Last week, the U.S. played one of its final Copa America Centenario tune-up matches against Ecuador, rolling out a solid yet conservative line-up, leaning heavily on America's capped thirtysomethings (including Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, together), and placing Michael Bradley in an advanced central midfield position. Save for one heavy-touched Gyasi Zardes run into the Ecuadorian box, the first half was a dull, plodding showcase of midfield possession and midfield dispossession.
Two key second-half substitutions changed the complexion of the game -- Darlington Nagbe came on to act as a nominal #10 (matching his jersey number), while Christian Pulisic (wearing his literal age on his jersey) slotted into the left wing. These weren't mere substitutions -- they were an infusion of youth and vitality and life force. The U.S. had more energy, more threatening runs, crisper passes. In the 90th minute, Nagbe finally broke through for the match's only goal.
As we've touched on in our preview article, we expect Nagbe and Pulisic to start tonight's match on the bench. To Jurgen Klinsmann's credit, he recognizes what Nagbe and Pulisic brings to the team, and hasn't been shy about deploying them as impact subs. This is a step forward considering a recent history of confounding lineups, but it's not quite enough.
Were the aim of the next several weeks be to win the Copa, there might be a case for leaning on veterans. But the aim really should be using the tournament to transition to a Hex that will be even more challenging than 2013's, and looking ahead to a World Cup that isn't so far away.
We've seen enough of Bradley by now to know he's best directly ahead of the back four at the bottom of a diamond midfield, or in a double pivot with Jones or Beckerman. We've seen enough of Jones and Beckerman by now to know that Jones OR Beckerman is appreciably better than Jones AND Beckerman on the same field at the same time.
Nagbe is the best advanced central midfielder we have right now, and Pulisic appears to be a generational talent that the U.S. needs on the field as much as possible. Both those players need international experience, and they need to innately know the tendencies of a back four that is solidifying but still susceptible. The Copa schedule has gifted the U.S. a game against one of its most dangerous Hex rivals in Costa Rica; it'd be a shame not to see what Nagbe and Pulisic can do for a full 90s against the Ticos.
Clearly, the U.S. is a team in transition, and while Jordan Morris's omission from the Copa roster shows that Klinsmann isn't willing to entirely embrace the future, the increasing dependence of Nagbe and Pulisic is a hopeful admission that the future is now. They've shown what they can do on the field. To many, myself included, they've shown they're worthy of starting.