One Nation, One Team, Many Voices: USMNT enters uncharted territory as new generation takes political stand

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For many players, representing their national team is the pinnacle of their athletic careers.

Countless international stars have talked about the pride of putting on that shirt, of hearing the national anthem being played, of wearing the badge after years of sacrifice. Players often talk of what it means for them to represent their country, their people, their family and friends at the highest level possible.

The U.S. men's national team, by and large, represents the makeup of America. It is a team made up of people of different colors and backgrounds, with different birthplaces and stories.

U.S. Soccer has its shortcomings, for sure, headlined by the U.S. women's national team's equal pay lawsuit and the federation's ongoing battle to connect and resonate with the country's Latin American population. Despite that, the current team is as diverse as the country itself. It is a representation of America and its people, with players from a variety of different cultures frequently making their way into the team.

For years the USMNT has shied away from politics. A national team, after all, is a team that is designed to represent all Americans, whether Democrat, Republican, or anything in between. But, in international soccer, there are moments where shying away just is not possible.

There was the pregame message with Mexico shortly after Donald Trump's election. The much-talked about build-up to the historic meeting with Iran at the 1998 World Cup. And who could forget how players rallied together to represent something larger on October 7, 2001 by qualifying for a World Cup in the team's first match after 9/11? 

The USWNT have not shied away, and instead have been at the forefront of any conversation regarding equality. They have challenged for equal rights, bringing a lawsuit against the federation while showing themselves willing to be among the most outspoken athletes in world sport. Politics have always been a focus for the USWNT, even if it has always been placed on the backburner for their male counterparts.

Over the last week, though, the players who make up the USMNT have spoken out like never before. The youngest American player pool in decades has become the most outspoken and outwardly passionate group in recent memory. And, in doing so, they have led the USMNT into uncharted territory.

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a number of the USMNT's most recognizable faces have spoken out, loudly, calling for justice in the aftermath of another killing of a black man by law enforcement.

Weston McKennie, one of several young stars tasked with guiding the USMNT towards the World Cup in 2022, has been perhaps the most vocal, with the Schalke star writing "Justice for George Floyd" on his captain's armband in the wake of ongoing protests across the U.S.

McKennie, along with players like Tyler Adams, Zack Steffen, Jozy Altidore, and DeAndre Yedlin, have expressed and vocalized their own experiences of growing up as a young black man in America while reckoning with the nationwide protests that have gripped the country in recent weeks.

That part of this is not new. Like virtually every other team or organization, the USMNT has long been advocates against all forms of racism. But, this time, members of the USMNT were not just advocating to end racism; they were advocating for systemic change by using their platform to discuss other broader issues.

Shortly after stating that he planned on continuing to use his voice to advocate for change, McKennie headlined a video to bring attention to police brutality. The video featured players reiterating that "enough is enough" while slicing in haunting videos of incidents from all over the country.

The video featured like likes of McKennie, Yedlin, Adams, Altidore, Steffen, Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna and Josh Sargent, amongst other current USMNT regulars. It featured American legends Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, USWNT attacker Mallory Pugh as well as international stars Alphonso Davies, Antonio Rudiger and Salomon Kalou. It was a video that included virtually every member of the USMNT's young core, unified behind one political message against police brutality.

“This has been going on for way too long,” McKennie says as the video begins. “To the cops out there that continue to abuse their power, the world is watching now. Enough is enough.”

Politics are, generally, a taboo in the world of elite sports as teams walk fine lines to appease supporters of both sides. With that video, many of the USMNT's players chose a side, and they did so with conviction and pride. 

"If I'm going to wear the U.S. flag, I need to know that it stands for something worth defending," Steffen wrote. "I need to know that my country supports black lives. That our leaders see us. That they hear us. I am proud to defend my nation. All I ask is that my nation also defends me."

Others, meanwhile, have taken it a step further.

For most of modern history, there has been some connection between the USMNT and the President of the United States. Bill Clinton has been a supporter of the team even after his presidency, famously bringing beers to the USMNT after it advanced from the group stage at the 2010 World Cup. Barack Obama called Tim Howard after the goalkeeper's record-breaking display against Belgium, while George Bush spoke to the U.S. ahead of their now-famous 'Dos a Cero' victory over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup.

Donald Trump's relationship with the team, meanwhile, has been, at best, frosty.

Trump has met with U.S. Soccer leadership while advocating for the 2026 World Cup on American soil, but, as the USMNT missed out on the 2018 World Cup, he has not been as involved as his predecessors.

He has notably gone to battle with Megan Rapinoe and the USWNT; a battle that still rages on as Rapinoe continues to criticize the Commander in Chief. From the men's side, there have been subtle criticisms, most notably when the U.S. and Mexico came together ahead of a 2016 World Cup qualifier as tensions rose due to Trump's election.

There has been  nothing subtle about the criticisms of the last week, however, with several USMNT stars speaking out against the President.

Michael Bradley, a longtime captain of the USMNT, said that there "isn't a moral bone in his body", calling Trump a "completely empty" person. Former USMNT striker Terrence Boyd said that Trump is "the worst person on the planet"  while adding that the President should be "ashamed" of his role in the ongoing racial unrest. And Yedlin said that Trump is "worst possible person" to be in charge of the country right now, adding that he gets embarassed when talking to his Newcastle team-mates about how his country is a "sh*t show".

Such straight-forward criticisms of a sitting U.S. President have taken matters to a much different level, but this is a much different America. This is an America as divided as ever before, a country that has been inching towards this breaking point for several years. Recent events have sent the country barrelling past that point and into a period of civic unrest. 

And it is obvious that there will be those that disagree, including, potentially, several in that locker room. The ongoing issues, aside from the straight-forward race factor, are more nuanced than ever before. There are those with different viewpoints on the protests, with different ideas for how to respond. There are those that will continue to support Trump and defend law enforcement's stance that the officers that killed George Floyd are just a some of a few bad apples.

It is clear that those who represent American soccer are still finding their place in this divided world. But that division did not begin when Trump took office. These conversations have been occurring for a number of years.

Several times throughout the decade, there has been talk about what it means to truly represent America as an international soccer player. It is a conversation that came up time and time again during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure in charge, when a series of German-born sons of American servicemen became regular parts of the team.

It was during this time that players such as John Brooks, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson joined Jermaine Jones in representing the U.S. team, which in turn sparked debates littered with xenophobia and jingoism when results did not go their way. Those conversations generally did not question white dual-nationals like Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson, who were never cross-examined when it came to how much they cared.

By and large, those discussions led to one conclusion for most logical observers: representing the U.S. was for anyone who was willing to do so. Your place of birth, race or background did not matter, but what did was that you willingly chose to be a part of representing what America is and can be. This is a country that was built by immigrants, after all, and this was a team that would represent that.

These days, those that wear that jersey are more outspoken than ever before. This is a new generation, one that grew up with athletic heroes like LeBron James saying that it was not okay to just "shut up and dribble".

This is a generation who are willing to speak up on issues that they are passionate about, despite being in the early days of their professional careers.

This is a generation that understands that politics and sports are, and always have been, intertwined, even if it is often easier to put distance between the two.

It is something that U.S. Soccer will need to handle in the coming days, weeks, months, and probably years. As fans continue to show their disinterest and frustration after missing out on the 2018 World Cup, it remains to be seen how this will all impact the bottom line. Speaking out against racism is not and should not be a political stance but, in 2020, there are few discussions of race that end in anything other than politics.

In a world where those politics are so apparent, those issues will be felt by the national soccer team. In recent years, U.S. Soccer has embraced the motto of "One Nation, One Team", but, in a country divided, walking the thin line between right and wrong is harder than ever before.