A younger United States team with eyes firmly fixed on the future emerged from the ashes of a thwarted World Cup campaign on Tuesday night in Portugal
World Cup cycles normally end with the World Cup finals and only then begin anew. But after a disastrous qualification campaign, the theme for the evening in Leiria, Portugal was that the new cycle for the United States started on Tuesday with a 1-1 draw against the European champions.
To get that kind of result against that kind of team is huge, right back DeAndre Yedlin said in the immediate aftermath. Obviously the feeling of not making the World Cup is not going to leave, but its something that makes it a little bit better and gives people some hope for the future.
For the first time in more than 30 years, the US took the field for a match knowing they would not be participating in the next World Cup. And on a night celebrating the restorative power of soccer in a country wounded by natural disaster, the US began baby-stepping towards a recovery from the worst defeat in team history.
The US goal-scorer and senior team debutant Weston McKennie stressed that although this game was closing out what he charitably described as a rough year.
You can tell that this group is full of energy, the 19-year-old Schalke 04 midfielder said. We went out and fought from beginning to end. As coach said, theres a lot of opportunities for guys right now. We just wanted to turn the page and look into the future.
We have a bunch of new guys who came in, fresh faces that wanted to prove that could play at this level and represent the country well. I think tonight was a good starting point for that.
Matt Miazga, who at 22 earned his fourth cap for the senior squad, also stressed the need move forward.
A lot of young players got their debuts today and played well and added experience to their resumes, Miazga said. 2017 was a disappointment with the World Cup, and rightfully so, but we have to look forward now. We dont look back. We dont dwell on the past. We have look forward, take responsibility and improve.
Tuesdays match, originally slated to be played at Estdio Algarve in southern Portugal, was moved to Leiria last month by the Portuguese Federation to help with recovery from the wildfires that devastated Portugal this past year, with proceeds of the gate having been earmarked for relief efforts.
For their parts, the teams could not have entered tonights game from more opposite sides soccers wheel of fate. The Seleo, Euro 2016 champions and No3 in the Fifa world rankings, came in off a brilliant World Cup qualifying campaign in which they skated through the grueling Uefa qualification and won their group, dropping only three points along the way.
The US, of course, walked out of the tunnel tonight in the wake of a shambolic qualifying campaign, punctuated by an embarrassing defeat to Trinidad & Tobago five weeks ago that left the Americans out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
But now the US team confront a challenge peculiar to international soccer. How do you put a devastating loss behind you when the next opportunity to truly erase the mistake is years away? As Christian Pulisic poignantly noted in the Players Tribune this week, the 2022 World Cup will not kick off for more than 1,800 days. After the Atlanta Falcons had their hearts ripped out in front of 111m people in Super Bowl LI, they had to wait a paltry six months before the opening whistle of the 2017 season gave them a shot at redemption.
The Americans attempted to conquer this problem by infusing the team with youth and stressing the importance of moving on even going so far as to suggest tonights game was part of a new cycle in which they were now participating. Maybe they can invite Italy.
Of course, the notion that the on-field action of one game with an interim coach and what many hope is a lame-duck US Soccer president running the show could have a material effect on the teams future prospects is more than a bit of stretch. But as the adage goes, you play the games on your schedule. And in front of a late-arriving crowd of 19,017 at Estdio Municipal Dr Magahles Pessoa, although the game action always felt secondary to the arc of this US teams story the Americans acquitted themselves well on the European holders home turf.
After taking a 1-0 lead on McKennies calm finish 21 minutes in, the US gifted Portugal an equalizer 10 minutes later when Ethan Horvath managed to allow an innocent-looking strike creep through both his arms and legs. A post on either end of the pitch and some great goalkeeping by Beto in the Portuguese net kept the game knotted at 1-1 through the second half.
This, however, was not a game about form, formations, or even really about personnel. It was about the mental state of a publicly humiliated team stepping on the pitch for the first time since culminating a slow-motion train wreck of a qualifying campaign by somehow managing to bury the train in Trinidad of all places.
Obviously, talking about turning the page and looking forward will provide little comfort to an American fan base that was just starting to get used to the idea of having a globally competitive soccer team before watching them face plant in the Trinidadian mud.
But platitudes from young players are not the point, and they can hardly be blamed for parroting their coaches. Just having those players around can change the outlook of a team. Before saying anything about turning any pages, McKennie described smiling during the national anthem thinking in my head I finally got to this point. Its the kind of small moment that wont go unnoticed by his team-mates.
Yedlin, who earned his squad-high 49th cap tonight playing the full ninety stressed not only the bright future of US Soccer but also the fact that the team had a great time together and was quick to acknowledge the role of the young players in helping the team move on from a fall to forget.
Qualifying for a future World Cup will only be step one in getting the taste of the Catastrophe at Couva out of the mouths of an ever more demanding American fan base. And to make a deep run in 2022 the US will need to rely not just on young players but veterans as well.
Perhaps Tuesdays game provides some proof that the young players can help the team not just with their physical talent but with their attitude as well. As another debutant, Cameron Carter-Vickers, put it after the game a lot of us are young like myself and we havent done anything yet in the game. Maybe that is just the kind of blank slate the US needs to as a guide to start cleaning up the mess they made this past year.
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