It seemed like every positive the U.S. men's national team enjoyed in Tuesday night's friendly vs. Peru was matched by an equal and opposite negative, so it's only appropriate their match ended in a draw.
Josh Sargent's 49th-minute goal gave the new-look Americans the lead, but a defensive lapse allowed for an 86th-minute equalizer by Edison Flores, as the sides played to a 1-1 tie. Peru dominated possession to the tune of a 70% clip and generally looked better and more threatening on the ball in front of a Peru-friendly crowd in East Hartford, Conn.
The U.S. had its moments, though, and looked like it would hold on for the win in a match it used to give international debuts to three more players. It continued a yearlong theme of introducing new talent and expanding the player pool in light of World Cup qualifying failure, but that theme is always going to be met with uneven play given the lack of familiarity among the group, and so it proved again on a night when the visitors snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
Sargent looks the part
Sargent is 18 and yet to play a first-team minute with Werder Bremen, so this should be taken with a dose of perspective, but the St. Louis-area native just looks the part on the field. His lack of hesitation to play a back-heel flick to spring a teammate free (which he did for new, 19-year-old winger Jonathan Amon) or to cut back on a defender in the attacking third to create space and an opportunity (which he did, with a squared ball for fellow teenager Tim Weah) show a player with utmost confidence, regardless of his age and experience.
With that brazen approach will come some mistakes, and his appearance certainly wasn't flawless. His outside-of-the-boot pass to try and pick out Kellyn Acosta in the center circle in the ninth minute turned into an instant Peru counterattack, and it forced the U.S. into some desperate defending. But his overall set of skills, off-ball movement and general aura about him signal a player who is primed for some big years ahead. He, Acosta and the rest of the U.S. executed a well-designed set piece to perfection to score the goal, with his timing to meet Acosta's service on point and his first-touch precisely what it needed to be.
Sargent has been a prolific goalscorer at every step of his progression thus far, and that includes six goals in 10 games this season with Werder Bremen II. He has two goals in two starts with the U.S. men, and he showed that he should be given ample opportunity going forward to add to that total.
Sarachan stays true to his word
Caretaker manager Dave Sarachan promised lineup changes, and lineup changes he delivered. Nine of them.
An almost entirely new U.S. squad took the field Tuesday as opposed to the one that faced Colombia, with Weah and Acosta the only holdovers. On one end of the spectrum was the return of Brad Guzan in goal, with the 34-year-old making his first U.S. appearance in over 13 months. On the other end was the debut of three more players–Amon, center back Aaron Long, right back Reggie Cannon–bringing the total number of players receiving their international debut in 2018 to an astounding 19. That's a stat that should be lauded in some respect, but only when keeping in mind it's solely because the program got an unwanted year head start on the 2022 cycle.
A lack of communication and genuine relationships on the field vs Colombia were needs areas stressed by Sarachan in his pre-match comments, so it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise to him to see so much unsettled play in the early going, and if that was something he wanted to avoid, he wouldn't have started a completely new and untested back line.
"In a more micro sense, whoever we have on the right side or left side of the field on the defending side ... a better understanding of covering, having a relationship with the player in front of you and behind you," Sarachan said Monday. "It was not in sync the other night. Part of that is getting to know one another, really. Communication is key."
Ben Sweat, making his first U.S. start, struggled the most along that back line at left back, while Cannon and Long showed well, especially given the duress the U.S. was under due to its poor showing on the ball, inability to win it in the center of the park and penchant for giving it away in inopportune places. But for the cons there were the pros of Sargent's skill and Weah and Amon's pace and ability to put their defenders on the backs of their heels. And even with all of the giveaways, the U.S. defended as it needed to, until substitute right back DeAndre Yedlin failed to track Flores at the back post for a cross that was allowed to be served without any pressure on the ball from Weah, off a turnover in the U.S. half by Julian Green.
If this was indeed Sarachan's last match in charge of the U.S., he went out by giving opportunity and "playing the kids," as so many have wanted to see for some time. USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart has set a nonbinding November 1 deadline to hire a new manager, and even if he does bring someone else aboard, that doesn't necessarily mean that Sarachan won't be given the chance to see out the final two matches of 2018 next month. His contract with U.S. Soccer goes through the end of the year.
What comes next?
Whoever is coaching the U.S. for next month's friendlies vs. European foes England and Italy should have the luxury of working in Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, provided they're all healthy and that if the Red Bulls are still alive in the MLS playoffs, Adams is given the green light to go. That's a huge bonus, given that the most glaring needs area for the U.S. has been in the center of the park. Plug that trio in with the likes of Weah and even Amon–who showed glimpses of an exciting player in his 54 minutes on the field–on the wing and Sargent up top, and you can start to see the nucleus of the next decade form quite quickly.
The U.S. has individual pieces who offer plenty of promise and potential but rarely has had the opportunity to bring them all together to build a cohesive unit. Instead, you see the kind of disjointed and uneven results that come with heavy roster and lineup turnover–which, to be fair, is all part of the process of determining who should be in frame going forward. That's the next step, starting next month, whether it's under Sarachan or a new, permanent manager.