Not making the World Cup is still crushing, and the non-existent stakes the USMNT will be playing under for the next year and a half or so don’t feel great, either. But those stakes do allow the team to aggressively transition into a new, younger player pool that the powers that be will hope can restore a little dignity to the crest. That process starts in Portugal, where caretaker Dave Sarachan seems to have gotten the memo: the USMNT is in full #TrustTheProcess mode. Young, untested players are on this roster. Guys that never really got their shot are here. There are only a couple names that had any major say on how World Cup Qualifying went down, and it seems likely that their major function in the next year will primarily be to serve the youth: get these guys ready for 2022. I never expected a 30 year old Tim Ream or Alejandro Bedoya to have a ton of sway in the 2018 World Cup, so I definitely don’t expect the 34 year old versions of those players to do anything at all.
The players we see on the field against Portugal will attest to a matter of philosophy. Maybe that will be Sarachan’s philosophy more than anyone else’s, and the exercise becomes moot when he eventually moves on and a permanent manager is hired. But to think that getting a call-up for this game is meaningless, especially as a young player, drastically short-sells the friendly. Many of these players have been identified as the core to build the U.S. men’s team around for the next decade. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but these players are here, now, and suddenly have the low stakes needed to possibly get some senior international time. Do these players get brought along slowly? Or do we throw them into the deep end and see what floats?
The Slow & Steady XI
It should be noted that while there are many young and exciting talents in this camp, it’s still very easy to create a very boring, “safe” lineup to face Portugal from this roster.
There are a couple interesting points here. How does Kelyn Rowe do after a positive Gold Cup? What does Danny Williams look like in a U.S. shirt these days? And can Kellyn Acosta shake-off that nightmare in Trinidad? But for the most part, this is a very safe Starting XI, one that leans on experience and already first choice players. Dom Dwyer and Juan Agudelo get more chances to prove they belong at this level. Alejandro Bedoya is here. Bill Hamid gets some game time. John Brooks at right center back is an odd fit, but it allows you to play your only other center back with any kind of international experience. It’s a lineup designed to have subs eased into it, just like the younger players might be eased into the senior team as time goes on. In the meantime, let’s just not give up too many goals to Portugal.
Link & Build
There’s a lot more to chew on here, and I think something like this will probably be close to what we see come out of the tunnel from the start against Portugal. It’s a team that will make mistakes, and could quite possibly be more than a little embarrassing, depending on the team Portugal fields. On the other hand, it gives us a more dynamic mix of young and relatively untested professionals, reclamation projects, and veterans to lean on in times of trouble. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Danny Williams, and Alejandro Bedoya all make this lineup because they’re experienced professionals, and we know their level. They are both the safety valves and the litmus tests for everyone else on the field. Lynden Gooch, Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga, and Ethan Horvath are the green players with loads of potential. These players have seen some success at the pro level; what happens when they try to take another step up? Do they crumple under the pressure or can they thrive in the lower stakes, next to more seasoned players?
Finally, and most interestingly, you have Eric Lichaj, CJ Sapong, and Kelyn Rowe, the biggest question marks. Rowe played well in the Gold Cup from the wing, but never got to play in the middle of the field, which happens more frequently with him on the Revolution. Without any other true attacking midfielders (except possibly Gooch) in the roster, could he make the switch to #10? Likewise, Eric Lichaj got some opportunities to show his quality at right back during the Gold Cup, but will never unseat DeAndre Yedlin. With left back still a position very much in flux for the U.S., could he become a more viable option on the left flank? And then there’s CJ Sapong, recalled to the senior side after five years away. At 28, Sapong isn’t a young option, but he won’t be decrepit by 2022, either, and he managed a career year with an awful Philadelphia team after hinting at improvement in his passing and hold-up play over the past couple MLS seasons. Not many forwards in the U.S. pool look great playing up top by themselves, and I want to see what he can do.
TO THE WOLVES
I also like to call this the Chainsaw XI due to the sheer amount of ground and attacking ankles a midfield trio of McKennie, Acosta, and Tyler Adams could chew up. This gambit is simple: play the youngest, fastest players you have, regardless of their experience. Josh Sargent’s only 17? He’ll be 21 by the next World Cup and has the potential to be the best U.S. forward in the pool by that time, too. So quit wasting time and play him. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga showed at the 2015 U-20 World Cup that they can form a formidable pair, and with the two both finding recent success at the club level as well, the time is as ripe as any to get the band back together. This lineup does depend on Rowe and Gooch to do some heavy-lifting in the attacking midfield, as Acosta is by no means a true #10. On the other hand, having him in the midfield with McKennie and Adams gives the team a fearsome defense in holding midfield, and allows the wingers to roam a bit further from home than they normally would. Will we see this lineup against Portugal? Nah. But it’s fun to dream.