shockingly for a player of his creative powers, provided only one assist.

His strongest performances of 2024 have come with the national team, impressing in the final rounds a Gold Cup triumph in March. Reyna’s route to rediscovering his past best and getting his stalling career back on track might begin with the USMNT.


Is Berhalter the man for 2026?

Berhalter’s time in charge of the USMNT has not been without success. After the disastrous failure to reach the 2018 World Cup finals due to shortcomings under Jurgen Klinsmann early in the qualification campaign, he oversaw a safe passage to the 2022 edition in Qatar. There, the US reached the last 16, a return that just about represented par – neither calamity nor roaring success.

But ever since his initial appointment in 2018, there have been doubts over whether Berhalter has the coaching chops to maximise the talent at his disposal. Mixed results so far this year – highlighted by a Gold Cup triumph but with a nadir in this month’s humbling loss to Colombia – have done little to settle the sceptics.

“I think that Copa America is essential to the growth of this group and I believe that this is a very important tournament for this team,” the coach said. “This is the last major tournament before the World Cup.”

The tournament is essential, too, for Berhalter. He needs to prove definitively that he is the right man to lead the USMNT into 2026.

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Can this be considered a ‘Golden Generation’?

There is little doubt that the USMNT squad Berhalter has selected for the Copa is the most talent-packed in the history of US soccer. The fact that against Colombia and Brazil this month the States were able to field line-ups comprised completely of players who ply their trades at club level within the seven top leagues in Europe speaks to the vast development the world game has undergone on the other side of the Atlantic in recent years.

But as players such as Pulisic, McKennie, Chris Richards, Weah and Antonee Robinson round into their prime years, the USMNT is still discussed much more in terms of potential than tangible achievement.

World Cup qualification is nice; Gold Cup triumphs are great. But for this incarnation of the USMNT to deliver on their potential and rise to the ‘Golden Generation’ tag, they need more.

No-one could reasonably suggest that the 2024 Copa America is win or bust for the host nation. The presence of long-time soccer super-powers like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay means the odds are stacked against them lifting the trophy come July 20. But it’s time for this group of USMNT stars to start punching their weight.