He started listing names: Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson… The list went on and on.
It’s a far cry from Armstrong’s days with the national team, when he and defenseman Jimmy Banks were the only black players not only in the roster but also in the elite talent pool.
“I would say the biggest contrast then to now is that it was lonely,” Armstrong said. “It’s not just a guy like me out there, quote-unquoted, carrying the banner for every potential African-American player.”
This year’s 26-man team includes a record 12 black players, an increase of three from 2014 – the last time the United States qualified – and the same number as the 1994, 1998 and 2002 squads combined. (Squads were capped at 22 players from 1990–98 and 23 players from 2002–2018.)
“It’s no secret that African Americans gravitate towards basketball, football, baseball, other sports,” McKennie said. “In my neighborhood [in Little Elm, Tex.], you rarely saw African American children playing soccer. So now to be able to do what we love and at the same time have an impact on the game for African Americans is amazing because now they can look at it and be like, ‘You know, this can be me… and there is another sport to fall in love with.”
Nine other black players were in contention for coach Gregg Berhalter’s team ahead of the Nov. 9 roster announcement. Four players to make it are Hispanic, making up the largest black player delegation in US World Cup history.
“The diversity of this team is the diversity of America,” Berhalter said.
Maurice Edu, midfielder at the 2010 World Cup and now a commentator on Fox Sports, said he often talks to friends about the possibility of an all-black starting lineup soon, which is “amazing to see how far the game has come in terms of reach . ”
Edu, who is black, emphasized the importance of black role models playing for the United States at World Cups. For him, that included Eddie Pope, Earnie Stewart and DaMarcus Beasley. The 2010 and 14 teams had 17 black players combined, including Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and Jozy Altidore.
“There’s still more room for growth, but if this team succeeds, they just continue that pipeline,” Edu said. “When you see players like her, there will be more young black kids focused on the game.”
Armstrong, 58, was born in Washington but moved to Montgomery County, Md. as a child and was a sport standout in Columbia, a youth soccer hotspot in Howard County. When he was visiting his grandmother in Northeast DC, the neighborhood boys would yell at him, “Yo football boy, how’s the hockey?”
Armstrong said with a laugh: “I was always known as the ‘Soccer Boy’ there. The connotation was that it’s a sport for white boys.”
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The 1990 roster consisted almost entirely of white players in their early to mid-20s who had gone through traditional development circles and starred for NCAA programs. The composition of this year’s team is far from that. In full health, the starting three-man midfield consists of all Black players: McKennie, Adams and Musah.
The path for McKennie and Adams led through MLS academies in Dallas and New York respectively. Both skipped college to turn pro.
Born in New York to Ghanaian parents, Musah learned the game in Italy and England and plays for Valencia in Spain’s La Liga. He was authorized to represent four countries.
Florida-born defenseman Shaq Moore has family roots in Trinidad and Tobago. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta, from the Dallas area, is Black, Japanese, and Puerto Rican. Winger Tim Weah, a native New Yorker, is the son of a Liberian father (former superstar George Weah) and a Jamaican mother.
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DeAndre Yedlin, currently the only US player with World Cup experience, is black with Latvian-Jewish and Native American blood. Ferreira moved to the United States in 2009 when his father David joined FC Dallas and became a US citizen in 2019.
Forward Haji Wright, a native of Los Angeles, has Liberian and Ghanaian roots. Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers, both defensemen, are from England, sons of African American fathers who played football at Duke and basketball at LSU, respectively. (Howard Carter was a first-round draft pick in 1983.)
Current and former black players commend the greater reach and accessibility of football, although the influence of football in the United States remains greater in the suburbs than in the cities, where football is vibrant elsewhere in the world.
Speaking at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in Washington in May, Soccer President Cindy Cone said, “A lot depends on how our sport is viewed and how we divert that thinking from the idea that it’s rich, white children acts. Sport to a sport that is literally played [everywhere]. As the most diverse country in the world, how can we change that focus to ensure every child feels welcome in our game?”
While the number of black players on the national team has increased, Hispanic representation has faltered, despite the fact that Latinos make up almost 20 percent of the US population. Soccer is the most popular sport in these communities.
The largest Latino contingent in a US World Cup squad was five in 1994. This year it’s forward Jesús Ferreira, striker Gio Reyna and midfielders Luca de la Torre and Cristian Roldan. But only Roldan, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador and Guatemala, has roots in Central America. (Roldan’s brother Alex represents El Salvador.)
Slightly surprisingly, striker Ricardo Pepi was not included in the World Cup squad. As a dual citizen of El Paso, Pepi could have become a hero in the Mexican-American community, ESPN commentator Hérculez Gómez said – “someone that Mexican Americans could relate to.”
Gomez, who has Mexican roots and played for the USA at the 2010 World Cup, said, “Not having that is a bitter pill.” He also noted that none of the Mexican-American players who chose Mexico did either featured in El Tri’s World Cup squad.
US officials agree that socioeconomic barriers have played a large role in not attracting youth from some minority families. Noting progress in building a national team pipeline, Berhalter also asked, “How are we expanding? [access]enter underserved communities and provide greater opportunities?”
Armstrong, a Hall of Famer, has embarked on this effort in the form of a youth program in East Nashville, where children from myriad backgrounds have embraced the game.
“We are in the early stages” of getting more underrepresented children involved in football and moving towards youth national teams, he said. “We won’t see the results of that for 20 years. When that happens, it’s going to be like, ‘Okay, now football has reached every corner, every inch of America.’”
World Cup in Qatar
Your questions answered: The World Cup kicks off in Qatar on November 20, some five months later than usual. Here’s everything you need to know about the four-yearly event.
Group leader: The USA men’s soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement on a disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 season. Here’s a close look at how all the teams in each group are faring stack.
Today’s worldview: Even if the world championship is only a few days away from the start, The talk of boycotts is getting louder and louder. Football supporters protesters have expressed their contempt for Qatar’s autocratic monarchy, including its alleged human rights abuses, suppression of dissent, persecution of LGBTQ people and abuse of migrant workers.
The best of the best: More than 800 players from 32 countries and six continents will gather in Qatar for a four-week World Cup competition. These players likely promise a breakout tournament or hold the key to their team exceeding expectations.