washingtonpost– There were several impressive elements from the U.S. men’s national soccer team match Thursday, its first in 10 months and most anticipated in years.
As a starting point — and what should hearten fans still sick about the Americans missing the 2018 World Cup — there was the age and club affiliation of the lineup in the 0-0 draw at Wales in Plasmarl
The outcome was immaterial. This game was about introducing a new generation, many employed by famous clubs, and blending it on the pitch for the first time. (Six players debuted.)
It also was about forging bonds before things turn serious next year in the Nations League, Gold Cup, 2022 World Cup qualifiers and, for some of the young ones, the Olympics.
With an average age of less than 23, the ensemble included two players from FC Barcelona and one apiece from Manchester City, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg. Valencia, Fulham and Anderlecht.
Those are among the biggest names in European soccer, a list more commonly seen on the roster of a perennial threat.
And the Americans were missing injured Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic and Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent, who was barred from traveling because of pandemic concerns.
The only outsider in the lineup was the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget, Sargent’s replacement, who, at 28, was more than 10 years older than first-timers Giovanni Reyna and Yunus Musah.
“It was a youthful lineup,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said, “but a lineup you can build from.”
The building blocks were in midfield, where Musah, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie (average age: 20) controlled the tempo in the first half. They were comfortable with one another and performed with confidence.
“When you see those three guys in midfield, it’s amazing how much ground they can cover and how dynamic they are,” Berhalter said. “It was something to behold.”
Thanks to their work, the Americans were — dare we say it?— fun to watch before intermission. They dominated possession, forced errors through pressure and played ambitious soccer.
They fell short, however, in the final third of the field — untidy passing, bunching, indecisiveness and, in forward Konrad de la Fuente’s case, a bad miss from close range after a Wales mistake.
Pulisic’s ability to beat defenders on the dribble was missed. So was a striker to provide menace. With Sargent missing, Berhalter didn’t use a natural central forward, instead opting for Lletget to do the dirty work.
“We have the desire to play, we have a desire to keep the ball,” said McKennie, 22, who joined Italian champion Juventus this season from Schalke in Germany’s Bundesliga. “The next big thing we might need to work on is having a deadly instinct and scoring a goal. You can have as many [shutouts] as you want, but you win games by scoring goals.”
Berhalter was encouraged by the defensive and midfield work, saying: “It’s about the principles. We’re still learning the principles.”
To a man, Berhalter and the players have preached patience. They understand U.S. fans are famished to see a winner after the debacle in the last World Cup qualifying cycle and years of treading water. While the women’s program continues its run of excellence, the men have fallen off the radar.
The pandemic delayed efforts to rebuild. The last time European-based players were available was a year ago. With an MLS-heavy roster, the U.S. squad last played Feb. 1. World Cup qualifying was pushed back, and other competitions were postponed.
The U.S. Soccer Federation scrambled to fill dates this month, the last official window of the year for international matches. The Wales match was a makeup for a March postponement. The Americans will face Panama on Monday in Austria.
Because of pandemic issues, Berhalter summoned players almost entirely based in Europe. In the coming months, he will reintegrate a handful of MLS standouts.
With the youth emergence in Europe, the talent pool has deepened. It now falls on Berhalter, a former U.S. defender and Columbus Crew coach, to make it work.
Aside from scoring, his plans worked well in the first half Thursday. The performance fell off after intermission. Wales was more concerned with preparing for Nations League matches against Ireland and Finland next week than with the outcome against the United States.
The second half featured the U.S. debuts of French-based attacker Nicholas Gioacchini, 20, and two 19-year-olds, Brazilian-trained Johnny Cardoso and English-American Owen Otasowie.
On this cold, windy and rainy night in Swansea, Wales, the U.S. priority was getting the newcomers on the field, resuming stalled work and fostering unity.
We enjoyed it. We had fun. In the past, we didn’t show much flair,” McKennie said. “A lot of guys had fun being out there, and obviously it would’ve been much better if we won the game, but it’s a good steppingstone.”