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  • Two young sides clashed in a rivalry bout that took a while to heat up, and while the U.S. won on a Tyler Adams goal, the process leaves plenty of more questions regarding the progress over the last year.
By Brian Straus
September 12, 2018

This is a game that came with all the caveats. Call it the Caretaker Clásico, and for about an hour, Tuesday’s matchup between the USA and Mexico in Nashville was a rivalry game in name and uniform only.

Both sides were young. Once again, the Americans fielded a team that averaged around 23 years of age, while Mexico featured only a couple familiar names alongside seven first-time starters (including four international debutants). And each team was managed by an interim coach. Dave Sarachan’s temporary (probably) reign has entered its 11th month, and Tigres UANL’s Tuca Ferretti took charge for El Tri.

That first hour was tentative, placid and lacked spark or much attacking invention, save for a couple of dangerous touches and runs by Mexico’s Diego Lainez, a much-hyped 18-year-old from Club América. Meanwhile, the Americans produced little. Both teams are so mired in neutral, so deep in transition, that the stakes were as low as they’ve ever been between the two.

Then they rose. Lainez and U.S. defender Matt Miazga clashed. Mexico’s Ángel Zaldívar was ejected, and the hosts, emboldened, got their game winner via New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams. Yellow cards for dissent (DeAndre Yedlin) and unsporting conduct (Bobby Wood) followed, and so for the last 25 minutes or so, it felt something like USA-Mexico. If anything, that final chapter served as something of an introduction for those who got their first taste of the rivalry in Tennessee. It also punctuated the Americans’ first win over El Tri since 2015.

It won’t, however, ease broader concerns over the direction of the U.S. national team. New GM Earnie Stewart was present at Friday’s loss to Brazil and in Nashville, but he’s promised a permanent coaching hire only by the end of the year. The pressure to pull the trigger is building, and the USA’s stagnant start on Tuesday will add to it.

Here are three thoughts on the USA’s 1-0 win:

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The red card changed, and made, the game

The first Mexican player to butt into the square-up between Miazga and Lainez was Zaldívar, who plays for Chivas de Guadalajara. He was riled up, and remained so. A couple minutes later, he missed wildly on a tackle and came in high and studs up on U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp. Red cards in friendlies are uncommon. This time, Costa Rican referee Ricardo Montero didn’t hesitate.

Typically, a team like the U.S. that’s young and still finding its feet and identity might prefer to continue 11 vs. 11. That’s normal soccer, and playing normal soccer is the best way to get better. But after more than 200 scoreless minutes dating back to Julian Green’s surprising goal in Paris, including an impotent outing against Brazil and a dour first-half against Mexico, this American team needed a pick-me-up. And what better setting to get one than against El Tri?

Who knows how the game would’ve turned out absent the red card? Sarachan and the U.S. probably don’t care. And to their credit, they took quick advantage of their advantage. Kellyn Acosta carried the ball through midfield and fed reserve left back Antonee Robinson, whose well-hit cross bedeviled the Mexican defenders and traveled into the path of the charging Adams. The 18-year-old made no mistake with his 12-yard, first-time finish and his first senior international goal.

USA-Mexico is about intensity and memorable moments. There were none Tuesday until Miazga, Lainez and Zaldívar made the game about a bit more than soccer. And that’s precisely what the game, and perhaps this new era of the rivalry, needed.

Sarachan bailed out by circumstance

Sarachan got his third victory at the helm thanks to Zaldívar’s recklessness and Adams’s goal, but his team was still in the game thanks to another twist of fate that, at the time, looked like a setback.

Weston McKennie hadn’t played badly, and the 20-year-old Schalke 04 midfield dynamo clearly is a long-term U.S. linchpin. But his first-half injury—a left knee sprain, according to reports—wound up being a one-night-only blessing in disguise for the beleaguered U.S. He came off and Green, who’d had a quiet night on the wing against Brazil, entered. The American 4-1-4-1, which has become standard under Sarachan, morphed a bit. Green slipped in behind lone striker Gyasi Zardes, and Adams fell back a bit closer to Trapp.

Green has been playing more frequently in that role at his club, Greuther Fürth, and his comfort as a distributor and tempo setter—especially compared to McKennie, Adams and Trapp—was evident. Green’s ability to do a few simple things, like look up as he received and settled the ball, or buy a few more seconds of time with an initial sidestep of the first defender, offered the U.S. noticeable improvement in vision and possession.

The Americans were on their heels for almost the entire first half. In the second, with Green in the gap between Zardes and Trapp, there was something resembling a bit of attacking chemistry. He did well to hold the ball and hit a dangerous cross from the left channel in the 51st, and hit a quick, smart free kick to Robinson in the 62nd that nearly led to a chance for Zardes. In between, he helped engineer the best spell of U.S. possession with a bit of poise in midfield.

Green’s unexpected entry helped the Americans stop the bleeding and stay in the game, putting them in position to take advantage of Zaldívar’s exit.

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The U.S. hasn’t progressed in the attack

With all due respect to Green, however, he’s probably not the long-term solution to the American search for a creative fulcrum. That’s still probably Christian Pulisic, but his absence for almost all of Sarachan’s tenure has highlighted the genuine and troubling dearth of those skills in the U.S. player pool.

Sarachan has tried McKennie, Adams and Trapp at the heart of the U.S. midfield four times now, and if his goal was to give his young team the ammunition required to stay in games and avoid getting blown out by the likes of France or Brazil, then mission accomplished. But it’s clear that more poise and panache with the ball is needed. Sarachan’s team, as he’s deployed it, has had trouble simply keeping the ball long enough for a deep-lying side to launch a counterattack, much less build something that puts attackers in dangerous spots closer to goal or creates numerical mismatches. On Tuesday, he even tried Acosta on the right wing, so committed was he to the set-up.

Teams that play with four in the back and a lone striker need that creative cog in midfield. Think of Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho or Luka Modric at the World Cup. The USA certainly doesn’t have anyone available at that level, but the fact that Sarachan hasn’t really found or chosen someone to try there during this transition year—which is the ideal time to do so—is disappointing.  There’s no depth beyond Pulisic, except maybe Green and, perhaps, someone like Kelyn Rowe. After that, you’re looking at prospects.

Sarachan has done a good job keeping things as steady and professional as possible during this stretch, and he’s helped some important players begin to build their international foundations. But the first half on Tuesday, against a Mexican side just as young and inexperienced, highlighted some rigidity in both manager and player pool.

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