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As the World Cup draws close
The United States men’s national team had always planned on using their May camp to prepare for the World Cup, but looking ahead to Qatar 2022 surely wasn’t what they had in mind. Fine-tuning has instead given way to long-range planning as one of the youngest USA squads in recent memory takes on Bolivia in a friendly on Monday night outside Philadelphia before flying to Dublin to face Ireland on Saturday, then to Lyon to serve as a sparring partner to France in their final tune-up before the big to-do kicks off in Moscow.
No doubt the Americans would rather be the knife than the flintstone in the equation, but they only have themselves to blame after the team’s embarrassing failure to qualify for next month’s tournament, leaving them on the outside of a World Cup looking in for the first time since the Reagan administration, with only the 2022 cycle to look toward.
The shirts on the Talen Energy Stadium pitch
will be the same but many of the players wearing them will be familiar only to hardcore supporters. Team linchpin Christian Pulisic (20 international appearances), Joe Corona (20), Jorge Villafaña (16) and Eric Lichaj (14) all featured in the side’s doomed qualifying campaign, but the other 18 players named to Monday’s squad have collectively been capped a scant
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51 times. Fifteen of them are aged 22 or under, while only Villafaña and Lichaj were born before 1990. And since not all of the players dressing for Bolivia will make the trip to Europe – Major League Soccer clubs are not required to release their players for international duty since the matches don’t fall on Fifa dates – there’s a chance for even more fresh faces to enter the mix.
The USA have played three times under stopgap helmsman Dave Sarachan since the Catastrophe at Couva, earning draws with Portugal and Bosnia, and seeing off Paraguay in friendlies. A dispiriting sense of purgatory will linger until the team appoints a permanent manager, but the business at hand demands increasing the depth of the player pool and assessing the youngsters who will be in their prime years when the US makes their redemptive run for Qatar.
“As I’ve talked about throughout this process, the theme is to offer opportunity to this younger generation of talented players that have potential down the road with the program,” Sarachan said. “We’ve had first-time call-ups in every camp
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since November, and this is another extension of that. We’re going into the Bolivia game with newer faces along with a few familiar players as well. Overall, these types of games provide great chances for players to bank key minutes in international matches.”
Long-term planning seldom makes for a sexy narrative and Monday’s match with La Verde hardly qualifies as appointment viewing for the casual fan, but a few plotlines stick out. Pulisic and Weston McKennie, the Bundesliga midfielders and longtime friends coming off promising campaigns with Dortmund and Schalke 04 respectively, will likely start beside one another for the first time as senior internationals, a partnership that could blossom into something special in coming years. Toronto FC’s Alex Bono and Midtjylland’s Bill Hamid will likely see time in the ongoing hunt for a first-choice goalkeeper with Brad Guzan and Tim Howard almost certainly out of the international picture. Forward Jordan Sargent, an 18-year-old who signed a contract with Werder Bremen last year and is eligible to debut for the first team next season, is expected to make his USA debut, as could defensive midfielder Keaton Parks, a 20-year-old Texan who made four appearances for Benfica this year while punching in seven goals for the reserves.
The United States’ next possible World Cup match
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– and this is the best-case scenario – will take place four years from now during Thanksgiving week in the middle of a
desert. They won’t take place in a tournament until next summer’s Gold Cup. The time for tearing up the floorboards and building from scratch will never be riper. The future is now, if depressingly ahead of schedule.
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