Draw against Portugal first step for U.S. away from Trinidad debacle
LEIRIA, Portugal -- As the U.S. players filed through the mixed zone following Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Portugal, one could sense a collective exhale taking place.
To be clear, this wasn't an exhale that accompanies a good feeling or some state of contentment. Rather, it was the kind of sensation in which a searing pain is hurting just a little bit less, with the hope that the trend will continue.
Yes, there were smiles, and why not? If you can't break into a grin after scoring on your international debut, like Weston McKennie did, then you aren't human. But there was also a recognition that Tuesday's match was a mere step, a way of putting some distance between the team and the disaster that was the end of World Cup qualifying in Trinidad one month ago.
On a night of hardworking shifts, C.J. Sapong put in one of the toughest, celebrating his first cap in five years by setting up McKennie's 21st-minute opener. He summed the evening up when he said, "I'm not sure what the future holds right now. I'm just going to let this moment marinate, and hopefully I do get called in for the next situation that involves U.S. Soccer."
McKennie absorbed the entirety of the evening as well. His postgame routine usually involves a call from his mother, Tina, who takes it upon herself to make sure her son isn't getting a big head. Given the tone that her son struck on this night, she will quickly be able to move the conversation onto other topics.
"She probably will end up giving me a call," McKennie said. "But I know it from myself that I need to stay grounded. It's the first game, and you can only judge so much off of one game, but [there] has to be consistency. My next game, I go back to Schalke and continue my games there, and hopefully I keep getting call-ups to the national team."
Heading into the match, the request of the U.S. seemed simple, but was more complicated than it looked: Kindly don't rub salt onto a still-gaping wound that was sliced open last month in Couva, Trinidad. The Americans would have to do so with a squad containing five uncapped players and seven more with five or fewer. Sure, Portugal was missing a few starters of their own, including Cristiano Ronaldo, but the home side seemed to have more than enough firepower to take care of the U.S.
Yet the American players didn't add to the team's collective pain; they eased it. Perhaps the younger elements of the side, such as McKennie and Tyler Adams, didn't know any better than to be confident and aggressive. Yet that's exactly what the U.S. were, harrying Portugal into some early turnovers, and generally setting the tempo for much of the first half.
It no doubt helped that some of the older -- and until this camp, largely forgotten -- performers like Sapong and Danny Williams had something to prove as well. The backline, Matt Miazga in particular, was impressive. What resulted was a team performance that was solid on nearly every front.
"Maybe the fans that were watching, they could tell that this group was full of energy," McKennie said. "We went out there from the very first whistle to the end, and we fought from beginning to end also."
Along the way, the U.S. showed an impressive amount of cohesion for a team that had only been together for six days. Yet there was perhaps more familiarity than met the eye. And if there was a mayor of this U.S. team, it was Kellyn Acosta, as he seemed to be the one guy that knew just about everyone.
"Me and Kellyn have known each other since I was 11 years old, coming up through FC Dallas," McKennie said. "I've always seen him as a mentor. When I went up to FC Dallas and trained with the first team, he always kind of guided me and took me under his wing. This camp too. I think the connection is good there."
And it was Acosta who was the first to pick up Ethan Horvath after the U.S. keeper's blunder allowed Vitorino Antunes' shot to go through his arms and legs and trickle over the line.
"Me and Kellyn have been together since we were 13 years old," Horvath said. "He just came to me and said, 'Don't worry about it, keep going. And keep your head up.' I know that I can do better than that."
On another night, the U.S. might have walked away winners. Portuguese keeper Beto saved superbly from an Adams header, and McKennie had another headed effort that thundered off the bar. Portugal had a shot of their own from Goncalo Paciencia strike the bar, so there can't be too many complaints. A draw probably suited the occasion.
There are still many more steps that the U.S. team need to take, and some of them will likely be backward. The pain of Couva will likely never abate completely. But thanks to the hope provided by some young players, the U.S. have a reason to look forward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.