With nine stressful and occasionally agonizing months passed since their previous match, the mere fact the US men’s national team gathered in any form or fashion this month is a triumph, a source of hope and a simple pleasure as the COVID-19 pandemic that’s caused so much suffering continues to rumble on.
Gathering a legitimately exciting group of young talent with a fresh crop of newcomers – including several dual-national recruits – made it that much more welcome. Then, when the new-look USMNT actually took the field, they dominated the midfield, pushed a modest, but competent European opponent into their own half and posted a clean sheet, blooding several debutants, most of them teenagers, in the process. And they did all this with only a couple of training sessions together.
Yet the Yanks didn’t score against Wales, of course. And didn’t create a great many clear chances to do so, hampered in the final third by a shortage of chemistry and the shoehorning of Sebastian Lletget into a false 9 experiment by Gregg Berhalter that, I think for several reasons, just didn’t come off. It’s a friendly; these things happen.
“What a feeling to be back in the side again,” said midfielder Tyler Adams, a veteran in this group at the tender age of 21. “There's no bigger honor for me than representing my country. With the pandemic and a couple of injuries in the past, it was just a great time to get out there, start to gel with some of the younger guys – I say younger because they’re even younger than me. But yeah, we're starting to build our chemistry and continue to move forward.
“Obviously, the results tonight, we would love to get a win. But with two days of training, a lot of guys learning new tactics, it's something to improve on. So we can take some positives from it, some negatives and we continue to progress now.”
You would hope this would leave the fanbase feeling mostly good vibes too, right? Even one as demanding as the USMNT’s – a community with a sizable segment who’ve continued to simmer in their own juices since the great galling Couva fiasco of 2017. And there are those who’ve received Thursday’s game as the small blessing that it is, and the encouraging signals it offered for the future.
Peruse the comments section or a few social media timelines and you’re liable to discover there are also some very disgruntled supporters out there. Those who blame Lletget for playing in MLS, or for not being a No. 9, or Berhalter for putting him in that challenging spot. Or even the federation executives who hired Berhalter two years ago.
Mind you, those supporters have plenty of game tape and analysis to sift through this weekend, of they’re really about this life:
Yes, I know: I’m not making any news by noting the reflexive negativity in some quarters. A ribbon of angry angst has run through the USMNT massive for many years, and realistically, it’s here to stay, because real change, real growth is a slow, usually agonizing process that will never move fast enough to satisfy the highest expectations of the bunch. And maybe it’s OK to shoot for the moon.
Here I would urge those demanding ones to keep the second half of Norman Vincent Peale’s quote in mind, too: “...Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”
I’m not serving this up as some vapid motivational tripe off a hotel conference room wall hanging. I’m pointing out what a promising position the USMNT are in, even after falling short of the optimal outcome on Thursday. The spine of this team is legit. There’s competition for every spot. They’re (finally!) playing with real verve and personality. And if looking at the game itself doesn’t do that for you, consider placing a bit more trust in the personalities that are rising to the top of this project.
One ancillary benefit of top American talents turning pro at high-school ages instead of adults in their 20s is that it can speed along the maturation of their character and comprehension just as much as their technical and tactical ability. Adams and his central-midfield partner Weston McKennie, 22, are Exhibit A.
“The hype in general comes from the outside, from the media, from the fans. And I think we're not really playing for the expectations of other people, we’re playing for the expectations within our group, within our team, within our brotherhood that we have here,” said McKennie postgame, vowing to keep the entire squad “busting their balls” to stay on course.
“We just have to hold each other accountable, and hold ourselves accountable within the team. So I'm hoping a lot of the guys that are here don't feel like they've made it yet. I hope a lot of the guys just because they're young, and it's easy – I mean, I was there myself, it's easy to get a big head whenever you're this young and all the hype is around and when you get caught up and you make your debut. But from what I've seen so far I don't think that there's many of those players on this team. So it starts with us in training, the older guys to set the tone, set the mood and let them know.”
These guys just get it, and they’re on track to lead the USMNT both on the field and off it for the next decade. You don’t have to take anyone’s word for it anymore. They’re here. Their form may ebb and flow, but the class is obvious. The stakes get much, much higher in the coming months, and our tolerance for mistakes will shrink correspondingly. But for now?
Let’s let them cook.