U.S. shows progress vs. France; hope grows for future, post-World Cup woe
LYON, France -- In the aftermath of the United States' failure to qualify for the World Cup, caretaker manager Dave Sarachan has been in experimental mode as the men's national team seeks to move on. After six games, it was possible that the result would not pass muster but, instead, the U.S. is finding a mix worth keeping around for a while, albeit one in need of more refining.
Saturday's 1-1 draw with France was the latest confirmation of that progress. Sure, France dominated the ball, but the U.S. hung in there defensively, got an opportunistic goal from Julian Green and then, after conceding an equalizer to Kylian Mbappe, rode Zack Steffen's goalkeeping late to secure the draw.
"It's wonderful," midfielder Wil Trapp said. "It's not always going to be pretty. We understood that. Look, it's one of the best teams in the world, favorites for the World Cup, and I thought we adjusted really well. We scored the goal first, shocked them a little bit, and then weathered the storm."
Granted, it probably won't be Sarachan who gets to do the additional tweaking. There is a chance that he hangs around until the next round of friendlies -- against Brazil and Mexico in September -- but, with general manager Earnie Stewart on board and leading the search for a new manager, it's also possible that one will have been hired by then.
Either way, the team moving forward with more hope than it had in October, or even before Saturday's game. The concern prior to playing France wasn't that the U.S. would lose, but rather by how much. Instead, the young side simply went about its business, while Sarachan dug even deeper into his youthful roster as well as his tactical bag of tricks.
Neither DeAndre Yedlin nor Jorge Villafana appeared until late in the match, with Antonee Robinson and Shaq Moore getting the starting nod as wing-backs in a 5-3-2 and both held up well.
"We have a young group that's hungry and willing to fight for each other and I think that showed today," Moore said.
The same is true of the central three of Cameron Carter-Vickers, Miazga and Tim Parker. Even when Miazga had to leave the match in the second half with a head laceration, Erik Palmer-Brown entered the game and filled in ably. A stumble by Carter-Vickers contributed to Mbappe's equalizer, but afterward, Steffen was there to help preserve the result, especially when he dove to his right to deny Nabil Fekir's free kick.
The match proved to be tougher for midfielders Trapp, Tyler Adams and McKennie. A few wayward passes set up some dangerous counterattacks for France but the trio did grow into the match, using its defensive effort as a springboard for the attack.
"I think in the first half, we were a little nervy with a different formation and trying to break down plays and find passing angles," Trapp said. "But I think as Tyler, Weston and I started to rotate more, we started to unsettle them a little bit more and find better spots.'
And so the France result sits alongside other confidence-building performances that have taken place in this period. Yes, these games were all about learning lessons and, in the 2-1 defeat to Republic of Ireland, there were a few sharp ones.
However, it's beneficial when the bulk of what's learned is accompanied by some encouraging results. It validates hard work and a way of doing things, and that is what has happened in this squad.
"I think it's a huge step for us as professionals, and as a group, not listening to outside noise," Trapp said. "And believing in ourselves and believing in each other in adverse situations, that's a huge experience for young players, and of melding together and continuing to grow."
These are times of high curiosity and low expectations. The results have little in the way of stakes attached to them and the same will be true later this summer and into fall, with friendlies vs. Argentina, Colombia, England and Italy also in the offing.
There will be a desire to see further progress, even if the opposition is of a high caliber. But this young U.S. side has moved forward over the last eight months, at times against difficult opponents. There is excitement to see how much farther it can go.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.