U.S. youngsters impress in 1-1 draw in Portugal, end 2017 on positive note
LEIRIA, Portugal -- The U.S. men's national team closed the book on a thoroughly disappointing 2017 with a credible 1-1 draw against reigning European champions Portugal.
U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie, making his international debut, put the visitors on top in the 21st minute, but a terrible error from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath allowed Portugal defender Antunes to equalize 11 minutes later.
Here are three thoughts from the Americans' final game of the year.
1. A glimmer of hope after disastrous 2017
Heading into Tuesday's friendly, there were questions as to why the U.S. even opted to play this game given the bitterness at failing to qualify for the World Cup. But not only was it a chance to get a glimpse of some up-and-coming players, but the proceeds from the match will be donated to victims of wildfires in north and central Portugal earlier this year.
As it turned out, the match was worth the Americans' while. Caretaker manager Dave Sarachan had spoken all week about the group's "youthful energy" and his lineup certainly trended in a youthful direction, with both McKennie and Tyler Adams being handed debuts while Matt Miazga earned just his fourth cap. That said, there was experience as well in the form of defender John Brooks and midfielder Danny Williams, both of whom performed well on the night.
It's worth noting that Portugal was fielding an under-strength side as well. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho were both left off the roster, though a smattering of regulars like Nelson Semedo and Pepe (the latter of whom was forced off early through injury) were included.
The U.S. was on the front foot to start the match. A combination of aggressive pressing and sloppy Portuguese passing created a pair of chances inside two minutes, only for C.J. Sapong to fire straight at Portugal keeper Beto and Kellyn Acosta to then fire wide. The match soon settled a bit, but it was the U.S. that was creating the better opportunities.
Sapong was causing all kinds of problems by drifting into wide positions and running at defenders. He put one pass on a platter for Adams in the 20th minute only for the New York Red Bull to fire straight at Beto. It proved to be a brief respite as Sapong soon found McKennie on the run, and the Texas native darted around one defender before firing home to put the visitors on top.
The U.S. looked solid in the back with Miazga and Brooks, but Portugal equalized due to a horrible error from Horvath. Antunes' volley from wide on the left had some venom in it, but Horvath looked perfectly positioned to gather it in. Instead, as he moved low to collect the shot, the ball squirted through both hands and legs to trickle into the U.S. goal.
The U.S. rebounded to start the second half as Beto denied Adams' close-range header, Lichaj forced another smart save and McKennie saw his header hit the crossbar.
The parade of substitutions that is typical of friendlies seemed to benefit Portugal as the home side began to carry more of the game. Goncalo Paciencia struck the bar with an effort of his own in the 66th minute, and Bill Hamid later collected a shot that Paciencia shot straight into the air.
All told, a draw was a perfectly satisfying result for the U.S. and proved to be a valuable exercise. Granted, it will be years before the disappointment at missing out on next summer's festivities will wash away. But the process of putting some distance from that calamity has to begin at some point, and given the promising performances of some of the young players, this was a match that served that purpose.
Now the U.S. can head into 2018 with some more data points on who will form the core of the team going forward.
2. McKennie, Sapong, Miazga impress
There was plenty of anticipation surrounding the debut of McKennie given the minutes he has logged with Bundesliga side Schalke already this season. He didn't disappoint, either, effective at getting into the attack and timing his run to perfection in the run-up to his goal. He nearly added a second with his aforementioned header.
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the night was Sapong. The Philadelphia Union forward was an absolute handful for the Portugal back line. His holdup play was outstanding, as was his ability to link play with his teammates. In a lineup that was devoid of anyone who could be categorized as a playmaker, those traits were a boost to the U.S attack. Of course, at age 28, there is the question of how much more time Sapong has at the international level, but he certainly did plenty to help his cause on this night.
Miazga also delivered an impressive performance, partnering well with, first Brooks (and later Cameron Carter-Vickers) and putting out plenty of fires. If he continues to progress at the club level, one would expect him to be part of the backbone of the side in the future.
The night proved to be more of a mixed bag for Adams. His energy and defensive hustle aided the U.S. cause; so too did his running of the ball. But he needed to be better on the ball, especially in the first half when he connected just four of 15 passes, something he did improve in the second half. He'll also rue his missed opportunities in front of goal.
3. Hamid takes step ahead in goalkeeper battle
There was a certain logic to starting Horvath in goal. He has logged fairly steady playing time over the course of 2017, while D.C. United's Hamid was benched for the last month of the MLS season and Jesse Gonzalez's campaign ended a few weeks ago.
But Horvath was also benched recently by his club side, Club Brugge, and it was easy to see why. His basic error on Antunes' goal was bad enough, but he nearly gifted the home side a second when his pass out from the back went straight to Danilo. Fortunately, the Portugal midfielder could only hit his shot straight at him. Whatever hopes Horvath had of carrying some confidence back to his club were dashed.
Hamid certainly did his prospects no harm, making the plays he needed to make, though one punch in particular looked a bit awkward before collecting. But club form will do plenty to dictate how the keeper battle shakes out going forward, and now it is up to him to make the most of his move to Danish side Midtjylland.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.