U.S. ends 2018 stuck in neutral with questions over manager, depth, playing style
GENK, Belgium -- It might be only November, but the curtain has fallen on 2018 for the U.S. men's national team, mercifully so.
In most cases, the last few months of a World Cup year would be met with curiosity about the cycle ahead. There might even be some lingering disappointment over how the recent tournament played out.
But this was by no means a normal World Cup year for the U.S. As 2018 dawned, there was bitterness and anger over the failure to qualify, but also a glimmer of hope. There was a new crop of talented players coming up. Let's give them a chance and see that they can do, or so the thinking went.
To the credit of interim manager Dave Sarachan, that is precisely what happened. He called up 50 players over the course of the 12 games for which he was in charge, giving 23 their international debuts. It was in many ways a thankless task, throwing young players to the proverbial wolves. A final run of games that included Brazil, Colombia, England and Italy meant the U.S. faced some real alphas in the international soccer pack.
It was understandable, then, that there was emotion in Sarachan's voice as he spoke following Tuesday's 1-0 defeat to Italy, a match that is almost certain to be his final game in charge.
"I feel, as the leader over the last 12 months of this program, I feel that we have moved it forward," he said. "It may not look like that to everyone on the outside, but if you look at the games we have played and the players we have exposed to this level, that we brought forth, I am certain it will pay dividends down the line. So for me, I feel like the next person that comes in is going to have a good starting point."
Sarachan's approach was appreciated by the players. Yes, there were ups and downs, but that's not unusual when dealing with such a young group. More than once during his time in charge, Sarachan fielded the youngest starting lineup for the U.S. in the modern era.
"I think he was always feeding us with confidence, always bringing the group from a chemistry perspective together," midfielder Wil Trapp said. "I thought that was great. His level of professionalism throughout the camps was excellent. In a lot of ways, with the interim role, it's a difficult space to navigate, and I think he did extremely well. He could have mailed it in in a lot of ways, and he didn't do that one bit. He did all of us as players a real service by doing that."
Yet even after all those games and lots of doing-the-right-thing by Sarachan, there is an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty and plenty of worry about what the future holds for the U.S. men. It's difficult to shake the feeling that the U.S. team remains at its lowest ebb in decades.
Some of the uncertainty hopefully will be cleared up in the coming weeks, when the U.S. Soccer Federation gets around to -- finally -- naming a head coach. At the least, it will create some forward momentum that has been missing in the back half of 2018. But those 12 games under Sarachan have provided plenty of data points, and what they point to is a U.S. program and a player pool that haven't evolved all that much.
Sure, Tyler Adams looks like a future mainstay, as does Weston McKennie. Ethan Horvath's spectacular performance against Italy, one in which he delivered several stellar saves, showed that concerns about the state of the U.S. keeper pool were perhaps premature.
But players such as Adams, McKennie and Horvath are in line with what the U.S. has produced in the past. The reality is there are simply not enough players who show the requisite comfort on the ball needed to keep possession and compete with the world's better teams, never mind the best. That was evident once again against Italy.
"We just couldn't get a hold of the ball," Christian Pulisic said. "We couldn't move forward as a team."
This isn't a new problem, of course. It's an area where the U.S. has long struggled. Yet at present, the issue is so acute that it almost makes the emergence of a promising striker such as Josh Sargent moot. If the U.S. can't find a way to get him or Pulisic the ball in dangerous spots, it will be nearly impossible for the team to begin to resurrect itself.
The players and Sarachan are very much aware of the long-term implications of this limitation, even in the wake of a more hardworking performance than the U.S. delivered in losing 3-0 to England.
"Yes, it's about competing. Yes, it's about defending. But we can't defend every game for 90 minutes," Trapp said. "The point that was brought up [in the locker room] was, the talent is there. It's just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That's the difference, I think, in terms of what Italy was able to do tonight and what we weren't able to do."
Trapp said the hiring of a new coach and some repetition in training will create better chemistry. But he admitted that the problem is also "between the ears." One interpretation of that is for players to move and think the game in a way that can enhance technical ability. Sarachan noted that having players in challenging environments is another critical component.
The U.S. has long looked for saviors as a way to move the program forward -- the next hot prospect or the next manager. Each would have a lot of work to do for the U.S. to find success in 2019.