USMNT 'golden generation' with Donovan, Dempsey has already passed
Fans of the United States men's national team spend a lot of time waiting for talent to arrive. There's a sense that the American program should be better, that the skill level should improve over time -- and it has. The first 35 athletes in the player pool are better overall than they were 20 years ago.
While there are multiple, overlapping reasons for this improvement -- including a focus on youth development, the growth of Major League Soccer, recruitment of dual nationals, and more money in the game -- there's no doubt that American soccer is growing stronger. What's missing, however, is an evolutionary leap forward, an influx of talent that resets expectations rather than simply continuing the upward trajectory.
What's missing is the U.S.'s Golden Generation.
Golden generations become legendary and secure their places in history; think of the Netherlands in the 1970s, with Johan Cruyff, Piet Keizer, Willem van Hanegem, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskens. Or the potent Colombian crew from the late 1980s and early 1990s that featured Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita, Leonel Alvarez, Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon and Adolfo Valencia.
England had one in the 2000s with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, as did Spain from 2008 to 2016: Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas and Carles Puyol. Belgium currently has one of its own with Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany, among others.
It appears that every country gets a golden generation eventually. So why not the U.S.?
Well, the reality is that the U.S.'s time has already come and, mostly, gone.
In the 18 months between Nov. 3, 1981, and March 9, 1983, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey were born. That quintet includes arguably the best American player ever (Donovan) and the team's most dangerous goal scorer (Dempsey), along with Beasley, the only American male to play in four World Cups. Beckerman, for his part, is a vital man in coach Jurgen Klinsmann's mind with a decorated club career, while Jones is a midfield mainstay.
Donovan and Dempsey are two of the U.S.'s all-time Best XI and Beasley is in the top 20. That's a pretty good year-and-a-half period, significantly better than what we've seen elsewhere, especially if you add in auxiliary talent like Herculez Gomez, Oguchi Onyewu and Ricardo Clark, who was born one day after Dempsey.
Consider a few alternatives. The closest comparison is probably the generation that precedes this group, which includes the likes of Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Pablo Mastroeni and Josh Wolff, along with injury-prone Cory Gibbs and John O'Brien. These players achieved some success, but their individual accomplishments don't rise to the level of Donovan or Dempsey. Additionally, Donovan and Beasley played major roles in the team's biggest achievement, the 2002 World Cup run. The current generation -- led by Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Guzan and Fabian Johnson -- hasn't gotten close, either.
There are a few issues with this golden generation thesis. For one, Jones developed completely outside of the U.S. system in Germany and didn't join the American squad until 2010. However, it is worth noting that it is not unusual for a player to grow up in one country and play for another in the current international soccer landscape; just because Jones came of age in Germany doesn't mean he shouldn't be counted as part of the American generation. The same goes for Johnson.
Furthermore, Jones, Donovan, Beckerman, Beasley and Dempsey never played a major tournament together; Jones was injured and Beckerman was absent during the 2010 World Cup, while Donovan was left off the 2014 roster. While we'll never know how (if at all) Donovan's inclusion would have impacted the proceedings at the 2014 World Cup, it's hard to argue that he wouldn't have made a positive contribution, one that would have bolstered the legacy of his generation. Remember, too, that Jones was one of the U.S.'s best players in Brazil. Imagine what could have been if he recovered in time to reach South Africa.
ESPN FC asked American soccer expert Brian Sciaretta about this theory. He didn't agree.
"To me, a golden generation is one that is completely unparalleled and I don't really think that Donovan, Beasley and Dempsey rise quite to that level," he said. "That is also probably a good thing. You want a steady pipeline of players, not something that can come across as a fluke."
But that's the point: The pipeline exists, but it's failing to churn out better players. As good as the Bradley, Bedoya, Guzan and Johnson generation has been, it hasn't touched the one that came before it. The following one has been worse.
There's a perception that the American soccer program, one of the richest in the world, should produce talents like Donovan and Dempsey with more regularity, churning out a steady flow of very good players. But the fact is that it doesn't. This causes frustration for supporters, media and Klinsmann.
"I'm not sure why it seems that some Americans with talent sometimes reach a certain level in soccer and then settle with that instead of pushing themselves to the next level," the head coach said during an interview last week. He went further a bit later, saying: "You need talent but also to be extremely hungry and driven -- driven by the people around you who keep pushing you -- and it doesn't help to be surrounded by people who compliment you every day and give you pats on the back."
There's truth in Klinsmann's comment. But at the same time, what if Donovan, Dempsey and Beasley led a generation that truly was an aberration, one that was the exception rather than the rule? It's not a stretch to think that's the case.
If you accept that premise, you come to a disturbing conclusion: While we sat around waiting for the breakthrough, we were actually watching the revolution. And the next one might be further away than we expect.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.