The list of American soccer's Next Big Things extends back further than you might think, at least all the way to Steve Snow.
Snow was the Parade magazine High School Player of the Year in 1988. In suburban Chicago, he scored a goal in 49 consecutive high school games and earned a place on the 1989 U.S. Under-20 World Cup team. Snow scored five goals in seven qualification games and then another three more at the tournament in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. came in fourth, still its best-ever U20 finish. After attending Indiana University for a year, he turned pro in 1990 and signed Belgian outfit Standard Liege.
How good was Snow? Former USMNT midfielder Chris Henderson told MLSSoccer.com in 2014 that, "From 1985-1989, he was the best forward in the country. He was the best goal scorer I've ever played with." However, Snow soon struggled with injuries and had a falling-out with U.S. Soccer at the 1992 Olympics. He was benched for the tournament-opening 2-1 loss to Italy, and told reporters after the game, "This team cannot play at all without me. This team wouldn't be here without me." He played and scored in both of the side's remaining group games, but never made another appearance for the full national team. After a couple years of professional indoor soccer, Snow was out of the sport completely by 1995.
This, of course, is a cycle that American soccer fans are by now all too familiar with. There's a savior identified at a young age. Then there's a brief period of initial senior-level excitement. Then the impossible expectations are never met, for one reason or another. And then the cycle starts over again, and the U.S. men's national team remains in the same spot it's been in for the past 30 years: somewhere between, say, the 15th- and 40th-best team in the world.
John O'Brien, Freddy Adu, Juan Agudelo, Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta, Julian Green, etc. -- there's a starting XI and a full bench worth of prospects who failed to live up to the hype. But the reality is that most youth prospects globally don't become high-level professional players, and a microscopic sliver of them go on to become what one might consider "world class." Case and point, in 2007, World Soccer magazine published a list of the 50 most exciting teenagers on the planet. On the cover were Giovani dos Santos, who's currently playing in Liga MX with Club America; Alexandre Pato, who's back in Brazil with Sao Paulo after two years in China; and Anderson, who once played for Manchester United but now plays for Adana Demirspor, a club in the Turkish second division.
"Everyone has their own progress," USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter told the media Monday, ahead of the team's upcoming friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay. "The speed in which they continue to progress is unpredictable."
The goal for any national soccer federation is to simply create more top-level talent, and the way to do that isn't to hope for one player to appear and suddenly change a country's fortunes. Rather, it's to build an environment where there isn't just one top prospect in a generation, but 10, so when seven of them don't pan out, you're still left with three more. In other words, the more raffle tickets you have, the better your chances of winning.
The U.S. still isn't close to reaching the kind of talent production seen in France or now England, but things have slowly started to change. Perhaps that's why there's an 18-year-old American starting for a team that made the Champions League semifinals last year, and it doesn't seem like that big of a deal.
Sergino Dest was born in Almere, Netherlands, in 2000. He initially played for a local club before joining Dutch giants Ajax in 2012. After six seasons in what might be Europe's premier talent-development factory, Dest was promoted to the Amsterdam club's second team, Jong Ajax, last year. He made 17 appearances in the Dutch second division and then went on to star for the U.S. at this past summer's U20 World Cup. Come August, he was starting for Ajax, as it overcame Cypriot power APOEL 2-0 in Champions League qualification playoff round. And this week he earned his first USMNT call-up.
"For him, he got his opportunity, he seized his opportunity, and now he's a starter for Ajax, a semifinalist in the Champions League," Berhalter said. "That's an unbelievable story. You can never tell when it happens, who it's gonna happen to, but Sergino's in a good moment now, and we wanna capitalize on that."
Dest, whose mother is Dutch and whose father was an American serviceman stationed in the Netherlands, has all the outlines of a top-tier modern full-back. He's rangy enough to get up and down the sideline without throwing a team's defensive structure out of whack, but he's also comfortable coming infield and functioning from more traditional midfield positions -- whether it's progressing the ball up the field, maintaining possession, or making plays around the opponent's goal.
He's got the kind of slick, 360-degree range of movement that's rare among players who spend most of their minutes cramped up against the sideline. It's only a couple games, but the youngster completed 90% of his passes and won a higher percentage of 50-50 duels than any other full-back during UCL qualification. In the final match against APOEL, a 2-0 home victory, he created two chances, in addition to completing a higher percentage of his passes and winning a higher percentage of duels than any other player on the field. Not bad for an 18-year-old.
Ajax were then drawn into a Champions League group with two other Americans: Chelsea's Christian Pulisic, and Lille's Timothy Weah. Another, Tyler Adams, will also participate in the competition with RB Leipzig. Not one of those players is old enough to buy a beer in the States yet, and they represent a growing trend within U.S. Soccer: There are more Americans playing in professional academies than ever before.
According to U.S. Soccer, the 2017-through-2018 cycle of youth national team players featured around 50 international-based players called in for the U14 through U20 teams. For the 2018-19 cycle, that number jumped to about 70.
"We have continued to expand our talent identification structure both domestically and abroad, with the goal of locating and developing the best players wherever they are," said Earnie Stewart, U.S. Soccer's sporting director. "The results of those efforts are reflected in the makeup of our youth national team rosters, and will ultimately benefit the senior team."
At the 2009 U20 World Cup, 10 of the U.S.'s 21 players were either playing college soccer at the time or were associated with American clubs below the MLS level. Only three on that roster were playing for European teams at the time. Fast forward 10 years, and every player on this past summer's team was either with an MLS side or a European club. In fact, more than half of that roster came from Europe. Thanks to globalized scouting networks at most top clubs and an increasing interest and investment in American players, just about every big club in Europe now has at least one American somewhere in its pipeline.
Stateside, every MLS club now has its own academy, and all but two of them (Minnesota and D.C. United) are free. One added side effect of MLS's continued expansion is the growth of affordable, high-level training in a sport that has tended to weed out lower-income, non-white kids due to high participation costs or lack of a nearby club. The U.S. remains humongous, and 24 MLS clubs aren't close enough to cover it, but the current situation is better than the one where Clint Dempsey's parents had to completely rearrange their lives just so their son could get to and from practice.
On the most recent USMNT roster of 26 players, 10 spent time in an MLS academy and another 10 were at a European club before their 21st birthday. Adams, who isn't on the current roster due to injury but is expected to be one of the team's stars over the next decade, came up through the New York Red Bulls academy, then signed with RB Leipzig when he was 19. Weston McKennie came up with FC Dallas and joined Schalke when he was 18. When healthy, both of them are already starters for two of the better clubs in the Bundesliga. While Pulisic has shown enough to suggest that America's Next Big Thing might finally actually become The Big Thing, he's also going to be flanked by a collection of young talent that exists, in part, because of a developmental environment that never existed for a prior generation.
Whether that group actually includes Dest isn't a sure thing yet. Although he's represented the US at U17 and U20 levels, he is still eligible to play for the Netherlands. If he does end up representing the country in which he was born, that could end up being a big blow the USMNT. Long term, though, the goal should be to finally get to the point where the future of a single player isn't so closely tied with the future fortunes of the team. The numbers aren't there yet, but they're moving in the right direction.