By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 22, 2018) US Soccer Players - An old Greek proverb states that “society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” Those words come to mind when considering Dave Sarachan’s time in charge of the USMNT, which reached its end with Tuesday’s 1-0 friendly loss to Italy in Genk, Belgium.
Taking over the team in a caretaker role after Bruce Arena’s resignation in October 2017, Sarachan is still in charge as 2018 and the US Soccer Federation’s unhurried progress towards a permanent hire draws to a close. Making the best of a tough situation, and with no official competitions to play in, Sarachan put new players at the top of his priority list. He’s brought more new faces into the program in a year than some national-team coaches call in their entire tenures, some of them barely old enough to vote.
That’s given those players some very impactful experiences that they otherwise not might get until much later in their careers. It’s underlined the range of promising talent that’s rising through the ranks, and inevitably exposed some weaknesses in related areas. As another side effect, it’s led some green-looking lineups into humbling situations, including the two losses to Italy and England this month.
“We put together an ambitious schedule this year. You've got to do it sooner or later, you know? You've got to play the big teams and test yourself out,” said goalkeeper Ethan Horvath on Tuesday. “See where you stand and where you need to work.”
Sometimes the fruits of such labor can take years to emerge, if at all. In the meantime, we’re left to read the proverbial tea leaves as best we can.
“I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program. I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of this program, I feel as though we have moved it forward,” Sarachan told reporters at his postgame press conference on Tuesday. “It may not look like that to everybody on the outside, but to look at the games we have played and the players we have exposed to this level, that we’ve brought forth, I am certain it’s going to pay dividends down the line. So for me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they’re going to have a great starting point, and that makes me feel good and the program feel good.”
Italy didn’t field their first-choice XI either. Yet the difference between the two nations was easy to see. The Azzurri dominated most every statistical category. It took some great saves from Horvath to keep them off the scoreboard until injury time.
While Italy's personnel differed from their previous game, a 0-0 UEFA Nations League draw with Portugal last week, their system, principles, and mindset provided continuity and cohesion that the US could not match.
“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine,” Wil Trapp told NBC Pro Soccer Talk postgame. “Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes. The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there,’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”
Professional sports constantly revolves around the gap between potential and fulfillment. It’s a journey that the best navigate through tenaciously, and for others, it’s massive space in which to get lost. Sarachan has in effect held a year-long January camp to give new faces a look, which has shown us all that there is definitely great potential in the player pool.
“The Italian mentality, they step on field with a real confidence about them,” said Sarachan. “We knew there was going to be a lot of defending, a lot of grinding, and I thought our guys competed great tonight. That's another important element to this group in the learning process as we move forward is when you step on field, you try to win your duels, you battle, you work as a collective.
“We've talked about it a lot, that this was a year to evaluate, and offer opportunities to a number of players and broaden the pool and have a look,” he later noted. “The flipside of that, that makes it a challenge as a team, is as you’ve seen, all these national teams over this fall that we play, these are players that have been together a lot and really have a real understanding. With us, it’s a little more challenging when you’re mixing and matching and bringing guys in and bringing guys out.”
Whether a prisoner of circumstance or something else, Sarachan seemed unable to take the collective across the threshold towards putting it to full use. That now falls to his successor.
“Moving forward into the next year, I think when we start to bring players back in and play games and get ready for competition – there’s going to be more competition next year with Gold Cup and such – then the strong survive,” he said. “There’s no more experimenting; now it’s building a team. And part of the blend of building a team, in my opinion, is still having the proper balance with veteran guys, with young guys, with experienced guys and obviously guys with promise.”
The great challenge for the USMNT in the modern era has been to build towards greater mastery of the ball and tactical sophistication without losing the familiar old traits of spirit, strength, and cohesion. Similarly, the Concacaf region needs conquering, and kept in line, while perfecting a system of matching wits with the world’s elite. And so it remains.
“Let’s be honest, the group that we have thrown out there is very young; I think tonight is the youngest lineup we’ve ever had in national team history,” Sarachan pointed out. “And not playing together, it’s not going to look like a finished product. But going into 2019, sure, there should be competition. There’s no givens with the national team.”
Sarachan did what he could with a difficult assignment. Those big-picture problems are still floating out there in the middle distance, just as daunting as they were a decade, or two, ago.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Growth, but in what direction? Pondering USL’s future
- Romain Gall and the latest USMNT roster
- Toronto FC’s arduous 2018
- A new Hall of Fame faces American soccer’s generation gap
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com