By and large, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s friendly against Portugal was a success. Granted, it was a minor success in a year filled with a program-debilitating setback, but it was a success nonetheless.
The U.S. picked up a 1-1 draw against the reigning European champions on Tuesday afternoon in the final game of 2017. Was it a less-than full-strength Portugal team? For sure. But it was a team with plenty of European-based talent and it was a team that the U.S. competed with and, at times, outplayed throughout the 90 minutes.
There was plenty to see on Tuesday, including a few debuts and a few more returns. Over the next five years, the U.S. program will give us plenty to digest on and off the field but, with 2017 coming to a close, the U.S. ended the year with a new beginning.
Here are some of Tuesday’s big takeaways:
Weston McKennie is good. We all knew this. You can’t be bad and start in the Bundesliga. Even before Tuesday, we knew McKennie was a legitimate player and we probably knew that he was going to be a key piece for years to come.
What we didn’t know, though, is how he would handle that first test, and he handled it better than many could have predicted.
It was more than the goal, which was certainly icing on the cake. It was more than the ranging runs and the timely tackles. It was the composure, energy and confidence displayed by one of the youngest members of the USMNT roster.
McKennie looked like a player ready to lead, much like Christian Pulisic did in his early USMNT performances. He wasn’t fazed by the step up. Rather, he took on the challenge, elevated his game and made the game easier for those around him.
SAPONG STEPS UP
C.J. Sapong isn’t the USMNT’s next great striker. He won’t captain the U.S. to the 2022 World Cup and he probably won’t even be on the plane when and if the U.S. qualifies.
However, Sapong looked like a player with a part to play throughout his performance on Tuesday.
Sapong brought boatloads of energy to the USMNT attack and consistently challenged the Portugal backline. The Philadelphia Union forward’s work was rewarded with an assist on McKennie’s goal, giving him a highlight moment in a match where he did plenty of dirty work.
After a strong year in MLS, Sapong deserved his chance, and he took it well. With a few years until meaningful games, Sapong showed he should be competing with the likes of Dom Dwyer for that energy forward role, one that’s vital in CONCACAF.
Sapong may never be a world-beater, but he should be looked at as a player that can contribute in the run up to 2022.
MIAZGA, BROOKS PASS FIRST TEST
All of the mixing, matching and introducing was all well and good, but the centerback pairing was probably the most important piece of Tuesday’s win.
John Brooks and Matt Miazga, in theory, should be the starting defensive duo for years to come. Sure, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Justen Glad and Erik Palmer-Brown may have something to say about that but, right now, it appears Miazga and Brooks are the duo of the future.
They may be the duo of the present, too. Miazga and Brooks were virtually flawless, strangling Portugal down the middle. None of Portugal’s real chances came down the center of the field and, when the ball was inevitably whipped in, Brooks and Miazga rarely looked challenged. It was a commanding performance from a pair of young defenders that now have a reason to be confident.
Before the match, Bruce Arena said he believes this would have been his World Cup pairing. In an ideal world, they would have been his World Cup qualifying pairing, too.
Virtually every person that stepped on the field showed fairly well. That is, except for Ethan Horvath.
The young goalkeeper is just that: young. He’s going to make mistakes and, by any measure, Tuesday’s doesn’t really matter. It was a meaningless goal in a meaningless game. Realistically, who cares?
There shouldn’t be a reason to care, but there is due to Horvath’s recent habit of being error-prone. It’s led to his benching at Club Brugge and it led to a bad impression in his first chance to seize a consistent starting gig with the USMNT.
Now, let’s not write off a 22-year-old goalkeeper. Horvath is still very good and, even after a few nervy moments, Horvath collected his head and handled business. Tuesday was a learning experience, and a damn good one.
THE ROAD STARTS NOW
Tuesday’s friendly won’t erase the missteps of 2017. There’s no way it could. The USMNT’s World Cup qualifying setback will be felt for quite some time, no matter how many friendlies the U.S. competes in.
The next five years will be long for the USMNT program and all of those that come in and out of it throughout the World Cup wait, but Tuesday was enough to inspire a little bit of hope for a program still in disarray.
McKennie, Adams, Miazga, Brooks, Yedlin. These are names that should be cornerstones of the USMNT for years to come. Newer faces like Lynden Gooch and Cameron Carter-Vickers stepped up in a big way. Familiar faces like Danny Williams, Bill Hamid and C.J. Sapong showed that maybe, just maybe, they could have had a part to play throughout the roller-coaster 2017.
Over the next five years, plenty will change. Players will fall in and out. Some of the players listed above may never get better and never reach the level required to lead the USMNT. Some players will emerge out of nowhere and become key pieces in the years to come. There’s so much time to figure things out that Tuesday’s friendly will all but certainly be forgotten by many in the very near future.
Tuesday’s friendly, though, did begin a process, and it showed that there is a reason to be a little optimistic about that light at the end of that long tunnel that opens up in Qatar.