DALLAS — By some measures, the 2022 World Cup doesn’t feel all that long ago. Played for the first time in tournament history in November and December of that year because of the searing summer heat in Qatar, global soccer’s showpiece event ended for the U.S. men’s national team just 18 months ago.

In other words, an eternity when it comes to this sport.

So as the USMNT embarks on its most perilous journey since its World Cup dreams were extinguished by the Netherlands in a 3-1, Round of 16 loss — the 2024 Copa América, which the host nations kicks off against Bolivia on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app) — it will do so with a group of players that has matured almost beyond recognition since it was the second-youngest team at that event.

“Everyone’s growing up,” U.S. star Christian Pulisic told a small group of reporters at the team’s swanky downtown hotel here a little more than 48 hours before the Americans Copa opener in nearby Arlington, Texas. “We put in some good performances in the World Cup. We’ve shown people, like okay, this team can play. And now it’s about not just putting in those performances, but finding a way to get results in the biggest matches. That’s the next step.”

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That next step is colossal. The U.S. has won just four major tournament knockout matches in the modern, post 1990-era of the program. Most U.S. fans can recite them from memory. The most important was the dos-a-cero victory over cross-border rival Mexico that sent the red, white and blue to quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Seven years earlier, the U.S. beat El Tri on penalties to advance to the Copa América semis. The Americans famously stunned Spain at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. And they beat Ecuador in their last Copa appearance, in 2016. That’s it.

Pulling off another this summer won’t be easy. While coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad will compete in a manageable Group C that also includes Panama and Uruguay, the hosts will almost surely face either Colombia or Brazil in their first elimination game as a reward if they survive the first round, as expected.

Even on home soil, even with arguably its deepest, most talented and most experienced roster ever, the U.S. has not yet given its supporters reason to expect success against either nation. Brazil is the most esteemed soccer country of all. The U.S. is 1-9 all-time in competitive games with the Seleção. In the meantime, Colombia trounced the U.S. 5-1 in its first pre-Copa friendly earlier this month. The U.S. also suffered a multiple-goal defeat to Germany in another exhibition last October.

“We’ve had opportunities to try to prove ourselves against top opposition since the World Cup, and there’s been times where we’ve played really well, and times where there was obvious room for improvement,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “I think the biggest thing that we’ve learned about each other is that we can’t accept the status quo.  As talented as we are, we’re only as good as we are intense.”

Intensity was sorely lacking in the loss to Los Cafeteros. The U.S. responded with a complete, 90-minute effort last week against the Brazilians in their final Copa tuneup. The home team must keep the gas pedal pinned to the floor for the next few weeks if it hopes to collect a statement-making victory this summer. They seem to know it, too, even if they bristle at the notion that this group still doesn’t have a signature triumph.

“People like to say we don’t have a staple win,” defender Chris Richards said, noting that they’ve managed three  straight Concacaf Nations League titles, including two since last June. 

“Two years from a World Cup is a really long time,” Pulisic said.  “Just the way that people have changed in their personal lives, obviously everyone’s a lot more mature.

“We want what the fans want,” Pulisic added. “We want to show ourselves to be one of the best teams in the world. We want to compete with the best. We want to go out, and we want to win this tournament.”

Doing that would require reeling off three straight knockout dubs following the group stage. Is that realistic? Only time will tell. This much is clear, though: Iit starts with winning just one.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him at @ByDougMcIntyre. 

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