As the U.S. men's national team presses the reset button against the holding European champions, this is also an opportunity for young hopefuls such as Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie to prove their worth as well experienced players like Alejandro Bedoya and DeAndre Yedlin to test their roles as leaders.
Asked by a local reporter to discuss Tuesday’s friendly between host Portugal and the USA, American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya was fewer than 30 seconds into his answer when he referenced the game’s charitable purpose.
Wildfires across some 240,000 acres killed more than 100 people in Portugal in June and October, and last month the country’s football federation announced that the proceeds from the match at the Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa in Leiria (near the site of some of the deadliest fires in June) will be funneled toward the victims.
“Hopefully we can help to raise awareness and some money for those families and everything. It’s for a good cause,” Bedoya said in Lisbon.
It’s obviously a cause worthy of the game and, as the U.S. national team stands on the threshold of two years of oblivion, charity remains the best reason to play it. There is no World Cup for which to prepare. There is no tactical foundation to establish. And with U.S. Soccer’s presidential election coming in February and, presumably, a new national team coaching staff and organizational set-up to follow, a clean slate probably is just around the corner. The performances Tuesday will matter only to the extent the next coach decides they should. That extent likely will be small.
Nobody’s international future will be determined, for better or worse. In that context, U.S. interim coach Dave Sarachan did the right thing. He cobbled together a one-time-only team featuring out-of-season MLS players who will benefit from an extra few days of decent training, a handful of veterans who will help the visitors avoid embarrassment Tuesday and some of the youth upon whom the USA will rely during the rebuild. This group of players won’t come together again. What’s important, beyond charity, is to do right by Portugal and the spirit of the sport while giving the younger Americans an enticing taste of what it means to represent their country at the highest level.
“We’re professionals. We have a job to do,” Sarachan told reporters. “What makes this week so special for me, personally, is the fact that we’ve assembled a group of players that I feel have a bright future—young players that have shown up with no bitterness in their mouth, no chip on their shoulder, with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Young men like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Cameron Carter-Vickers won’t need motivation. They’ll be thrilled for the chance to get a taste of national team life and earn their first senior cap against the European champions. More seasoned U.S. internationals like DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta—those who are likely to play a role during the 2022 cycle—can begin to establish themselves as leaders. While veterans like Bedoya can think about leaving a legacy.
“It’s a bit of a different role for me now to kind of step up and be a leader,” Yedlin told reporters in Portugal. “When I was young and with this team, I kind of dwelled on the mistakes I made because I thought, ‘Oh, I make a little mistake and I’m going to be out of the team,’ and things like that. It’s normal. I know they’re prob going to be nervous—going to have butterflies—but they just have to realize that they’re here for a reason. They’ve been called upon for a reason. They belong here.”
Bedoya is the oldest, most experienced international in camp. The 30-year-old has 65 caps and appeared in both the 2014 World Cup and in seven of the 16 qualifiers for 2018. Even if he’s not in frame for 2022, there’s still something Bedoya believes he can accomplish.
“This is an opportunity for a lot of people, even the older guys like myself, to show we can continue in the program and give something back, for the young guys and the new players to come in, get a feel of what it’s like to play for the national team, to represent your country and see what the set-up is all about,” Bedoya said.
“I thought there’d probably be wholesale changes throughout the whole team [after losing to Trinidad & Tobago],” Bedoya added. “But at the same time, you go through a transitional phase and you expect some guys, like myself, who’ve been around for a while to be here and get that experience going.”
Sarachan’s lineup in Leiria likely will symbolize that transition. There’s arguably never been a tougher USA XI to predict, and the ways in which the manager can balance competitive experience with competitive exposure are almost endless. It doesn’t do the program much long-term good to simply trot out the most seasoned players and try to wrangle a result. Conversely, throwing the teenagers to the wolves won’t serve anyone’s interest.
Portugal also likely will field a mixed side. Recognizable names like Cristiano Ronaldo, João Moutinho, André Gomes and Renato Sanches are missing from the roster. Younger stars like André Silva (AC Milan) and Bernardo Silva (Manchester City) will get the chance to shine, and there are 12 players called up by coach Fernando Santos who have five caps or fewer.
Sarachan’s final decision is anyone’s guess, but here are a couple stabs—one which prioritizes experience and another that focuses on experimentation.
This 11 has a good shot to be competitive on the day while showcasing several players who should make significant contributions during the 2022 cycle.
Yedlin and Jorge Villafaña often were the first-choice fullbacks under Bruce Arena. John Brooks almost certainly will remain a center back incumbent while Matt Miazga, although inexperienced internationally, now is a regular in the Dutch Eredivisie with Vitesse.
Bedoya said he expected Tuesday’s game to be one in which Portugal “comes out on the offensive,” putting the onus on the USA “to stay compact, tight, and hit them on the counter.” With patterns and partnerships still so nascent, Sarachan will want bodies, cover and options in midfield. Danny Williams is a Premier League defensive midfielder. It makes sense to use him as the anchor.
Bedoya and Acosta are comfortable on both sides of the ball, while Lynden Gooch and Juan Agudelo (or New England teammate Kelyn Rowe) can be the attacking outlets when the ball turns over. Agudelo isn’t typically a wide player. But he’s creative, and he can manage on the left with support behind him. He also can combine or interchange with Acosta or Bedoya. Up front: Dom Dwyer, who scored at the CONCACAF Gold Cup and who’s familiar with playing as a lone striker.
This 11 is less likely to win Tuesday, but probably comes closer to representing a team that might do so in 2022. Despite the danger of defeat, this may be the squad more USA fans want to see in Portugal.
Let’s leave Horvath in net. The Club Brugge starter is only 22, after all—four years younger than Bill Hamid. In front of him, a three-man back line anchored by Carter-Vickers, who’s got experience in that formation with Sheffield United.
When Adams plays wide for the New York Red Bulls, he’s on the right. But the 18-year-old also moves around so frequently and is so adaptable, that trying him on the left here and letting Yedlin stay on his customary flank might work. That leaves Acosta and the marauding Mckennie to form the spine and the links in front of Williams.
Up front: Agudelo—still 24 and comfortable as a second forward—and the 17-year-old, dual-junior-World-Cup-scorer Josh Sargent, who’ll join Werder Bremen next year. It's a lineup that's not pragmatic or practical, but it may just be fun and a bit enlightening, and Sarachan has very little to lose. It’s all been lost already, and so it’s time to start again.
“I never thought I’d be here so soon. The fact that I am is amazing,” Sargent told reporters. “I’m just looking forward to proving that I deserve to be here. We can do it a lot sooner than we thought. It gives the U.S. hope to see a lot of young talents.”