The United States men’s national team’s first game since its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was by no means a masterpiece. But for a match that initially felt like one of the most meaningless in the national team’s recent history, it offered plenty of talking points. And on the whole, it went better than many expected.
Tuesday’s friendly in Portugal ended 1-1. Teenage midfielder Weston McKennie scored a debut goal for the U.S. in the 21st minute. It was cancelled out 10 minutes later by an awful mistake from American goalkeeper Ethan Horvath. Both teams had chances to grab a winner, but neither team could.
The result is irrelevant, though. The game was about experimentation, experience and new blood. From a postgame analysis perspective, it is about looking forward – not about what happened, but rather about what it means for the future. We’ll discuss that below. But first, the American lineup.
The U.S. started in a 4-5-1. Horvath got the nod in goal. Deandre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, John Brooks and Eric Lichaj were the four defenders. The central midfield three were Danny Williams, McKennie and Kellyn Acosta, with Tyler Adams on the right, Juan Agudelo on the left and C.J. Sapong up top.
At halftime, Bill Hamid replaced Horvath in goal, and Cameron Carter-Vickers came on for John Brooks. In the 59th minute, Jorge Villafana took over at left back for Lichaj, and Lynden Gooch replaced Agudelo. Dom Dwyer relieved Sapong up front in the 77th minute. Finally, Alejandro Bedoya came on for McKennie in the 84th.
McKennie’s 84 minutes were the highlight of the day, so it’s with him that will begin our rundown of takeaways from the 90:
1. Weston McKennie’s debut went about as well as possible
McKennie was the player U.S. fans were most excited to see in a national team jersey, and he didn’t disappoint. In fact, he put in just about the picture-perfect box-to-box midfield performance.
The moment everyone will be talking about, of course, is the goal. It was emblematic of McKennie’s game. He slid to cut out a pass near midfield, then advanced into space as Sapong received the ball out wide. He took Sapong’s square pass in stride, showed outstanding composure on the ball, dropped his left shoulder, dipped inside on his right foot, and finished clinically:
McKennie also hit the crossbar with a header in the second half. But his exploits in front of goal were just a fraction of the overall performance. He connected passes in the final third, won possession in the attacking half, and broke up attacks facing his own goal. A few of his passes went astray, but part of that stems from unfamiliarity between teammates.
McKennie hasn’t had a ton of attacking freedom early in his Schalke career, but this is who he is. This is his role. He didn’t look out of place at all. He should be a national team regular immediately, and for years to come.
2. The McKennie-Acosta-Williams trio was mostly well-balanced
Portugal found it very difficult to play through the U.S. midfield in the first half. The U.S.’s spacing wasn’t always perfect, but Williams was solid shielding the back line, and Acosta and McKennie both looked comfortable as dual No. 8s. Williams captained the side – Bedoya reportedly picked up a slight knock in training – and offered stability that helped McKennie and Acosta thrive.
Their collective athleticism, ability to cover ground and ability to win individual duels allowed them to keep the game tight, but also to put pressure on the hosts. McKennie and Acosta occasionally pressed high – sometimes all the way up at the edge of the Portuguese penalty box. Acosta created the first chance of the game by charging forward to intercept a loose pass. But both were also positionally sound. They were smart about their pressing, and shut off most midfield avenues.
Crucially, though, both Acosta and McKennie contributed to the attack. In a 4-5-1, which was more so a 4-1-4-1, the two more advanced central midfielders absolutely must support the striker for the attack to be functional. Acosta and McKennie fulfilled that duty as well. Their performance suggested the formation could be a viable one moving forward.
With Acosta 22 years old and McKennie just 19, their partnership should certainly be a viable one over the next decade. At the very least, it should get plenty of looks over the next few years. And whether it’s as part of a two or a three – with Williams, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Gonzalez or somebody else behind them – it gives the U.S. a few dimensions it lacked throughout qualifying.
3. Matt Miazga looked great
Miazga, who played intermittently at the Gold Cup this past summer, has been seen as a future national team starter for several years now. His development hasn’t exactly been rapid since a 2016 move to Chelsea, but on Tuesday, he built on recent strong club performances and validated the excitement.
Miazga wasn’t winning challenges every minute, and he wasn’t flawless, but he offered a taste of everything you want to see in a center back. He was (and is) comfortable and confident on the ball. He very nearly zipped one 30-yard pass into the feet of Acosta. He played short, simple passes when they were on, even when under pressure. But he also went long when necessary.
Defensively, he mostly covered well. On one first-half play, he beat Bruma to a ball over the top after the Portuguese winger had spun in behind Yedlin. On another, Bruma beat him, and Miazga was bailed out by Adams’ tracking back. But in general, his positioning and decision-making were good, his clearances mistake-free, and his rapport with Brooks free of any noticeable warts.
In the second half, with Carter-Vickers on in place of Brooks, the defense looked a bit shaky at times. But that mirrored the U.S.’s play overall, and Miazga still cleaned up thoroughly. He astutely cut out one through-ball that had been played inside Villafana. In general, the Vitesse Arnham defender acquitted himself very well.
4. C.J. Sapong stated his case
The U.S. striker pool is remarkably thin. Behind Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and the inconsistent, currently injured Jordan Morris, there are no national team regulars. Sapong made a very good argument Tuesday that he should be No. 4 on the depth chart – if not No. 3. And it’s a mystery why he never truly got a chance to make that argument before he turned 28.
Playing as a lone striker, he held the ball really well in the first half. He drifted wide when necessary, brought others into play, and drew fouls when he had no support. He won a 50/50 ball, which was really more like a 30/70 ball, and picked out Tyler Adams with a cross that resulted in a shot on target.
Sapong didn’t fashion any chances for himself in front of goal, but he did the little things that the U.S. needed from him. He’s long been overlooked by national team coaches, and his window to become a consistent contributor has probably shut. But this is a case of better late than never. At the very least, Tuesday should earn him a few more call-ups.
5. Don’t overreact to Ethan Horvath’s howler. But …
Horvath was largely untroubled for 30 minutes. In the 31st minute, this happened:
Horvath probably wants this one back. https://t.co/kITOGZ9qhD
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 14, 2017
Horvath’s head was immediately in his hands. He had finally gotten his opportunity as the national team’s No. 1, and he had failed spectacularly. It’s not only the type of play that can shatter a keeper’s confidence, it’s the type that can limit opportunities going forward, and perhaps even ruin a career.
It’s important that Horvath, the coaching staff, fans and the media don’t let that happen. It’s one mistake. It’s a 22-year-old. It’s a meaningless friendly. Remember when David De Gea was incredibly error-prone in his first season at Man United? Look where he is now.
But at the same time, this isn’t a complete fluke. Horvath has a brief but significant history of gaffes. He was recently demoted to backup duties at club level for Brugge in Belgium because of a mistake in a loss. And his 45 minutes on Tuesday were an accurately representative mixed bag. In addition to the goal, he made a terribly misguided pass that nearly led to a second. But he else held on to a tricky, dipping long-range shot, and played an outstanding 70-yard punt to Agudelo to start a counter.
The problem is that “mixed bag” isn’t good enough. Not for a U.S. starter. Horvath has plenty of time to prove this isn’t becoming a trend. But national team goalkeepers can’t be making mistakes with this type of regularity. He’ll get more opportunities, but the pressure is now on.
Other takeaways and notes
– Tyler Adams was playing in his third position. With the New York Red Bulls, he’s more often been deployed centrally or as a fullback/wing-back. His performance reflected that. On the defensive side of the ball, he was great. In one instance, he ran half the length of the field to track Bruma, and, in a 1-v-1 situation, blocked the Leipzig winger’s cross. He was anything but in over his head.
But he wasn’t able to get on the ball much, which was disappointing. Most of his attacking involvement came via off-the-ball runs. He got into the box several times, and very nearly scored with a scrappy second-half header. Overall, it was a 7-out-of-10 debut. But hopefully he gets chances to play in the middle in the near future.
– Eric Lichaj, who was largely an afterthought under Bruce Arena even when Graham Zusi struggled, was steady. He’s never going to be a terrifying attacking threat as a right-footer on the left, and he’ll turn 29 in three days, so he’s not one for the future. But he’s useful as a utility fullback.
– Speaking of Arena, he was in the Fox Sports 1 studio for the broadcast, and apparently said that Miazga and Brooks would have been his starting center backs at the 2018 World Cup. Geoff Cameron, your thoughts?
Good thing real coaches don’t listen to studio analysts ! Congrats on your debut
— Geoff Cameron (@GeoffCameron) November 14, 2017
– Juan Agudelo was fine, but just doesn’t have the requisite technical ability or agility to be a valuable national team asset.
– Dom Dwyer only got 13 minutes, so it’s unfair to analyze his performance, but the U.S. attack largely broke down when he replaced Sapong.
– Hamid had one slightly nerve-wracking moment, but was comfortable and mistake-free.
– Brooks had the ball in the back of the net late in the first half, but it was ruled out, seemingly for a foul on Miazga. It’s worth noting, though, that Acosta whipped in a great corner. He might be the set-piece taker of the future.
– After the substitutions, and as the game progressed, Portugal grew into it and began to boss possession. The U.S. was less eager to press high up the field. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s important to keep in mind when analyzing the individual performances of the six players that came off the bench.
– Josh Sargent was the only player on the 21-man roster who didn’t dress for the match. He had picked up a minor injury in training. The other three who didn’t see any game time were Tim Ream, Kelyn Rowe and Jesse Gonzalez.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.