- The U.S. men's national team turned the page and introduced a multitude of new faces to the senior international level, but absent a permanent head coach and after a series of discouraging results, has enough progress been made after World Cup qualifying failure?
Former U.S. national team forward and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman famously took to SportsCenter on the night of October 10, 2017, and, in an exasperated manner, belted out a four-word question many are still asking of U.S. Soccer more than 13 months later.
"What are we doing!?"
It's the time of year for the annual reflection on the U.S. men's national team. The final match of the year has been played, the record is set (3-5-3, all in friendlies) and the faces that will likely be part of the big picture going forward are known. But 2018 was no ordinary year, and this is no ordinary look back. And there's still no discernable answer to Twellman's outrage.
After the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a transition was needed and expected. That transition hasn't exactly gone at the pace of Kylian Mbappe soaring through a midfield, though. Instead, it's been more like a slow-motion replay of Clint Dempsey's shot in Couva hitting off the post.
Dave Sarachan was interim manager for far longer than anyone could have anticipated. What figured to be a one-game appointment, then turned into a few months and then a few more. Sunil Gulati was in no position to hire a new coach as his final act as he departed the presidency and made way for Carlos Cordeiro in February, and U.S. Soccer still needed to go through the process of hiring a men's national team general manager. Fair enough.
But then Sarachan's contract was extended until the end of 2018, Earnie Stewart didn't begin his role as general manager until August and there still–still–isn't a permanent head coach. Gregg Berhalter rumors have swirled for months and are going to come to a head sooner than later. Sarachan coached his 12th and final game (U.S. Soccer has made it clear that was the case) Tuesday in Belgium against Italy, a random set of circumstances befitting of the sort of randomness and eyebrow-raising this year encompassed.
Sarachan, to his credit, did what all coaching bridges should do. He helped turn the page, introduced a bevy of new players–23 in total–to the international level and appeared to largely have the ear of his players.
"I feel, as the leader over the last 12 months of this program, I feel that we have moved it forward," Sarachan said after the 1-0 loss to Italy. "It may not look like that to everyone on the outside, but if you look at the games we have played and the players we have exposed to this level, that we brought forth, I am certain it will pay dividends down the line. So for me, I feel like the next person that comes in is going to have a good starting point."
Tim Weah, over the summer, lobbied for Sarachan to get the permanent coaching job. Other peers have lauded his contributions, too.
Tyler Adams, the 19-year-old midfielder with a future as bright as any among the upcoming generation, says he's benefited from the last year, in which the U.S. took on top opponents such as eventual World Cup champion France and World Cup-tested Mexico, Brazil, England, Colombia and Peru during a difficult fall slate. No matter the experience level of the players, that's a challenging gauntlet.
"After the failure to qualify for the World Cup everyone felt like we took a step backwards. Now a lot of younger players have been able to get an opportunity and get some international exposure," Adams recently told SI.com. "When I look at it for myself, it was a huge wake-up call when you go into your first camp–for me it was against Portugal–and you see how much of a higher level it is. Obviously it takes some time to get with the game, the speed of play, the players around you and acclimate with the culture of what it's like to be a U.S. national team player.
"And as a 19-year-old, if you're able to step on the field with some of the players you watch on TV week in and week out, it's a pretty special opportunity. Proving to the national team staff and myself that I'm able to hang with that [caliber of] players is important. With the crop of players we do have coming up it's important to get games like this and get the exposure now."
The tone has changed some more recently, as Christian Pulisic, perhaps in an unintentionally back-handed manner, essentially said after the England loss that Sarachan did what he could but that it was time to move on to a man with a plan. That's no indictment on Sarachan and what he has or hasn't brought to the team. As part of Bruce Arena's regime, he never fit the profile of the progressive coach that was going to move the team forward with a fresh start. That's not the characteristic of most caretakers. And regardless of what Sarachan has done, it's up to his successor to determine the more permanent and future direction of the team. The foundation set under him could wind up meaning very little should the next manager decide to go in various different directions. Pulisic's remark was a statement of fact and one echoed throughout an increasingly frustrated supporter base.
The U.S. men's national team has operated as a quasi U-23 team for the year. Some veterans (Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan) returned briefly, while other younger, more experienced players (DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Kellyn Acosta) featured semi-regularly as well. Sarachan made sure it was more about the Weah-, Adams-, Weston McKennie-, Josh Sargent-types. Injuries meant Pulisic couldn't take part in as many of the friendlies as hoped, and there was a dearth of chances to get the entire core of top-tier prospects on the field together. There's not much Sarachan can do about that.
But the frustration on the field has been prevalent. Regardless of the gap in talent between the young U.S. and its more battle-tested opponents, a theme of being unable to control a game and establish any semblance of possession and attacking fluidity was apparent. The wins over Bolivia, Paraguay and Mexico were overshadowed by comprehensive losses to Brazil, Colombia, Ireland, England and Italy. For where the U.S. wants to go and wants to be, there was little encouragement outside of some isolated moments. Progress can't always be quantified, what's desired isn't always realistic and wins and losses don't tell the whole story, but the aura of uncertainty and instability is what still lingers the most.
"It was a very sad day the day that we did not qualify, and I think when you look at that, obviously there's a day of mourning. But the next day what you have as your advantage, is you that have now this amazing amount of time that you can hit the reset button, you can put a plan together and then you can start working on that plan," Sporting Kansas City manager and technical director Peter Vermes told Planet Fútbol TV this week. "I just don't feel like we've used that efficiently. I think it's taken way too long to decide on who a coach is going to be.
"I always stay optimistic in these situations. I'm hoping that whoever is going to be hired, and I think it's going to be Gregg Berhalter ... I think at the end of the day he needs everyone's full support. There needs to be massive improvements across all spectrums when it comes to U.S. Soccer. I think U.S. Soccer has to get away from being defensive. I think they have to realize that we should always be on the march of improvement. There's always an evolution to everything, and this is the next evolution, and we have to get to a place where the game, their systematic approach to developing their national teams to finding a way to qualify for events–and then also embarking on not just qualifying or getting to the next phase of a tournament but hopefully with the goal of trying to win those tournaments. And to do all that, you have to have a plan."
There might be a plan in place, but it's one that's been awfully slow to develop given the time and resources at hand.
The 2022 World Cup is slated to begin four years from Wednesday in Qatar. It's quite possible that a Berhalter-led USMNT comprised mostly of refined talents in their low-to-mid 20s will take to the field, with the events of 2018 playing a small but significant role in the team's development. But right now it feels as if that development hasn't been accelerated enough, nor is there enough urgency among those pulling the strings to make it so. The apparent prioritizing of MLS duties over national team needs seems out of whack, and the coaching search process doesn't appear to be thorough enough for the occasion. Opportunity after failure wasn't fully seized.
So the question persists: What are we doing?