In a couple months, the U.S. men's national team should be back on something resembling a level playing field, kicking off a new four-year cycle just like everybody else. The World Cup is a culmination. When it’s over, win or lose, most participants experience some sort of changing of the guard, as a new generation of players knocks on the door and management gets a refresh (except for Germany, where Joachim Löw apparently will preside forever over the planet’s premier talent refinery).
For some national teams, summer’s end means a turning of the page. For others, an entirely new chapter. And so eventually the USA will catch up, in a way, despite its absence from Russia. By the time the first post-World Cup friendlies roll around in early September, the distraction of the 2026 bid will have been long removed (FIFA voters will decide that contest June 13), and the new national team GM should’ve had time to select and hire the next permanent U.S. coach. And so the charge toward 2022 will begin, as it would have whether the Americans qualified for Russia or not.
Considering last October’s disaster in Trinidad and the subsequent departures of coach Bruce Arena and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, there’s no question the start of a new era will come with scrutiny and concern. But at least it will end the purgatory in which the U.S. national team now exists, under the shadow of World Cup failure, and under a temporary coach and without the long-term cultural, tactical and logistical direction needed.
For seven months, interim manager Dave Sarachan has been doing his best to instill some of that. But he’s hardly the favorite to land the gig permanently. So for the veteran coach and a squad of young players training this week in Philadelphia, that period of purgatory is coming to a close. There will be Monday evening’s friendly against an equally green Bolivia side at Talen Energy Stadium, then a trip to Europe to face Ireland (June 2) and World Cup contender France (June 9). Sarachan’s contract will expire, the World Cup will churn the global coaching pool and then, a new chapter for American soccer will begin.
All Sarachan, the federation and USA fans can hope for is that those next three games will provide some confidence, experience and a bit of a head start to some of the younger players who’ll make up the future national team core.
“Three games in a short period of time is a challenge,” Sarachan said this week. “To be able to have those experiences will go a long way with these young guys.”
This 22-man U.S. team is young, averaging under 23 years of age. There are seven uncapped players and 15 with five or fewer, leaving the likes of Christian Pulisic, with his 20 senior appearances, to set the tone. Monday’s game will mark Pulisic’s first appearance in a USA shirt since the loss to Trinidad. His return, and the friendly’s proximity to his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania, adds some intrigue to a game that’s a tough sell otherwise. But his performance against Bolivia is far less critical than the emergence of the on- and off-field relationships that’ll form the foundation for a new era.
"Of course, I'm young. But I do have a lot of caps. I'm going to try to be there for all the guys and I'm ready to do whatever it takes to help,” Pulisic told reporters last week in Los Angeles.
Sunday morning in Chester, Pennsylvania, he added, "I'm really excited to see some new faces, some younger faces. We continue to develop younger players, and it's really important for our team moving forward. Me being a younger guy, it's definitely cool having younger players around, guys that I can talk to. I have more experience, and even though I'm still pretty young I can talk to these guys because we're going through similar things.”
Among those younger guys is good friend and Bundesliga rival Weston McKennie, an influential box-to-box midfielder whose long-term international partnership with Pulisic should finally begin Monday. And there are other players sprinkled throughout Sarachan’s team who one can imagine being part of the squad long-term, from center backs like Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers to 18-year-old attackers Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent.
The careers and chemistry built during this final pre-World Cup camp resemble seeds that have barely sprouted, however. It’ll be the work that begins this fall under a permanent coach that will establish the path toward the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup and 2022 World Cup qualifying. The performance of the team under Sarachan, and the work he’s done, may have no influence on his successor (assuming Sarachan isn’t hired). The new coach will decide. Sarachan appears committed to leaving behind something to work with, however, as he makes two significant departures from the men who presided over the Hexagonal debacle.
Where Jurgen Klinsmann seemed to have no interest in tactical continuity or coherence, Sarachan has sought to inject some. And where Arena emptied the midfield in the two defeats that ultimately cost the USA its spot at the World Cup—at home to Costa Rica and in Trinidad—Sarachan has put it on lockdown. In each of his three games in charge, Sarachan has deployed the U.S. in a sturdy 4-1-4-1 that’s helped his young side establish some traction and tempo. Goals have been at a premium—two for and one against—but that’s kept the team in games and engaged. The current roster hints at more of the same, with Sargent and 21-year-old target forward Andrija Novakovich the only strikers on a roster replete with attacking and two-way midfielders.
Naturally, the next coach could go in a totally different direction. That leaves individual performance, confidence and comfort the most important takeaways from the next three games, along with whatever familiarity starts to develop among players comprising a future U.S. core.
“It’s [about] just continually banking those minutes and experiences that will translate hopefully with our national team, and now we have these opportunities with these friendlies,” Sarachan said Sunday. “It’s just a great opportunity to continue on that spectrum.”
When announcing his roster, Sarachan said he anticipated making several changes ahead of the trips to Ireland and France. Although there are two MLS men currently on the squad—Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono and Los Angeles FC defender Walker Zimmerman—it remains unlikely Sarachan will dip too deep into the domestic player pool. It’s tough to make the case that league games should take a back seat to a national team in limbo. If players like Pulisic or Miazga, who’ve had taxing European campaigns, are allowed to start their summer vacations on Tuesday, that leaves Sarachan to consider other foreign-based reinforcements. He’ll have a few veteran options like DeAndre Yedlin, Tim Ream or Bobby Wood, who’ve just finished long seasons themselves, or additional younger players who would be new to the senior side.
Sarachan has demonstrated a desire to make games competitive, even if they’re forgotten soon afterward. He hasn’t made substitutions for the sake of it, and he won’t want to get blown out by France, whether he’s auditioning for the permanent gig or not. There’s not a ton he can do in this unique and unwanted soccer scenario. But getting new internationals used to competing, and used to each other, represents a small but worthwhile focus ahead of this fall’s anticipated rebirth.