How the 50 states have helped form the USMNT - and growth of soccer (2023)

The United States are back at the World Cup. Tomorrow, against Wales in Qatar, the United States men’s national team (USMNT) will play their first game in the finals since July 2014 in Brazil.

Eight-and-a-half years is a long time, but two World Cups on and Gregg Berhalter’s squad will want to quench the thirst of a nation in this unprecedented, controversial World Cup starting three days before Thanksgiving.

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The aim will be to make it out of Group B — where they will also face England and Iran after Monday’s opener — and into the knockout stages. If not, the hope will be to deliver a credible effort that will bode well for the next World Cup in 2026, which the US will co-host with Canada and Mexico.

The Wales match will be the USMNT’s 750th international. Soccer has grown and is growing: from 1990 to 2014, America’s men reached seven consecutive World Cups and an indication of the game’s increased status domestically was that failure to reach the previous one, Russia 2018, was felt to be an embarrassment.

At grassroots level, participation numbers have mushroomed; at international level, the success of the US women’s team was a popularizing force; in 2014, there were 43 professional clubs in the US men’s game; today, there are 77 playing across three tiers and a development league.

More and more, soccer is everywhere in the US. So, The Athletic has set about connecting all 50 states to this particular squad. We have included some of those who narrowly missed out on the final 26 through injury or selection. We think we have managed to do it.

Although you are free to point out some of these connections are the very definition of tenuous, we will counter that we have followed an example laid down by the fifth vice-president of the United States — Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, Gerry signed off on the rejigging of a district near Boston to enable an election victory. It is from him we get the term gerrymandering.

So here we are: USA 2022, the United States of soccer.

Texas (1) has a prominent influence on Berhalter’s 2022 team via the productive academy at FC Dallas. Luis ‘Luchi’ Gonzalez was a key coach for Dallas from 2012 and last December was announced as Berhalter’s assistant. Gonzalez said proudly: “I am a product of the American Dream and it’s the highest honour to represent the crest.”

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When Gonzalez was appointed, the federation listed 11 players coached by him in Dallas’ academy who progressed to earn caps with the national team: Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Kellyn Acosta, Reggie Cannon, Jesus Ferreira, Shaq Moore, Ricardo Pepi, Paxton Pomykal, Bryan Reynolds and Brandon Servania.

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McKennie is from Texas (Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

Texas has quite a role in American soccer.

So does Florida (2), where Gonzalez grew up. In 1999, in Bradenton, south of Tampa, US Soccer set up a residential facility for young players akin to the old Lilleshall site in England. Bradenton was successful in the evolution of distinguished players such as Landon Donovan and Christian Pulisic.

It closed four years ago due to various issues, but Florida remains a presence in this squad. Like Dallas, Miami is a host city for the 2026 World Cup.

Los Angeles, California (3), is another 2026 host and it also where Berhalter’s 20-year playing career ended in 2011. Southern California has provided four players in this World Cup squad — Aaron Long, Luca de la Torre, Cristian Roldan and Haji Wright.

Born and raised in New Jersey (4), like Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson and Matt Turner of Arsenal, Berhalter left to play college soccer at the University of North Carolina (5). That school has impacted both the men’s and women’s game in America, with alumni including National Soccer Hall of Fame inductees Eddie Pope, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.

From North Carolina, Berhalter made the leap over to Europe, landing briefly at Crystal Palace in 2001 — when the USA and England meet, the two managers, Berhalter and Gareth Southgate, will be Selhurst Park alumni.

On retirement from playing, Berhalter started his coaching career with LA Galaxy and in 2013 became manager of the Columbus Crew in Ohio (6). He stayed for five years.

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Berhalter, the USMNT coach, was born in New Jersey but has links to several states (Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Erik Palmer-Brown, who made two appearances for the US earlier this year, was born in Napoleon, Ohio. He moved as a child to Kansas City, Missouri (7), which is where Fulham’s Tim Ream was born. It is another host city in 2026.

Palmer-Brown is with Troyes, in France, a club in the City Football Group, which connects him to Sean Johnson, who is at another club in the group — New York City of MLS.

Johnson, like Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moor, is from Atlanta, Georgia (8). He was first capped in 2011.

Before New York City, Johnson was with Chicago Fire. Chicago, Illinois (9), is where the US Federation is based and where Berhalter lives. Illinois has a major stake in the next few weeks and beyond.

In Chicago, Johnson had a team-mate who also played at international level. Justin Mapp sounds like an Elbridge Gerry pseudonym and we need him to be. Mapp overlapped with Berhalter as a player and as Mapp is the only USMNT player to come from Mississippi (10), we’ll take him. Mapp now works for CF Montreal in MLS. (It could have been Marlon Hairston, who was called up to the senior squad in 2018 but didn’t get on the pitch.)

Johnson’s Atlanta, like New York (the state, 11) are two more 2026 host cities, though there are more immediate connections to Berhalter’s squad. Like Tim Weah and Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah was born in New York, the city, before moving to Italy and then London, joining Arsenal’s academy. He is now at Spanish club Valencia, one of the 17 named in the squad who play outside the US.

Massachusetts (12), Pennsylvania (13) and Washington (14) are the three other states providing stadia for the next finals and players for now. The last two provide players for now – Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and DeAndre Yedlin from Seattle, Washington. Weston McKennie, now of Juventus, is also from the latter.

McKennie is interesting on three different levels. His father was in the military; he came through the Dallas academy; he moved straight from there to Europe.

McKennie’s dad was based in Germany and from there his boy went to Dallas. He was scouted by Schalke in the Bundesliga and returned to Germany.

This is a sports-culture difference to England or Wales, where the sheer volume of clubs and smaller geographic scale means players can move more easily, as shown in Southgate’s squad for last year’s European Championship. It is one reason they stay longer in their homeland.

Malik Tillman, now on loan at Rangers in Scotland from Bayern Munich, was born in Germany. Tillman played in the September friendlies but missed the cut to the final 26. Still, we regard him as part of the wider squad. His father is from Detroit, Michigan (15).

Cameron Carter-Vickers, born in England, has dual nationality through his basketball-playing father from Baton Rouge, so there will be some Louisiana (16) DNA running through this squad.

Chris Richards — another Palace connection — followed a similar career route to McKennie. And like Tillman, he has been unlucky to miss out. In Richards’ case, it is through injury, but he remains part of the USMNT scene.

From Birmingham, Alabama (17), Richards joined Dallas in 2016 shortly after his 16th birthday. Alabama is not a ‘hotbed of soccer’ as the English cliche goes — “I guess growing up in Birmingham, you never really think about playing professionally,” Richards says.

Arkansas (18) is similar in terms of geography and soccer tradition.

While there has been no USMNT player from that southern state, former President Bill Clinton was part of the US 2022 World Cup bid committee and while we’re on this diversion, there are the country roads of West Virginia (19). Soccer has not walked down many of them, but Geoff Cameron, once of Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers and winner of 55 US caps, began his career at West Virginia University.

Were he growing up in Alabama today, Richards would know there is a new professional club, the Birmingham Legion, who play in the USL — United Soccer League.

In the US soccer pyramid, the USL is below MLS and, as in England, the top division of the USL is called the Championship. It is the second tier overall. The third tier is USL League One, the fourth is USL League Two.

The USL is split into eastern and western divisions and covers 19 states. The Legion were formed in 2017 and are one of many clubs to have sprung up since the USMNT last played in a World Cup. The club president, Jay Heaps, won four US caps. He comes from New Hampshire (20), as does Conor Casey, a playing contemporary of Berhalter at international level, who got to 19 caps.

In terms of its soccer past, present and future, a comparable state to Alabama is Kentucky. It may be a state without a homegrown international, but ambitious Louisville City were formed in 2015 and play in the USL Championship.

“Soccer is starting to take root in the United States,” Louisville City vice-president Jonathan Lintner tells The Athletic.

“I don’t think you would assume that Kentucky would be at the forefront of that movement, but it’s happened here. Our club has not existed while the US is at a World Cup, so we hope to harness the excitement.”

Lintner explains that Louisville have built a stadium, a training ground and they have had Jonathan Gomez in the team. Gomez left for Real Sociedad of La Liga last year. He is a dual national with Mexico but has one US cap. “He’s not from here but he partially developed here,” Lintner says.

Kentucky’s (21) professional and sporting links are blossoming.

“We don’t have major league professional sports in Louisville — arena (American) football, indoor soccer, minor league ice hockey, they’ve all tried and eventually they fold,” Lintner explains. “Louisville City is the exception — we’ve gone from playing soccer in a baseball stadium to building a $70million soccer-specific stadium downtown. It’s 15,304-capacity, called Lynn Family stadium. Pretty beautiful.

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Louisville are rightly proud of their home, which hosted Tottenham in the summer (Photo: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

“We have a $15million training facility down the road. The stadium was a big statement — soccer is here, it’s part of our sporting culture and it’s not going anywhere. In August we sold out the stadium for the first time. It’s become pretty legitimate.”

Judging by the noise around 17-year-old defender Joshua Wynder, Louisville may have Kentucky’s first ‘born-here’ USMNT international soon.

“He’s been called the next Virgil van Dijk,” Lintner says, adding demurely, “Maybe that’s a little bit much.”

Next door to Kentucky in Tennessee (22), Nashville is home to another new soccer story. Nashville SC are an expansion franchise who leapt from the USL straight into the MLS ahead of the 2020 season. A 30,000-capacity stadium has been constructed, with former Liverpool director Ian Ayre the club’s CEO.

Zimmerman, a 29-year-old centre-half and first-choice for Berhalter, scored Nashville’s first MLS goal. Tennessee’s other route to the squad is Cindy Parlow Cone, president of the US Soccer Federation. She was born in Memphis. Like Berhalter, she went to college at North Carolina.

In Greenville, South Carolina (23), they will also be watching Zimmerman. That was where he played his college football. He stood out and was ‘drafted’ by, yes, Dallas, in 2013. After that came LAFC in Los Angeles, then Nashville, whose rising profile saw it chosen for the first USMNT home qualifier for Qatar — a 1-1 draw with Canada.

Tennessee has a circuitous connection to another state far away: North Dakota (24). The link is Brent Goulet.

Goulet is Dakota’s — both North and South – one international. A friend of Berhalter, he is now a coach in Tennessee. He has the distinction of being the first American to receive a work permit to play in England. It was in 1987 at Bournemouth, when the manager was Harry Redknapp.

“Harry Houdini!” Goulet says fondly, before helping with geography.

“I’m in Tennessee now. Between club and recreation, you have over 50,000 players — ages five to under-19. Look at somewhere like North Dakota and they’ve less than 10,000 kids playing. You have to look at the demographics. You’ve got to ask, ‘Did they have the North American Soccer League from the 1970s and ’80s? Do they have MLS?’.

“If you look at North Dakota, the closest is Minnesota — all my relatives are there. You’ve Montana to the west, South Dakota below — you don’t have a lot of people to draw from. You’ve farmland, you don’t have major cities. I’m part Chippewa Indian, so you’ve an Indian population. That gives you an idea of the landscape. That’s why you don’t get players from states like that.”

Given the spread of the Chippewa, can we claim you for South Dakota then?

“I don’t see why not.”

This is an Elbridge Gerry moment.

South Dakota (25) is no soccer hotbed, but if you look carefully in Sioux Falls, at the Dakota Alliance Soccer Club on West 39th Street, there is an advert for a ‘watch party’ for the USA-England game on Friday. Fans, however remote, are part of the USMNT and the ‘American Outlaws’ supporter network has some 30,000 members.

The US scorer in that qualifier against Canada in Nashville was Aaronson. A few of the players from that day take us into other states. Josh Sargent is from Missouri (as well as Norwich City) and Mark McKenzie (a substitute) grew up in Bear, Delaware (26).

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Sargent, the Norwich City forward, plays a long way from home having grown up in Missouri (Photo: Gettty Images)

Kellyn Acosta is from Texas and Dallas but was ‘traded’ to Colorado (27), to MLS’s Rapids, three years ago. This January he moved again, to LAFC, where he recently won the league title alongside Gareth Bale, who he is likely to face in tomorrow’s game against Wales.

Ethan Horvath, Luton Town’s goalkeeper, is from Colorado. It was Horvath’s colleague, Turner of Arsenal, in goal against Canada. Turner is from New Jersey but his first significant playing spell was at college in Fairfield, Connecticut (28). As a further example of locals not forgetting, last September the Fairfield Stags held a ‘Matt Turner Night’.

The Richmond Kickers of Virginia have an interest in Turner as he played on loan there and that state can also claim a slice of Daryl Dike as he played for the University of Virginia Cavaliers as recently as 2019. Dike, 22, has been a question mark for Berhalter due to injuries at West Bromwich Albion and ended up missing out on the 26 for Qatar. There is no question, though, that he comes from Oklahoma (29).

Virginia (30) itself has one actual current-ish USMNT player in Eryk Williamson. He won four caps in 2021 and has been a controversial omission since then due to his displays for Portland Timbers in Oregon (31).

The Timbers’ name and fame dates back to 1975, when Portland was central to the first soccer explosion in the US, to the extent it was called ‘Soccer City, USA’.

It was anticipated Turner’s other goalkeeping rival/colleague would be Zack Steffen, Berhalter’s big omission. Now on loan at Middlesbrough of the Championship from Manchester City, Steffen played his college soccer for the Terrapins of the University of Maryland (32). When Steffen made his league debut for City, this is how NBC broke the news: ‘Steffen Becomes First Terp to Start in English Premier League’.

Once again, provenance counts.

Goulet’s reference to Minnesota sparks a change in direction. The USMNT have been staging home games for 97 years but there is no ‘home’ stadium, a la Wembley in London.

Over the decades, Washington DC (which often views itself as number 51) has been used most frequently. The Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium on the Anacostia River was often the venue, but it is in mothballs and due for demolition. The sponsored Audi Field at Buzzard Point, home to DC United and their manager Wayne Rooney, has hosted two men’s internationals since it opened in 2018. It is referred to as a “soccer-specific” stadium, a term indicating that a club is not playing in what was built as a baseball or American football stadium.

There has been a debate as to why the USMNT play in sometimes smaller soccer-specific grounds rather than the bigger venues built for NFL et cetera.

The northern state of Minnesota (33) boasts Tony Sanneh, a hero of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal-making side that included Berhalter. Sanneh does extensive work to increase access to soccer in underprivileged communities within the Twin Cities. This February, Saint Paul, Minnesota hosted USA vs Honduras in the penultimate home qualifier for Qatar. It was an important occasion, yet the game was held at a 19,000-capacity stadium because it is home to Minnesota United of MLS and soccer-specific. Five miles away is the home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. It has a capacity of over 70,000 and is a domed stadium. The US won 3-0, so the decision was justified. Honduras complained two of their players had to leave the field due to hypothermia.

Some said the disconcerting cold in a city 300 miles from the Canadian border was why Berhalter wanted to play Central America’s Honduras there.

Other supporters argue smaller venues are about hiking ticket prices. More generously, it could be said it is about spreading the word, hence there were qualifiers for Qatar held in Tennessee, Texas, Ohio and Florida as well.

Soccer awareness in Nevada (34) may get lost down the side of slot machines, but August 2021 saw the CONCACAF Gold Cup final between the US and Mexico take place in Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium. This was not in a soccer-specific stadium, but 61,000 turned up.

In June, there was a game in neighbouring Utah (35), home to Real Salt Lake. They have been Utah’s MLS club since 2004 and co-owner David Blitzer is yet another Palace link as he has a major stake in the Londoners.

The man who scored Real Salt Lake’s first-ever MLS goal was Jason Kreis. He is a former international colleague of Berhalter and, more relevantly, was the US Under-23s manager until last year. Kreis is therefore a conduit to this squad — Richards, Carter-Vickers, Aaronson and others have played for him. Kreis is from Omaha, Nebraska (36).

Aaron Herrera is a Real Salt Lake player who has played for Kreis at under-23 level, then earned a first senior cap last year under Berhalter. Herrera is from New Mexico (37), where interest appears to be sprouting — in Albuquerque, New Mexico United are a 2018 start-up club playing in the USL Championship.

Like others, Kansas (38) is a Midwest state with limited soccer history, but a friendly against Uruguay was staged there this summer. Several other Midwest states have not hosted an international fixture, however, and it is a long time since, say, Indiana or Wisconsin held one.

Yet once again the curiosity is that the present and the future may change perceptions — Indianapolis now has a USL Championship club and Wisconsin a USL2 side. Indy Eleven are managed by Mark Lowry, from Solihull, near Birmingham in the English Midlands.

Indiana (39) is also home to DaMarcus Beasley, he of 126 caps and the only man to be part of four US World Cup squads. Beasley is also co-owner of Fort Wayne FC in his hometown. They plan to move from USL League Two upwards next year. There will be eyes on USMNT progress in Indiana.

In Madison, the second city of Wisconsin after Milwaukee, Forward Madison have been in USL League One for the past four seasons. They are professional and averaged more than 4,000 fans in their first season while playing inside an athletics track. One of the club’s owners, Conor Caloia, gave this assessment in the beginning: “Soccer, historically, is a very millennial-friendly sport. We think the location fits that demographic well.”

The Wisconsin city of Racine is the birthplace of Leeds United manager and new The Athletic World Cup columnist Jesse Marsch, who played twice for the USMNT and was later on the coaching staff. With Marsch now coaching Aaronson and Tyler Adams at Elland Road, Wisconsin (40) has a direct channel into Berhalter’s team.

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Marsch and Adams have found their way to Leeds from the US (Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Iowa is another state not to have had a USMNT player. Iowa does, though, have soccer in the form of the Des Moines Menace in USL2. The club’s ambition is to be in USL1 by 2024. Two years ago a former Menace player, Chris Mueller, was called up by Berhalter and made two appearances. Mueller, then of Orlando City and now with fellow MLS side Chicago Fire, scored against El Salvador and had a brief spell with Hibernian in Scotland. He is an, admittedly loose, link to Iowa (41). Another Scottish connection is Wee Willie McLean, who has a remarkable story.

Compared to that, Idaho’s (42) connection looks strong. Joe Cannon was born in Sun Valley and made the unlikely journey from ski slopes to full international, playing one of his two games alongside Berhalter. It was in 2003 in Virginia, in front of 9,000 people — an indication of where the game was 20 years ago. Cannon still coaches, albeit across the border in California.

Not many will consider Montana (43) a soccer place either. But it is where the former Chicago Fire midfielder Peter Lowry was born. Lowry was never capped but coaches in Philadelphia and Nashville, and Berhalter took his squad to both places recently on training camps. Lowry’s Montana handshake gives the state a grip on things.

New England — the geographic entity, not the MLS’s Revolution — is a long way from Montana. It sounds like it should be ripe for ‘the English game’, but there are gaps in states such as Vermont and Maine.

In Rhode Island (44), Michael Parkhurst fills one. Parkhurst connects Rhode Island to the USMNT having won 25 caps this century and been included in Jurgen Klinsmann’s initial 30-man squad for the 2014 World Cup. He played for Berhalter in Columbus, too.

Parkhurst retired from playing in 2019 but he is a significant player in terms of yet another new soccer club, this one called Rhode Island SC in Pawtucket. In September, Parkhurst was one of those at the ‘breaking ground’ ceremony at Tidewater Landing.

It is another illustration that the sport is in motion in America. On a smaller scale in Vermont (45), a new club began in USL2 this season. Vermont Green FC has attracted attention due to its founders and ethos.

Matthew Wolff is a former Nike graphic designer who has created numerous crests for clubs in the US soccer pyramid, as well as being behind the Nigeria kit for the 2018 World Cup. Wolff and others wanted to set up a club that could promote environmentalism. Vermont Green, based in Burlington, the state’s biggest city, are the answer. The club ­— ‘pre-professional’ — completed their first season with a crowd of 2,500 at its last match.

It is a long way from the USMNT, but in another way, Burlington is not. It is the resting place of a former US international called Cornelius Casey who, via some gerrymandering, played in the 1954 World Cup qualifying campaign. He came from County Kerry in Ireland.

Maine (46) does not even have that scratchy lineage. But in Roger Levesque, it did have an MLS cult hero for the Seattle Sounders and a US Under-23s international. Levesque is now executive director of Washington Youth Soccer on the other side of the country. He has an additional promotional role in a campaign to bring professional soccer to his home state.

Maine has been part of the United States since 1820; Alaska and Hawaii did not join until 1959 and, geographically, obviously they are distanced from the other 48.

However, Hawaii (47) has supplied two USMNT players this century. Brian Ching won 45 caps between 2003 and 2010 and Bobby Wood would surely have gone to the 2018 World Cup had the US qualified. Wood, from Honolulu, won the last of his 45 caps in 2018 and at 29 most recently played in MLS for Real Salt Lake. Wood was on the pitch when Pulisic made his 2016 debut.

Alaska feels very young in soccer terms, but at Cook Inlet SC in Anchorage, they have high hopes for a former player, Obed Vargas. He made his debut for Seattle Sounders in MLS at 15. He is 17 now and has played for the US Under-20s. He gives Alaska (48) a possible link to 2026, although as Shane Calvert of Cook Inlet tells The Athletic when asked if Alaska feels part of the build-up to that tournament: “Not really. The difficult task for us is Vancouver is the closest host city and that is a 40-hour drive for us.”

While proud of Vargas, Calvert says Alaskan excitement surrounding this World Cup is less than for previous versions: “I feel the location and controversy around this year’s World Cup host country has created a bit of a negative narrative. And most games will kick off at 4am, 7am and 10am here. There are several places hosting watch parties but mostly for the USMNT matches only.”

There are 3,000 children playing soccer in Anchorage, he says — an impressive number.

They would be pleased with that in Wyoming, the least-populated of the 50 states and one with no real soccer tradition.

But Wyoming (49) does have some college teams and Amanda Vandervort played for one of them. Vandervort has been part of the MLS administration in New York for many years. She is a qualified coach and a former goalkeeper. She worked for FIFPRO, the players’ union, in Amsterdam. But it is those college days that give her a Wyoming consciousness and it will do for us.

Vandervort, co-incidentally, attaches us to FC Tucson and to the final state on our quest — Arizona (50).

Tucson is where Vandervort grew up and where Aaron Long, 29 caps and counting, started his club career in 2012. Long, a Californian, was present for FC Tucson’s inaugural season in the third tier and though he moved on to Portland, Seattle and New York, Amanda Powers of FC Tucson tells The Athletic the club is “immensely proud to see Aaron not only playing professionally but representing the United States on the global stage. Aaron was an integral part of this club in our first two seasons”.

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FC Tuscon started planning watch parties months ago and the proximity of Mexico — 70 miles away — means their matches will also be followed closely. All but one of the two countries’ six group games kick off at noon local time. When Mexico hosted the US in March in a qualifier, 2,000 turned up at Tuscon’s watch party. When Long came off the bench “there was tremendous applause from everyone in the room”.

This is the local-national relationship that helps fuel and sustain a culture.

“We are looking at this year’s event as a catalyst for growing the game even more,” Powers adds. “From fan interest, coach and referee development to developing the next stars who will follow in the footsteps of players like Aaron.

“The great thing about soccer in the US is there are so many different paths to our national team.”

From sea to shining sea, it looks that way.

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