Before Tuesday, the last time a U.S. national team coach started multiple uncapped teenagers in the same game was January 1988. That was 18 months after the Americans missed their ninth consecutive World Cup. And it was two and a half years before a young U.S. squad went to Italy and participated in the first of seven straight finals.
That old statistic says something about the unique circumstances surrounding Tuesday’s friendly in Portugal, which ended in a 1-1 draw. When you’ve failed, and there’s some time before you get to try again, play the kids. The USA won’t see a World Cup until 2022 (at least) and doesn’t have a meaningful game until 2019. Interim manager Dave Sarachan—who’s unlikely to be a candidate for the permanent gig—understood that and did the right thing in Leiria, helping to start the transition to a new era.
Sarachan’s starting 11 featured two uncapped teenagers—midfielders Tyler Adams, 18, and Weston McKennie, 19—as well as uncapped second-half substitute Cameron Carter-Vickers, who’s also 19. Overall, 10 of the 17 U.S. men who took the field (friendlies allow for six substitutions) were 24 or under and for the most part, they fit right in against a Portuguese side that tilted young and won’t resemble the team that takes the field for its World Cup opener in Russia.
The 1-1 result was deserved. The visitors played with energy and composure and handled Portugal’s expected advantage in possession well, pushing the hosts toward the wings and rarely allowing them to create sustained chaos in the U.S. defensive third. Center backs John Brooks and Matt Miazga looked good and made most of the individual plays required (former coach Bruce Arena hinted during Fox’s broadcast that they might have been his first-choice pairing in Russia), and only an elementary error from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath prevented the USA from posting a shutout.
On the attacking end, the Americans were able to bring numbers forward on several occasions and were dangerous on set pieces. They created enough chances to win the game. But there’s no shame in the fact that they didn’t. This friendly wasn’t about the result. If anything, for the USA, it was about turning the page and introducing a portion of the program’s next generation. Many won’t be available to Sarachan or his successor for some time, since January camp typically excludes players based in Europe. But they should feel relatively confident and comfortable when they get another chance, perhaps during the next FIFA window in March.
Here’s a closer look at how some of the newer and/or younger U.S. players fared in Portugal:
He’s not young—the seven-year MLS veteran turns 29 in December—but he does feel new to the national team program. And after Tuesday’s performance, his next absence won’t last six year.
Sapong was given a thankless task. With no second forward or playmaker behind him, he was going to have to go it alone—roaming, chasing, harassing and absorbing punishment as he endeavored to win the ball and then bring teammates into the attack. And he did so. His energy level was good, he used as much of the field as he could and he frequently pulled Portuguese defenders out of position by drifting toward the flanks (the USA had very few touches toward the middle of the attacking third). He missed only two passes, and in the 21st minute, he received the ball on the left and sent the smart ball inside that led to McKennie’s goal. Sapong also put his only shot of the game on target.
“He was huge for us tonight. Playing the lone striker is a difficult task. You do a lot of dirty running and drafting,” Sarachan said following the game. “The moments when he had to make some hold-up play he did well. But being able do the work and put pressure on their center backs was very important for us. Here’s a guy who hasn’t been playing for a while in his team. I thought he was tremendous.”
Sapong should get a much longer look in January.
It’s been an up-and-down year for a player from whom much is expected, but it ended with a good showing on Tuesday. Acosta, 22, ranked sixth this year with 12 USA appearances and looked pretty comfortable despite playing with two new partners in central midfield (McKennie and Danny Williams).
The communication between Acosta and McKennie, who had to coordinate their press, appeared strong. Those FC Dallas bonds held firm, and Portugal had scant production through the center of the field. Although his shooting from open play was off the mark, Acosta’s corner kicks were excellent. A 44th-minute goal by John Brooks—a header off an Acosta corner—was nullified by a foul from Matt Miazga. In the 55th, Carter-Vickers headed an Acosta offering off the crossbar.
His most significant moment, however, was the midfield interception and diagonal ball that freed up Sapong to find McKennie. The U.S. goal started with Acosta.
Other moments of note: he appeared to tug on Danilo Pereira just enough to throw off the Portugal midfielder’s shot following an awful 39th-minute turnover from Horvath. Acosta also demonstrated some leadership eight minutes earlier when he consoled the beaten goalie.
The man of the match. The same confidence, focus and range that’s seen him secure a starting role for Schalke at 19 was on display in Leiria. He covered ground, was equally comfortable taking the initiative or deferring to Acosta, and he varied his passing and decisions with the ball. And McKennie was more than willing and able to contribute defensively. His 10 recoveries in the U.S. half led the team, as did his seven tackles and 60 overall touches.
Then there was the goal, during which McKennie’s combination of power and panache were on display. The strength of the run through the Portugal penalty area was highlighted by the slick shoulder dip that froze the defender and McKennie’s realization that goalie Beto was leaning toward the far post. The shot that slipped inside the near upright gave the USA an unlikely lead.
The roughest moment came in the 68th, when McKennie failed to hold on to the ball following a Portugal corner. The misplay led to a point-blank shot by Gonçalo Paciência that was deflected and hit the crossbar. The error did nothing to overshadow McKennie’s overall performance, however. Tuesday night looked like the beginning of a long, fruitful international career
“The fans who were watching saw a team full of energy,” McKennie told MLSSoccer.com. “We fought from beginning to end. As the coach said, the guys [earning] this first cap—Carter-Vickers, Tyler Adams and myself included—wanted to come out here and seize the opportunities. We wanted to turn the page and show the U.S. what the future holds.”
It was a decent debut for the New York Red Bulls’ do-everything phenom, who was deployed as the right midfielder in Sarachan’s 4-1-4-1. A good portion of the Portuguese attack seemed to come down his side, especially in the first half, but that was as much or more a result of the American decision to prioritize the center as it was a reflection of Adams. He worked hard, helped out busy and occasionally overwhelmed right back DeAndre Yedlin, and was able to win a few balls.
Adams’ passing was uneven in the U.S. half, but there always was going to be something to improve upon. Overall, he did fine. He was involved in the interplay that led to Acosta’s curling 19th-minute bid, and Adams nearly scored himself in the 52nd. But his close-range header was saved spectacularly by a diving Beto.
The American center backs rarely put a foot wrong, which is impressive considering the focus and communication required when an opponent has more than 61% of possession. Miazga, playing in just his fourth senior international, was on the ball far more frequently than Brooks, whether it was to clear it out of danger or to help establish U.S. possession. The partnership seemed to work.
Miazga’s composure failed him in the attacking end, however. His needless shove of Portugal’s Luís Neto was spotted by the referee, thus ruling out Brooks’ potential go-ahead goal.
Sarachan’s plan was to start Horvath and bring in Bill Hamid for the second half. But the coach probably would’ve done that anyway thanks to the former’s brutal first-half showing. Horvath, 22, recently lost his starting spot at Club Brugge, and the weight of that demotion appeared to show on Tuesday.
Vitorino Antunes’s hopeful, first-time curler in the 31st minute somehow squeaked through Horvath’s arms and then through his legs, drawing the hosts level just 10 minutes after McKennie’s opener. Horvath was then fortunate his poor distribution didn’t lead to a second Portugal goal in the 39th.
Horvath now has a few months to move past Tuesday’s difficulty and reclaim his position at Brugge ahead of the March international window.
Defender Carter-Vickers looked good playing alongside his U-20 national team partner, Miazga, during a 45-minute shift at center back. And he nearly scored in the 55th when he sent a header off the Beto’s crossbar.
Midfielder Lynden Gooch, 21, was the USA’s most creative player and had a couple dangerous moments after entering for left midfielder Juan Agudelo in the 59th. He missed more often than he connected, but there was effort and enterprise. In the 65th, Gooch beat two Portuguese players on the right touchline and hit a low, dangerous cross. And in the 72nd, he froze the defense and hit a lofted ball toward the far post that led to a chance for Carter-Vickers, who was thwarted by a ridiculous, flying, two-footed challenge from Beto.