USMNT takes first step toward 2026 World Cup with loss to Serbia

Every journey begins with a single step. The challenge, however, is knowing which way to go and how long it will take to get there.

The US men’s national soccer team, currently without a permanent coach, general manager or any real sense of direction, knows none of these things. Still, it took a bumpy first step on its journey to the next World Cup on Wednesday, dropping a 2-1 decision to Serbia in front of a sparse crowd at the newly-christened BMO Stadium.

With the United States co-hosting the 2026 World Cup along with Canada and Mexico, the pressure is already building for the Americans to make a deep run at the tournament. The U.S. has reached the quarterfinals only once in the modern era, and anything less than the last eight in 2026 would be considered a disappointment.

Wednesday’s young, inexperienced team will not be the World Cup; In the absence of a FIFA competition window, the United States was unable to call up the European-based core of its roster. Instead, caretaker Anthony Hudson called up five players from last year’s World Cup squad and 13 others who had never appeared in a match for the senior national team.

But then the journey to becoming a World Cup player also begins with a single step, and the January camp has often given that: Since 1999, 30 men who made their first or second appearance for the national team in the first camp in a calendar year have continued to play in a World Cup, among them Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, the three leading scorers in team history.

It’s a track record Hudson hopes to build on and continues the philosophy of Gregg Berhalter, who tried out 88 players while compiling the best record for a men’s coach in American soccer history in his four years in charge. Hudson’s starting lineup Wednesday included seven debutants and three others playing just their second game with the United States. The Americans had not seen so many starters make their international debuts in one game since 1988.

American forward Cade Cowell (20) and Serbian defender Marko Mijailovic (5) get tangled up during the second half of an international friendly at BMO Stadium on Wednesday.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

“Overall, I was really happy with the performance,” said Hudson, an assistant during last month’s World Cup who is leading the team as US Soccer considers its future with Berhalter, whose contract expired at the end of last year. “Individually there were some really, really big performances. I thought we showed a lot of bravery. Very aggressive. I love the fact that the players really pushed to move forward.

“Of course I’m disappointed with the result. But the way they want to play the game was (positive).

Seven starters are dual nationals, and two of them combined to give the USA the early lead, with Brandon Vázquez heading in Julian Gressel’s long cross from the right wing in the 29th minute. But after a solid opening half hour, the team’s youth and inexperience showed, allowing Serbia to equalize on Luka Ilic’s free kick through the American wall just before the break, then take the lead less than a minute into the second half when Nikola Stulic poked the ball away from a tentative Jalen Neal and into the lane for teammate Veljko Simic, who knocked home a right-footed shot from the center of the field.

Cade Cowell, one of five teenagers on the U.S. roster, had two chances to equalize 10 minutes later, but he hit shots off both posts just 20 seconds apart. The USA won the possession battle easily, outscoring Serbia 20-11, but only five of those attempts were on target.

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