EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — In the heavy fog of this strange time in the history of the United States men’s national team, you look for spots of clarity.
It’s all so hard to parse. An endless succession of friendlies against opponents who are mostly trying things or rebuilding, like the Americans. Large packs of new players, cycling in for a cup of coffee or writing the opening chapter of potentially long careers. You try to find encouraging signs, while keeping all the qualifiers and context and asterisks front of mind.
Since the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in Trinidad a little over a year ago, the USA had been a perfectly average 3-3-3, trading encouraging performances with ones that suggest the road to Qatar in 2022 is still awfully long.
If ever there was a game that could expose a ragtag band of current national teamers, a grab bag of precocious young talent, players previously overlooked (or simply … looked?) and veterans, it was Tuesday’s affair with Peru.
The U.S. had made nine changes from its 4-2 defeat to Colombia in Tampa on Thursday. And its chances of winning weren’t looking any better. A heavy defeat, in fact, was very much in the cards. Peru was a World Cup team and had acquitted itself fairly well in Russia, even though it had been knocked out in the group stage. And in spite of Peru resting a spate of regulars, the Americans were very much outmatched.
In Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long and Jonathan Amon, the USMNT was starting three players who were not only making their debut in the national team jersey, but likely also in the conscience of a lot of USA fans. Josh Sargent, the 18-year-old starting striker, still hasn’t made his professional debut for Werder Bremen – or anybody else. And Tim Weah, also 18, was the fourth-most capped player in the lineup, with all of six appearances.
The entire starting back line had six caps. Long-time captain Michael Bradley and DeAndre Yedlin, the lone veterans actually available, were rested and didn’t enter the game until late.
Sure enough, the Americans spent a lot of the game absorbing pressure as they were likely still learning one another’s names against a smooth Peru team playing in front of a very friendly crowd.
“As expected, we faced a very good team tonight in Peru,” said acting head coach Dave Sarachan. “They demonstrated pretty much what I expected: quality on the ball, quickness, speed, experience.”
Yet a funny thing happened. The Yanks grew in confidence and figured out their organization as they settled into the game, changing their shape to open passing lanes for themselves. And this American team, for as little experience or pedigree as it had, earned a 1-1 tie. A Sargent goal just after halftime, when he popped Kellyn Acosta’s low free kick through traffic and past goalkeeper Jose Carvallo, held up until the 86th minute, when Edison Flores snagged a late equalizer when Yedlin lost his man at the far post.
But apart from the score, the Americans gave a remarkably mature and composed performance, surrendering just three shots on goal. Facing superior talent and experience, they did a very laudable job of keeping their shape and their cool. It was a showing that was so credible, in fact, that if you didn’t know that this U.S. team was newly assembled from new or spare parts, you’d have had a hard time believing it.
Certainly, Peru’s tie was not unearned. About 10 minutes before Flores’s goal, a long Andy Polo rocket had crashed off the beaten Brad Guzan’s bar. And it wasn’t pretty at the end, as the nominal home team hung on for a somewhat flattered result.
Still, the U.S. felt like it should have hung on. “We feel disappointed that it ended in a tie,” Sarachan said. “We realize they have chances but when you’re 1-0 up that late in the game, you want to close it out.”
“But in the big picture of things, we had three players who earned their first caps tonight,” he added. “We had a lot of young guys, some new guys. You’ve always got to keep in mind that we played a team that’s been together a long time in Peru and we’ve been together for four or five days here. So I thought the response from the guys, competing-wise, was excellent. Coming away with a draw from a very strong Peru team is nothing to sink your heads down for. Keep your heads high is what we told them. A good night for this young group.”
It was. An unexpectedly good one. A strand of clear light through the haze.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.