Led by a young and precocious group, the USA is building a new nucleus as it continues to move forward following an infamous failed World Cup qualifying campaign.
CARY, N.C. — Six days after the worst defeat in U.S. soccer history, the next chapter already was being written half a world away in New Delhi, India, where the Americans progressed to the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup with a 5-0 rout of Paraguay.
Atlanta’s Andrew Carleton, one of the most promising teenage prospects in recent MLS history, scored a goal, as did Werder Bremen signing Josh Sargent. The remaining three were tallied by Tim Weah, the New York City-born son of a footballing legend who was on the verge of breaking through at Paris Saint-Germain. Weah, now 18 and a newly-minted member of PSG’s first team, is a believer in “The Process.” He tagged his most recent tweet with it.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who asked fans to “trust the process” during a long rebuild, clinched a playoff berth Sunday. And on Monday in Cary, a few miles west of North Carolina’s state capital, Weah insisted this young U.S. national team is back on the right path after missing out on the 2018 World Cup.
“Everyone’s really taken that in. I’m going to get the guys to start using [#TheProcess] on Twitter, because it’s going to be a process,” Weah said prior to training here at WakeMed Soccer Park. “Not qualifying for the World Cup, it’s been a hard time for us. But it’s a new era, as I said on Twitter. We’re looking forward to everything that we’re going to do with these young guys. … I think we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future. 'The Process' is the way to go."
For the senior U.S. side, it began slowly under interim coach Dave Sarachan with friendly draws against Portugal (1-1) last November and then Bosnia-Herzegovina (0-0) in January. But there’s a bit of a different feel to the squad that’ll face Paraguay—of all teams—on Tuesday evening. This group is green, especially by recent U.S. senior team standards. Seventeen of the 23 players Sarachan brought in are 24 or younger. Half have one cap or none at all, and five, including Weah, are with the senior squad for the first time.
Former coach Bruce Arena has said the USA was due for a bit of a refresh this year anyway, but last fall’s qualifying failure shortened the timeline. Sarachan’s January camp was limited to mostly MLS players, but this month, he’s been able to bring in the likes of Weah, Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Shaq Moore (Levante), Antonee Robinson (Bolton Wanderers via Everton), Andrija Novakovich (Telstar via Reading) and Erik Palmer-Brown (Kortrijk via Manchester City), among others, whose careers are just getting under way in Europe. Other younger players, like midfielders Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) and Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), are making a consistent impact in MLS.
Christian Pulisic was left behind ahead of a critical stretch for Borussia Dortmund.
“If they would've qualified, they would’ve kept the same players—the Dempseys, the Altidores. It’s been good for us young guys to get the early experience, and it’ll be great for the future,” said Weah, who’s now played twice for PSG’s first team.
He was a toddler when his father, George Weah, concluded a glittering career that included a FIFA World Player of the Year award and league titles with PSG and AC Milan. The men Tim Weah remembers watching wore the USA’s colors.
“Those are the guys I grew up watching—watching Tim Howard in the [Premier League]. Watching Dempsey in the Prem a long time ago, to playing in MLS. Those are the guys I would really like to see in camp because I would say those were the legends of this team. It’s a pity we didn’t get the chance. But I’m also happy to be here with DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood—guys I’ve always watched—Darlington Nagbe. That’s still great. I’m learning from them each day. That’s really important.”
Yedlin, Wood and Nagbe are among the vets of the group at 24, 25 and 27, respectively. Eric Lichaj, 29, is the oldest member of the squad. But despite a lengthy career in England, he’s played only 14 times for the USA. He’s used to being around more seasoned internationals as well, but times have changed.
“It’s a bit different. Whenever I’m in here, you at least see one or two of those faces in camp,” Lichaj said. “[The newer players] have more energy than me. Maybe I had more energy when I was as a bit younger. But it’s a little bit different now. They run all the time, and do all the hard work. … They’ve all been really impressive.”
He continued, “This is the national team. You can’t consider it not being the first team. You’re representing your country. I think of it that way. You can't take it easy or anything like that. The coach is here and everyone is watching.”
Sarachan will guide the USA at least through the June friendlies against Bolivia, Ireland and World Cup title contender France. He said Monday he’s continuing to manage the team with an eye toward “giving players an opportunity that we feel are going to be part of the bigger picture.” This is his most intriguing group yet, and he said, “They’ve all made a good case for themselves this week, and it’s going too be a little bit of a challenge putting the first 11 out.”
Against Portugal and Bosnia, Sarachan focused on winning the midfield battle with a 4-1-4-1 that focused on range and industry in the center of the pitch. The Americans lacked a bona-fide playmaker, instead hoping that numbers in midfield and the strength and savvy of Philadelphia Union striker C.J. Sapong would generate sufficient chances. Sapong wasn’t called in this week, however, leaving Wood—who’s about mobility rather than mass—the likely starter up front.
The strength of the USA once again is in midfield. McKennie is nursing an injury, Sarachan said. But Trapp, Nagbe and Adams would fit the bill as a midfield core while Weah, Kekuta Manneh and Kenny Saief are potential options on the flanks. Each team will be permitted six substitutes on Tuesday.
Sarachan and Weah each said they were wary of Paraguay’s speed in transition and advantage in experience, suggesting the USA isn’t going to play fast and loose. “The Process” includes establishing a winning culture.
“They come in with a clean slate in their minds and they’re looking to impress,” Sarachan said of his players. “The technical level of these guys has shown to be very, very good, and I think that obviously with youth comes enthusiasm and energy. … When the curtain goes up and the lights show [Tuesday] night, we’ll see how it looks when it really counts.”
Said Weah, “Paraguay’s bringing a lot of vets. So I think [Tuesday] we’re going to come out with a type of bang that they’re not going to expect from this team. We do have a lot of young guys—a lot of guys who are playing for good teams. So I think it’s going to be great. We’re going to shock them tomorrow—shock the world.”