USMNT still has long road to the World Cup, but the foundation is worth celebrating

Your flying car is back from the mechanic and parked in the air garage that floats above your house. You’ve had your dinner capsule and the kids are in bed, after taking their UV baths. It’s time to relax, activate your brain streaming and enjoy some United States men’s national team action.

The future is here.

Was Monday’s 6-2 win over Panama — in, of course, Austria, because where else? — only a friendly played on ocean away from both nations at the tail-end of an international break wedged into an already-jammed club season? Yes. Sure.

Was this Panama team every bit as dangerous as the Panamanian army? Well, since Panama doesn’t have a standing army, also yes, pretty much.

But 2020 has been a woeful year in every way. And if you’re a committed U.S. national team follower — or, worse, a devoted fan — this has been a very long cycle or two for you. You’ve been in the wilderness as the national team fell apart, missed a World Cup and lumbered along for years, mostly looking feckless and directionless. So you deserve this. We deserve this.

Because there’s something to get excited about. There’s a lot to get excited about.

A national team that is young, talented, competent and compelling and maybe even a tad cocky — but the good kind of cocky. The doing-tricks-on-the-ball-in-a-real-game kind of cocky.

“I don’t even know — was it six or seven?” Reyna asked casually on a video conference after the game, wondering about the score. “I don’t even remember to be honest. Six, right? It was six.”

United States' Matt Miazga and Sergino Dest celebrate during a friendly match against Panama.
USMNT's Matt Miazga, center, celebrates with Sergino Dest after his team's second goal during the international friendly soccer match against Panama at the SC Wiener Neustadt stadium in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, on Nov. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

There is an awfully long way to go until the Americans get back to a World Cup, let alone make a breakthrough there. Lots of obstacles remain; there is much growing and improving to be done. But there are glimmers. Glimmers and sparks. So many of them that they’re almost blinding.

And in dark times, you have to celebrate the flickers of light. Besides, it was the USA’s the last game of the year anyway — a calendar year of just three games, thus undefeated! — the ideal time to draw sweeping and overly emotional conclusions about the team’s direction and future. Plenty of times, the Yanks have looked fetid in these November friendlies. Not this time. So let’s enjoy this.

Let’s enjoy that the starting lineup was, on average, only 22 years old — and aged significantly by the presence of 33-year-old captain-for-the-day Tim Ream. Let’s enjoy the already world-class status of RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, FC Barcelona’s Sergino Dest and Juventus’ Weston McKennie, which they all confirmed once again against Panama. Let’s enjoy how good the team looked over this game and Thursday’s very credible 0-0 tie with Wales even without injured star Christian Pulisic.

Let’s enjoy how the Americans came back with a seven-minute three-goal flurry in the first half on a Reyna free kick and two goals from Nicholas Gioacchini — a tap-in and an acrobatic header.

Let’s not worry so much about the fact that Panama went ahead in the eighth minute when Jose Fajardo found too much room between Ream and Matt Miazga on a cross not closed down properly. Let’s not worry about McKennie deserving a red card on a rash challenge, which the presence of VAR would probably have meted out, unlike referee Harald Lechner.

Let’s also not fret about the fact that the second half was much sloppier for the Americans, or that they gave away a cheap second goal to Fajardo when he sauntered through the U.S. back line to latch onto a loose ball and shank it past Zack Steffen.

Instead, let’s remember how debutant Sebastian Soto scored the fourth on a strong header from the cross dispatched by fellow newcomer Richie Ledezma. Or how Sebastian Lletget bagged the fifth with a header that dinked in off the bottom of the near post. And how Soto got his second on yet another header — a sixth — in injury time. Or that it could have been seven, had Gioacchini not botched his penalty kick.

“All we wanted to do from the beginning is get the fans on our side — it was an important step for us,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game of his team’s rapidly improving watchability. “That’s how it should be.”

We needed something to feel good about. And what we saw from this U.S. men’s national team in the past week is something to feel good about.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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