International friendlies can be a mixed bag, with some serving very little purpose in the big picture, while others have very clear and distinct reasoning and motivation behind them.
The U.S. men's national team's friendly vs. England at Wembley Stadium in London on Thursday falls into that latter category.
For England, much of the focus is centered on a player who reached legendary status a while ago and will be given a tribute farewell. For the USA, it's about finally having the full complement of a core group of young stars all striving to reach that status at the end of their careers.
Wayne Rooney's final cap has curiously become a lightning rod in the U.K., with some, including England great Peter Shilton, criticizing the honor for cheapening the meaning of a cap. Others see it as a harmless way to send off an all-time great in an otherwise meaningless match. Rooney, England's all-time leading scorer, will be given the chance to don the Three Lions crest one final time, on home soil, in front of his supporters much like the U.S. did with Landon Donovan in 2014. The circumstances, of course, are a bit different, but the sentiment is the same.
Rooney, who is coming off a strong first half-season in MLS with D.C. United and was a finalist for the league's Newcomer of the Year and MVP awards, is expected to come off the bench for Gareth Southgate's World Cup semifinalists before he takes his bow. He'll then fully give way to England's younger generation, which captivated the nation in Russia this past summer and is looking to build toward Euro 2020.
On the other side, meanwhile, is a group that finally–finally–has its nucleus of the future together. If not hiring the permanent head coach for the future yet is disappointment 1A of the last year, then 1B is the fact that Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent have yet to play together in any of the 10 friendlies (3-3-4) since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The accelerated turning of the page has meant opportunity for a number of inexperienced and/or young talents, and that's great, but reps among the upper echelon of that group have been hard to come by.
Untimely injuries have played a big role in that. Pulisic, who has played just 89 minutes with the national team in the last 13 months, missed camps in September and October after suffering injuries right before the international windows. McKennie and Adams both missed the October friendlies against Colombia and Peru with knocks of their own. At last, they're all fit, in camp together and able to turn hypothetical discussions and projections into reality.
"We're excited to have Christian back, and he's healthy," Sarachan said this week. "When you have quality like Christian put into our team, it makes us better, and hopefully it'll show on the field."
The U.S. needs it to. For as encouraging as bottom-line scores against France, Mexico and Peru may have been–featuring status-boosting goals from Julian Green, Adams and Sargent, respectively–the performances on the whole were all generally lacking. Growing pains are to be expected with a group this young, but the chief areas in which the U.S. required help were those that would normally be filled by Pulisic. That there isn't enough ample depth behind him in those spots is another concern, but while Pulisic is fit and healthy, he is, in Big Lebowski parlance, the rug that ties the room together.
The only way the U.S. is going to excel with this new generation is by getting all components of it on the same page, and the only way to do that is with repetition. There truly aren't that many more opportunities for the top-tier players to be called in before next summer's Gold Cup. There's a window in March ... and that's about it. The January camp will be comprised largely of MLS-based talent, per usual, and the only other window before the Gold Cup opener precedes it by a week. The time is now to start coalescing–and truly should have been months ago.
"Through all of this past year, each friendly opportunity that we've had, we've made progress and pushed the group along," Sarachan said. "When we look back on 2018, it will be an important year in the process of building this group toward the ultimate goal, which is the next World Cup."
In the meantime, the young U.S. will look to spoil the occasion for a player most donning the U.S. crest grew up admiring. On Wednesday, Pulisic, who figures to go head-to-head with Dortmund teammate Jadon Sancho, praised Rooney's longevity and passion, while Sarachan and other U.S. players paid respects to the 33-year-old forward as well in their prematch remarks.
"Rooney's a legend," Weah said. "He's one of my favorite attackers of all time. Just watching him out at United when he was playing, an exceptional player. Then when he went to Everton, his first game he scored a banger, a complete banger, in the preseason, so it's a guy that I really do look up to. I'm so happy to be playing against him for his last game. I'm definitely going to shake his hand and tell him 'Thank you for what you've done for football.'"
Perhaps, someday, Weah, Pulisic and some of their teammates who appear on the track to stardom will get to that level. But it all starts with developing the chemistry necessary and continuing to build on the foundation they and their peers set during this transition phase, which is rapidly reaching its end and heading toward matches of greater significance.