EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Be honest. At some point in these last two U.S. men’s national team friendlies—say, right before the one at France ahead of the World Cup and then 11 minutes into the one on Friday against Brazil, when the U.S. was already down 1-0—you wondered if maybe this young American team might be in for a 5-0 thrashing against some of the best players in the world.
That such blowouts didn’t happen, that the U.S. tied France 1-1 and lost to Brazil 2-0 (with one goal coming after a bogus penalty) isn’t a cause for celebration, surely, but it is nevertheless a promising sign. And at a time when the U.S. is starting a 19-year-old (Tyler Adams) and a 20-year-old (Weston McKennie) in the central midfield against the A-teams of France and Brazil, with Mexico, Colombia, Peru, England and Italy soon to come, standing strong against the world’s best is a building block of value in the U.S.’s plan to return to respectability.
When Douglas Costa smoked Antonee Robinson and found a wide-open Roberto Firmino (who had been lost by Matt Miazga) for Brazil’s opening goal just 11 minutes into Friday’s game, the U.S. could easily have folded. That didn’t happen.
“It could have been a situation where maybe the shoulders slumped, the confidence was blown,” said U.S. caretaker coach Dave Sarachan afterward. “That’s one of the things I’ve noticed in this group that I’ve had over the course of many of these friendlies now. They don’t lack confidence … They feel like, O.K., let’s get on with it. That’s an important mentality.”
Said McKennie, who had a couple of scoring chances, mostly off set pieces, “Obviously as a team you don’t want to wait for a goal against you to have a reaction. You always want the other team to react to you. But it’s not always easy to stand back up after you get scored on, especially against a team like Brazil or any top-five or top-10 team in the world.”
Friendlies are friendlies, of course, and when there’s little pressure and teams can make six substitutions, there’s only so much you can take out of results. And so you look at the process instead, and not just over one game but over a period of them. The trend with this young U.S. group is that it competes. That’s promising. What it is lacking, especially when it doesn’t have Christian Pulisic (who’s out with a muscle injury), is creativity and possession.
“I think we definitely missed him,” said right back DeAndre Yedlin. “He’s a player who has quality on the ball. In terms of this group of players, he probably has the most quality on the ball.”
(Yedlin, for his part, provided the most amusing moment of the night. After he had a clear foul on Neymar, who fell to the ground, Yedlin was caught on TV saying to Mexican referee Fernando Guerrero, “Did you watch the World Cup? Did you watch the World Cup?” in reference to Neymar’s penchant for falling over easily during the tournament.
Asked about it after the game, Yedlin said: “It just came out. It’s not meant to be anything hurtful or anything like that. Just a bit of banter.”)
It still seems crazy that 11 months after Soccer Doomsday in Trinidad, U.S. Soccer has yet to hire a new men’s coach, someone who could kickstart a new era for the program after the most bitter moment in its history. Sarachan has done a solid job in a bad situation, but it’s still a bad situation, the equivalent of a purgatory that will only end when a new coach is in place.
That said, it now appears that whoever is hired (almost surely an American) will not likely be fundamentally different from Sarachan, will not likely play an entirely different way or pick a group of different players than the one we have been seeing in 2018. And so this purgatory period may still provide a chance for those players to gain experience and trust in each other while competing against the biggest challenges they can face, at least during friendlies right after a World Cup.
“It’s always good whenever we can play against France, Ireland and Brazil,” said McKennie. “Tyler and I and all the young guys that are here, we’re in different leagues and we have different cultures and backgrounds of how we approach the game and our gameplans in our own clubs and stuff. But I think coming here and building that connection between us and the team, playing against teams like this. I think it’ll be better for the future. And we’ll get used to playing teams like this, and we’ll have a sense of how to approach them in a better way.”
None of the important stuff will come quickly, in other words. You’re going to have to watch these guys for a while, and you’re going to have to be patient. This is what the start of a new four-year cycle looks like, especially when it takes so long to hire to a new coach, and especially when you’re starting over from square one.