If nothing else, you have to appreciate the temerity of going to France, facing one of the World Cup favorites, and playing your kids.
But that’s exactly what interim United States men’s national team head coach Dave Sarachan did, in what is likely his last game in charge. When Bruce Arena resigned following the cataclysmic loss in Trinidad and Tobago last October, ensuring that the U.S. would miss its first World Cup since 1986, Sarachan fell into the job by virtue of having been Arena’s assistant. He’ll surely lose it now that newly-appointed national team general manager Earnie Stewart will have a chance to appoint a coach of his own.
On Saturday, in the last of a three-game set of friendlies for the U.S., it faced mighty France’s first team in Lyon. And Sarachan unabashedly resumed the national team’s grand reconstruction. He might have picked what few veterans he’d brought and looked to limit the damage against a team that could fashion a quarterfinalist from the players it won’t be bringing to the World Cup in Russia next week. Instead, Sarachan doubled down.
The average age of the five-man back-line in an improvised formation, designed for absorbing constant pressure, was 21.6 years — dragged up significantly by the 25-year-old Tim Parker. The midfield featured two teenagers. There wasn’t a player in the starting lineup older than 25.
And initially, it showed. The young Yanks made an incredibly jittery start, coming to terms with the enormity of the difference between their budding careers and the heights scaled by their famous opponents. Mostly, the Americans are still trying to break into the European senior teams, going on loans to smaller clubs just to find minutes. The French, by comparison, are some of the most expensive and coveted players in the world.
Most recent transfer fees paid for each starting XI:
– France: £427 million
– USMNT: £8 million
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) June 9, 2018
As it was pointed out, the French starting lineup had a market value that was 53 times bigger than the Americans, at last count.
Paul Pogba — the Paul Pogba — smashed a shot off Zack Steffen’s near post in just the fifth minute. But as the clock lumbered on, the Americans grew in confidence while France slowly lost interest in clowning the opponents they may have taken too lightly.
Because, strangely, unexpectedly, improbably, France wasn’t scoring goals. Or really creating all that many major chances. As the game went on, in fact, it fashioned fewer and fewer opportunities, settling for hopeful long shots instead.
Incredibly, the U.S. even went ahead on the brink of halftime when Shaq Moore’s rare run up the right flank resulted in a cross misplayed by Djibril Sibide. Julian Green pounced and cracked his finish through Sibide’s legs, beating Hugo Lloris to his near post — only exacerbating the pressure on the French goalkeeper.
Bobby Wood, in fact, got a second just after the break, on another Moore cross. It’s just that he had strayed offside and was rightly flagged for it.
In the end, of course, the American resistance broke in the face of so much French firepower. In the 78th minute, Kylian Mbappe, the best 19-year-old in the world, surrounded by four Americans, finally poked in the equalizer. And then Steffen barely managed to push Nabil Fekir’s free kick wide to preserve the tie.
The 23-year-old Columbus Crew goalie would stand on his head several more times, perhaps going some way in answering who will be succeeding Tim Howard as the long-term answer between the posts.
To focus too much on the result or the late capitulation of the win is to miss the point. The Americans were expected to lose heavily. Les Bleus were putting the final touches on their World Cup preparations, hoping for a heartening send-off win after pasting Italy, Ireland and Russia in their last three games. (The same Ireland team that comprehensively beat this American team 2-1 a week earlier.)
This U.S. team was really just here for the experience. When you get a chance to play France, you take it. You might get hammered but you’ll learn a few lessons. At a minimum, you’ll find out just how big the gap between your own players and the world’s best is. And for a young team, that kind of benchmark is precious.
Yet the Americans didn’t wither under the glare of a spotlight far bigger than most of them had ever handled. They grew emboldened, even, as they realized that even the French had just as many feet as they did, and walked the same grass.
As the U.S. slowly rebuilds its team toward the next World Cup in 2022, painstakingly trying out players and formations and tactics until it finally finds some formula that can get it back to the world stage, an experience such as this one is invaluable. While superstar-in-the-making Christian Pulisic didn’t travel on the European leg of this camp — resting, after a long season with Borussia Dortmund — much of this team could form the backbone of the national team for the next decade or so.
There’s no sense in picking out specific names. There’s never any telling which young soccer players will grow and mature and which ones won’t. But much of this bunch will likely be around. And no matter who they might face next, at whichever point down the road, they’ll know that they beat a full-strength World Cup contender for more than 77 minutes.
Facing Mexico in the Estadio Azteca becomes a little easier when you’ve had such an affirming experience early on in your national team career. Going to Honduras or Costa Rica in a qualifier isn’t quite so daunting having been through this. Indeed, facing France in the actual World Cup might now not be as scary.
For a national team in search of new personnel, a fresh identity and a rebuilt confidence, even a friendly tie in a game spent beating back wave after wave of dominant Frenchmen could prove something of a seminal moment.
Because they’ll always remember the night when they discovered, perhaps even to their own surprise, that they belonged on a field with Pogba and Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann and all the rest.
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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