By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 6, 2018) US Soccer Players - The USMNT won’t play a full competitive match until next summer. The US Soccer Federation’s coaching search drags on at a glacial pace. The current setup is not utilizing the full expanse of the player pool.
The USMNT’s youth movement continues this week just the same. It's another fresh-faced roster facing two steep challenges against Brazil and Mexico. Those are big occasions, even for a side that’s played the 2018 World Cup champions and reigning Euro champs over the past year.
Up first is a five-time world champion whose canary-yellow jerseys inspire awe and fear in many. The Selecao carries a 17-1 all-time record against the US into Friday’s clash at MetLife Stadium in northern New Jersey. The second is the USMNT’s biggest rival, the southern neighbors who remain the regional giant and measuring stick for all of Concacaf. Even a friendly meeting carries outsized meaning for fans on both sides. So it will be again in Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday. It all adds up to an intriguing barometer for a US squad with just two players aged 26 or older.
“Everybody can feel, just since this whole kind of new cycle has started – we've had some good results against some good teams as well – it's a young group and everybody's hungry,” fullback DeAndre Yedlin, an elder statesman of this group at 25, told reporters at training camp in Whippany, New Jersey this week. “I think that's the main thing. We’re all hungry and that’s the identity of American soccer: The group is always very hungry. And I think we have to keep that identity going forward if we want to do well.”
Over the past year, the rosters have trended younger. New faces like Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, and Tyler Adams have become familiar with the setup. The coaching staff remains frozen in time by comparison. It's a curious result of the Fed’s strangely lethargic approach to the vacancy left by Bruce Arena’s resignation after the painful conclusion to 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Arena’s right-hand man Dave Sarachan remains in charge with the “interim” tag quietly dropped from his title earlier this year. Most of his support staff are the same ones in place since Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann in late 2016. With the attention of USSF leadership taken up by the 2026 World Cup bid, the program’s new general manager post was only truly filled by USMNT legend Earnie Stewart a few weeks ago. Stewart expects to take a couple more months to complete the hiring process for the new coach. Even Sarachan has acknowledged that it’s an awkward state of affairs.
“No, no, my focus really is Brazil and then Mexico, and that’s not coach-speak, it really is,” he said when asked if he’s heard or said anything to Stewart or other fed leaders about the vacancy or his prospects for being a permanent hire. “Yeah, I know, I get it – my wife asks me all the time what my future’s going to be, but I look at it day by day and just doing my job, enjoying the role.”
A longtime assistant under Arena with the USMNT and LA Galaxy, Sarachan has done his job given the circumstances. He’s overseen a hearty transfusion of new blood and kept the team competitive in a year’s worth of friendlies. He's doing his best to set a useful foundation for whoever takes over the program in the months ahead.
“My instincts have told me to look forward and start to vet some of these prospects that we think have a future,” Sarachan noted. “So far since I've been doing it, it's been an honor and the group has responded and I think we have established now somewhat of a core of guys that have taken on that responsibility of turning that page and looking forward.”
The players, too, have donned blinders of a sort. They focus on the daily work at hand, avoiding the distraction of the persistent uncertainty further up the chain.
“We know we've got to do what we've got to do. That's something that we can't control, so we’ve just got to keep pushing forward and whatever may happen with that will happen,” said Yedlin. “But it really has nothing to do with us in terms of decision-making.”
The USMNT will have to be highly motivated and prepared to keep pace with Brazil, who’ve brought a full-strength squad to the States that’s capable of blowing the doors off nearly any team on earth. The big names are familiar to most any soccer fan: Neymar, Coutinho, Firmino, Willian. In all likelihood, they’ll dominate possession, circulate the ball at will, and attack with flair and gusto. A subpar US performance anywhere on the field could lead to a humbling.
All that quality may well lead Sarachan to arrange his team in a defensive-minded shape like the 5-3-2 used at France in June, where the USMNT carved out a hard-earned 1-1 draw. We know that battle-tested center back John Brooks will return to his club, Wolfsburg, after the Brazil game, so he’s likely to feature on Friday and would be a solid anchor for a five-man back line. The New York Red Bulls duo of Tim Parker and Aaron Long also make for intriguing central options given their club roles.
Beyond that, Sarachan has generally preferred a 4-1-4-1 formation in his time in charge. The numbers and nature of attacking players called in this month also hints at a lone-striker setup in one or both of these games. Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes are options up top, while Andrija Novakovich is a dark horse with a varied skill set at the #9 role.
The Mexico showdown looks like a better chance to be expansive and aggressive. Like the US, El Tri is in a state of evolution in the wake of their World Cup run. Tigres coach Tuca Ferretti is serving as an interim boss for a young squad after the departure of Juan Carlos Osorio. Will Sarachan try to make a statement and go toe-to-toe in the possession battle? If so, he can call on a range of technical, two-way midfielders like Adams, McKennie, Cristian Roldan, Kellyn Acosta, and Marky Delgado.
Then there’s the subplot of international friendlies as shop window. Columbus Crew holding midfielder Wil Trapp, for example, has captained the USMNT this year. He reportedly was the target of a seven-figure transfer bid from England’s Blackburn Rovers earlier this summer. If he wants to explore such options in greater depth, and his acquisition of a Greek passport via his grandmother’s heritage suggests he might, these games could provide key exposure.
If factors like that aren’t motivation enough for both players and observers this month, consider Sarachan’s hint that older veterans will begin to return to the USMNT setup in the fall, when duels with Colombia, Peru, England, and Italy await.
“I still felt, this early part of the fall Kickoff Series, to continue the way we’ve sort of established this group,” he said. “I don’t have a road map as to the exact time when it makes the most sense, but I think right now the focus is the group that we have here, and down the line, we’ll address that issue. But right now it’s ‘let’s get this group going.’
“This is a very ambitious schedule, these six games that we have coming up, and I think the value for the experience for younger players is invaluable,” Sarachan added. “I do know a lot of the veterans, I know what they can bring, and they’re part of the future when we get into the meat of things next year. But right now it’s important games for these guys.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- Deuce calls time: A Dempsey appreciation
- The MLS developmental model and the appeal of European soccer
- As Crew edge closer to Austin, has MLS crossed a new threshold?
- Raising the roof without lifting the lid
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com