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Nothing the United States men’s national team could possibly do in these final months before the dreaded 2018 World Cup in Russia will ever be truly satisfying. The wound gapes too deeply and stings too freshly for any kind of result or performance to act as a Band-Aid, however fleeting.
The U.S. won’t be at the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and no amount of young talent breaking through can change that. Or indeed make fans feel better about that.
But if you accept those qualifiers, the USA’s narrow 1-0 friendly victory over Paraguay on Tuesday was a happy occasion. Within the larger parameters of this irredeemable year, that is.
In a battle of teams that squandered their place in Russia on the final day of qualifying — the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and was victimized by two other unlikely results; Paraguay was upset by last-placed Venezuela to fall short in the South American region — a very young and experimental U.S. team beat a strong incarnation of the Paraguayans.
More than five months on from the debacle in Trinidad, the senior U.S. team remains in a state of deep flux — much like the United States Soccer Federation itself, in the wake of a hotly contested presidential election and a handful of vacant key positions.
Interim head coach Dave Sarachan, a holdover from the departed Bruce Arena’s failed regime, called in a grab bag of young players and veterans, ranging from the totally inexperienced to the long-time contributors and all points in between.
This ignominious period in U.S. Soccer history might well be forgotten in a few years. Or it could be seen as the time when the men’s team finally pivoted to a successful formula. It’s much too soon to tell.
But there was plenty to inspire hope in Cary, North Carolina. Bobby Wood may have scored the lone goal from a first-half penalty, but 19-year-old central midfielder Tyler Adams dazzled — earning the penalty. Holding midfielder and captain-for-the-day Wil Trapp had a robust game. Center backs Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers showed maturation toward their towering potential. And Israeli-American winger Kenny Saief, long ignored by Sarachan’s predecessors, showed a whimsy and daring seldom seen in a U.S. national teamer.
It’s tricky turning in a coherent performance in such a friendly, with an unfamiliar team and years away from the next major competitive tournament. If there is any rhythm to the play at all, it’s typically disrupted by the waves of substitutions in the second half.
All the same, the U.S. delivered a positive game, taking the play to their respectable opposition. And they largely got the better of their visitors. The U.S. played ambitiously, passing out of trouble and capitalizing on the wings. They were ever-present in the opposing half, even if it was all a bit ponderous in the final third, lacking a presence to unlock Paraguay’s lines centrally.
A quarter of an hour in, the USA fashioned its first promising attack. After an extended buildup and a recovered ball, Darlington Nagbe eventually cut back for Wood and Saief, who got in each other’s way.
But before halftime, Adams laid off to Marky Delgado in his own half. The Toronto FC man, making his debut, zipped an inch-perfect ball through the Paraguayan defense and into the space behind the line for the streaking Adams to run onto. Adams was taken down by goalkeeper Roberto Junior Fernandez in the box.
Wood coolly rolled in the penalty.
Before the hour, Rodrigo Rojas should have been sent off for scything through Delgado but was spared and let off with a yellow card. That wasn’t the first or last time the testy Paraguayans set about hacking through the Americans to slow them down.
But it didn’t do them a whole lot of good. The U.S. barely gave away chances. And while the score remained close, the Americans never seemed at risk of losing the game. That allowed for the much-anticipated debuts of young attackers Timothy Weah and Andrija Novakovich, aged 18 and 21, respectively, who gave undaunted impressions.
And perhaps that will be what this game is remembered for, what this lame-duck period is remembered for. The breakthroughs and the debuts in the dark, quiet shadow of a looming World Cup played without our home team.
But on that score, too, it’s hard to say until another World Cup year comes around.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.