By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 10, 2017) US Soccer Players - Fifteen years and five months after the shock World Cup win over Portugal that launched the program into a bold new century, a dramatically revamped USMNT squad has gathered in Lisbon this week ahead of a rematch that marks both the beginning and end of an era.
The 3-2 defeat of Luis Vigo and the heavily favored Portuguese side in Suwon, South Korea in 2002 launched the Yanks on the best World Cup run in their history. It made household names out of the likes of Landon Donovan and Brian McBride – and Bruce Arena, too.
After decades of hard slogging just to earn basic respectability in the world’s game, it showed the entire American soccer nation a tantalizing glimpse of what was possible. Some would even credit it with saving MLS, which was on life support in that period after its 2001 contraction, and the country’s professional landscape by extension.
Now the USMNT visits Portugal in the wake of its biggest setback in decades. They're hoping to pick up the pieces against a daunting opponent even in the absence of the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo. This game relocated to Leiria, is now a fundraiser for the victims of the severe wildfires that devastated large swaths of that region. It’s a timely moment for perspective.
On first glance, some may see Tuesday’s friendly against the reigning European champions as one of the USMNT’s odder occasions in recent memory. It is the one-off bookend to a strange and ultimately painful calendar year. The USMNT is now under a caretaker coach who has called in a young roster that may preview the way forward towards 2022.
Then again, it may not. Dave Sarachan is manning the helm on a decidedly interim basis while the US Soccer Federation conducts what should be a lengthy search for Arena’s permanent successor. The Fed itself is gearing up for the possible advent of new leadership via February’s presidential election. Longtime incumbent Sunil Gulati might seek one last term against a rapidly-growing field of challengers. Or, he might not. That's the situation for American soccer's governing body.
No one really knows how significant this game might be. To some extent, that makes it the definition of meaningless friendly.
Anyone with any ability to gauge the deeply depressed aura surrounding the program and its fans knows better. The gut punch of missing out on World Cup 2018 will linger for a long time to come. A determined, cohesive showing against one of the world’s elite teams is one small way for this team to salve the wounds of the supporters back home. The quotes out of USMNT camp suggest they’re very aware of that reality.
“Everyone has to take responsibility,” 22-year-old center back Matt Miazga told the New York Times in Lisbon. “Everyone has to look in the mirror and focus on what they can do to represent the country and the badge the right way.”
Calling it “the elephant in the room,” Sarachan took care to address the painful aftermath of last month’s stunning qualification setback right away as the group convened. The concept of “playing for pride” rather than tangible individual or collective rewards doesn't get a lot of respect in pro sports. Yet this time it’s clear that a very specific type of pride is required in this delicate moment.
No matter the challenging circumstances, this overhauled USMNT unit must quickly find a collective understanding and play with both freedom and responsibility. Even if a good outing is fundamentally incapable of changing the current vibe, it can provide real rewards as well.
“Everybody was devastated, obviously, the USA not making it to the World Cup,” said midfielder Danny Williams, one of this squad’s elder statesmen, this week. “One of the biggest nations in the world, it's quite disappointing. But I think that's in the past, and we should leave that in the past like the manager said already. We should look forward to the future because we have a lot of exciting young players with a lot of potential within this group.”
An array of fresh faces, several of them still teenagers, are involved. Striker Josh Sargent is the youngest of the bunch at a mere 17 years of age – so young, in fact, that he isn’t able to officially complete his contract with German side Werder Bremen until his birthday in February. Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Cameron Carter-Vickers are only slightly older than Sargent. All have already shown substantial promise in lofty pro environments above and beyond their youth national team careers. Many fans will be eagerly hoping they perform well enough in training to earn minutes on Tuesday.
It’s also a useful opportunity for several more experienced players who’ve been away from the USMNT lately. Williams, Lynden Gooch, and CJ Sapong are likely to approach this camp as a lifeline for their international careers and will be fascinating to watch as a result. Others like Miazga, Bill Hamid, Dom Dwyer, and Kelyn Rowe took part in the Gold Cup title run over the summer. They may consider themselves on the bubble and in need of head-turning displays in Portugal.
In Tuesday’s context, the phrase “turning the page” is both apt and insufficient. A new book entirely must be begun, and an old one deserves an honorable ending.
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