Mueller thinks US could compete for 2026 World Cup as young talent shines

Mueller thinks US could compete for 2026 World Cup as young talent shines

The US men’s soccer team ended a pandemic-shortened year with a blowout that raised confidence heading into a busy 2021, which will include eight World Cup qualifiers jammed into an 11-week span

Chris Mueller had two goals and two assists in his international debut, Ayo Akinola got a goal in his first game and the United States overwhelmed El Salvador 6-0 in a friendly on Wednesday night.

Paul Arriola scored in his first start for club or country since tearing his achilles tendon in February. Brenden Aaronson, playing his second international game following his debut against Costa Rica in February, got his first goal and assist, and Sebastian Lletget scored his fourth goal in 17 international appearances and added an assist.

“The killer instinct is a great step for us” Arriola said. “This could be World Cup qualifying. and I think we need to just be able to execute and be ready and not take our foot off the pedal. I think it’s going to be a great year for us next year.”

The match was played before a limited crowd of about 2,500 in the Americans’ first match before fans since the pandemic began. The US, who are No 22 in the Fifa rankings, used a lineup mostly from eliminated Major League Soccer teams in a match played without top stars. Coming off a 6-2 win over Panama, the Americans scored a half-dozen goals in consecutive games for the first time since 2013 against Guatemala and Belize.

“That’s the type of football we want to play. And we showed that we can do it,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Guys are pushing, people are saying if we have a top group, I want to be part of it.”

The US were unbeaten with three wins and one draw in 2020, the fewest games the team has played in a year since 1987.

During a break in training on Tuesday, the players watched a Champions League game that feature Barcelona defender Sergino Dest and a goal by Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie.

“I think it’s an amazing thing right now that you can sit down and watch two of the biggest clubs in the world and see two American players,” said Mueller, a 24-year-old with Orlando who is three years removed from college soccer at Wisconsin. “You could see the strength in the group, a group that can potentially compete for a World Cup in 2022 and in 2026.”

Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen became the record ninth American in the Champions League this season, shutting out Marseille 3-0 on Wednesday. “I know all those guys are thinking, ‘That’s where I want to be,” Berhalter said.