More than we'd like to admit about success and failure in this game of ours is determined by simple commitment and engagement. Are you present for every moment of the game? Are you determined to close plays down? Are you making yourself available for an outlet when and where a teammate needs one? Are you going to win your 1v1s?
The US national team answered "yes" to all of the above on Tuesday. They played with both commitment and engagement in a 1-0 win against Paraguay, and I'm going to take a minute to appreciate that because it doesn't always happen with friendlies. Hell, forget "always" – it doesn't often happen in USMNT friendlies, and for the better part of this decade.
And it's not just limited to friendlies. I've re-watched the loss to Trinidad & Tobago five times in the last five months, and there's a lot that Bruce Arena and those players should've done differently. No. 1 on the list, though? Play with some damn commitment.
If nothing else – and really, there wasn't a much else at all to see – at least Dave Sarachan got that out of this bunch. The young USMNT played, in what I'm going to consider a warm-up for the 2019 Copa America, with a lot of energy and a matching amount of steel.
I'm not too proud to enjoy that bare minimum of progress even though I was left wanting much, much more.
Here are a few things I saw on the evening:
• There was a distinct lack of creativity in the US lineup
Sarachan trotted out a lineup with dual No. 8s (Tyler Adams and Marky Delgado), one of whom is actually a No. 6 (Adams). They were in front of another true No. 6 (Wil Trapp, who was excellent). He had two non-inverted wingers (Kenny Saief and Darlington Nagbe) and a lone center forward (Bobby Wood) who hasn't scored in months.
It was not awful, per se. The US ended up with over 50 percent of the ball and Nagbe, in particular, had some good ideas with it. They got and deserved the night's only goal when Delgado caught Paraguay raggedly pressed up and Adams made a smart – and ultimately decisive – run into space. This really is lovely:
But this team predictably lacked the ability to turn possession into penetration. For as good a job as they did of rocking Paraguay back on their heels through the first 30 minute, and as well as Trapp played, and as daring as Jorge Villafaña was on the overlap, this team generated exactly one shot from open play until the waning minutes of second-half stoppage time.
Fear of creative players is our cultural disease. We need both a cure and a vaccine.
• The USMNT crossed the ball 16 times and did not complete a single pass in Zone 14
"Zone 14" is explained HERE. But basically: it's the most dangerous plot of ground on the field, and it's good to create at least a little danger there. You don't need to live there, a la Riquelme and Valderrama and the No. 10s of old, but any team that intends to get on the ball and knock it around some should at least be familiar with the spot.
Not the US on this night:
I understand that the ranks of US playmakers are not exactly deep. Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen have aged out. Sebastian Lletget and Kelyn Rowe have been used mostly in other spots. Emerson Hyndman and Paxton Pomykal are fighting for minutes, and Andrew Carleton is still just 17. There is no obvious non-Pulisic alternative at this point.
Except Saief has, indeed, played as a central playmaker more than just a little during his professional career. Why not, after halftime at the very least, give him 20 minutes there and sub on a true winger? Why not call Hyndman even though he hasn't been playing, or take Lletget or Rowe?
Anyone who looked at this lineup beforehand would've said "defensively sound, but will lack penetration," and that's exactly what we got.
And yes, we won. But process matter more than results at this point, and what was the point of this process? Are we really going to start trotting out three d-mids at a time again because that worked so well for Jurgen Klinsmann after all?
• I like our defense, though DeAndre Yedlin struggled
I have finally come around on Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose loans have clearly done him some good. Same with Matt Miazga. And Villafaña – who we actually didn't need to see in this one, but whatever – looked exactly like a guy who's starting and playing excellent soccer for the team sitting atop the table in Liga MX.
Yedlin, on the other hand, will still spin himself like a top from time to time. His recovery speed covers up a lot of mistakes (both his own and his teammates') in transition, but in 1v1 defense he's still weirdly vulnerable.
• I've got a lot of Zach Steffen stock
He plays brave but not stupid. I like that from a young 'keeper.
• Paraguay are in more trouble than we are
I mean, the next time the US play a meaningful game Pulisic will be there, as will a couple other high-level players. For Paraguay, this was damn close to an "A" group, and they had no real ideas. You can see why they missed out on the World Cup, just like the US.
Both teams have a lot of work to do before next summer's Copa America.