Here is the immediate context: The US men's national team will not be going to the World Cup this summer. A series of failures – some stretching back decades, some stretching back seven years, others very immediate and contained – means that there will be no trip to Russia.
Here is the longer-term context: The US U-20s, after three straight cycles of pretty abject soccer, made the Youth World Cup quarterfinals in both 2015 and 2017. It is the first time in program history that the US had made the QFs or better of back-to-back Youth World Cups, and the US are one of just two teams to have done so (Portugal are the other) in these last two cycles.
Here is the historical context: Success at the U-20 level almost always begets future success at the full national team level. It's not a guarantee, of course – there are no guarantees in this game of ours. But if you start cranking out full generations of 18-to-20-year-olds who can ball with and against the best, you're probably about to have a good decade.
Here is the day's context: A bunch of US kids beat the hell out of a bad Bolivia team 3-0 in Chester on Monday night. LAFC's Walker Zimmerman, a grizzled veteran at age 25, opened the scoring with a towering header off a corner kick in the first half. Then a pair of 18-year-olds, Josh Sargent of Werder Bremen and Tim Weah of PSG, sunk their blades deep.
It was fun. It was not just fun, but it was primarily and mostly fun. It felt like a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways, and I'm not the only one who sensed that:
This is the first time in 7 years that I'm actually enjoying a #USMNT game. I'm not comfortable with this feeling.— Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon) May 29, 2018
Does a win over Bolivia mean all that much? Not really. What matters is that Sargent goes on and wins a significant role with Werder (I'm hearing good things from people I trust about that), that Weah continues to progress with PSG, that Christian Pulisic gets some rest and that Weston McKennie keeps being Weston McKennie.
It's important that Erik Palmer-Brown finds a place where he plays 90 every week, and that Keaton Parks does the same. It's important that Antonee Robinson gets a coach who can help him defeat some of his more naive off-the-ball tendencies.
It's important that we develop two or three more attackers. This coming generation is overflowing with center backs, center mids and even fullback. There are many more questions up front, and while this has been a banner year for young domestic midfielders and defenders in MLS, can you name a winger or forward or playmaker who's pushing through? Neither can I.
All of that, in the long run, matters infinitely more than a single friendly at this stage in a non-World Cup cycle.
But it was nice to have fun watching the US play. It's been a long time.
A few thoughts:
• Parks is one of the most languid players I've ever seen come out of the US. His ability to receive the ball in traffic and passing vision jump out even when he's not doing much, and his confidence comes through the screen at you.
I worry, however, about his lack of quickness. He was beaten badly a couple of times in close quarters, and that may limit his ceiling.
• I'm convinced there's almost no ceiling for McKennie. He started 25 games at central midfield, center back and defensive midfield for the second-best team in the Bundesliga this year, and he will start more than that next year. I still see him as more of a No. 8 than a No. 6, at least at this point, because he's much more comfortable when he's working to get around the ball than he is simply protecting the defense and dictating the game as a sort of regista.
• Zimmerman's distribution impressed me. Bob Bradley's been asking a lot of him for LAFC and he's evolved in a short time. This is not a read he makes or a pass he hits last year:
• Weah is so, so smart off the ball. He's clever about finding space and understanding where running lanes are before they actually appear, and his movement is mostly unselfish.
He did telegraph that shot above, but that's something he can work on as he gets more reps.
What he isn't is a 1-v-1 wizard, and that's fine. Being a complementary piece who gets into good spots and capitalizes on the on-the-ball creativity of others is a great way to score a lot of tap-ins.
• Robinson impressed just about everybody with his athleticism and crossing ability, and fair enough for that. That said, his first two crosses were naive and hopeless in that you shouldn't cross the ball from the touchline against a packed-in defense. Doing so is a good way to get countered (every time I see a young player hit a cross like that I think to myself "that kid has not been coached").
So what impressed me most was that he learned from his first half, and didn't settle in the second. When he got on the ball he drove toward the box, put the defense on the back foot, made them scramble toward their own net, and then put it on a tee for Weah.
I loved the cross. What I loved more was the "learning and improving during the game" aspect of it. Give me a young player who can think.
• Pulisic was lousy and deserves a rest.
• Sargent was great. I didn't love the fact that he got called up because I don't like when any player gets called into the full national team before they've played a single pro minute. It's not a big deal, per se – not at all, really – but to me it sends the wrong message. Players can get anointed rather than earning the spot.
That said, Sargent made it easy to see why, on some level, he's indeed been anointed. He's the best pure forward prospect we've had since Jozy Altidore, and unlike Jozy at 18, he's under no illusions that he should be playing elsewhere (Jozy thought he was a winger). His hold-up play was very good, his runs were smart, and the one great chance he got, he buried:
And really, that's about it. I'm looking forward to the next two games of this series of friendlies, and then I'm looking forward to a month of watching the World Cup.
And I'm also convinced that the next cycle will be much, much better than the last one. A win over Bolivia didn't do that, but watching this team play with no fear and plenty of swagger sure didn't hurt.