The honest truth is that the United States Men’s National Team is in a rough spot. Are they better off now than they were a year ago? Absolutely, but that can only be said because their biggest failing of this century is now behind them. Missing the 2018 World Cup was an inexcusable catastrophe that now serves as a tombstone for a series fading national team favorites. Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, players that were shoe-ins for starting spot when healthy one or two years ago, are recently retired and there are serious discussions in the USMNT camp about the futures of captains and mainstays, most notably Michael Bradley. These are uncomfortable and necessary conversations considering the recent past, the amazing flood of young talent that has been and continues to be discovered among US eligible players, and the long slog that qualifying for the Qatar World Cup will be; however, talking is not enough.
This match between the US and Brazil, the 3rd ranked team in the world, serves as a starting point. Going forward, if the US wants to portray itself as a team to be taken seriously on the world stage, they must perform against the sides they wish to be their equals. Are they there yet? No, but things are looking up. Just before the World Cup started, the US got an excellent result against the eventual world champions, France, drawing them in France, 1-1. Considering that match was Les Blues final tune up before the tournament and what they went on to do, that result holds up to all scrutiny, especially when the amount of youth the US brought into the match is considered. They did not wither under the bright lights, and those lights were back again against Brazil.
On top of the increased scrutiny that a match against Canarinha brings, Brazil made it even tougher by not bringing anything close to a B squad, quite the contrary. Neymar and Coutinho headlined a Brazil side that included nearly all of their starting XI from their World Cup Quarter Final loss in Russia. Brazil came to win. Remember: this was the start of a new cycle for everyone. Brazil wanted to get off to the right start as much as the US. Unfortunately, even before the match, the US was coming in without a full slate of options.
Christian Pulisic and Sebastian Lletget both picked up injuries before match, – especially sad for Lletget who was going to make his first appearance for the national team since March 28, 2017, when he put in an early goal before picking up a Lisfranc injury in a 6-0 US victory over Honduras in World Cup qualifying – and possible starting forward, Josh Sargent, only 18, stayed behind with his new club team, Werder Bremen, where he continues to produce for their U-23 team, already netting 5 goals in the first 7 matches of the season. Losing key members and a great deal of attacking before the match even started, the US was going to have to depend on a trio of forwards, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, and Andrija Novakovich, for the finishing they would need to get out of MetLife Stadium with a win; however, when the team sheets were handed out, Novakovich was nowhere to be found and Julian Green was now listed as a Forward. Then, when the starting XI’s and formations were announced, things were made more clear.
Dave Sarachan, interim coach for the US, went with a 4-1-4-1, an unusual formation for the US, with Wil Trapp serving as holding midfielder and captain and Bobby Wood as solo forward. The die was cast for a measured, defensive approach and, considering the side the young US team, averaging just over 23 years old, was facing, it was probably prudent, even if it was not exciting. The back line of Yedlin, Brooks, Miazga, and Antonee Robinson was the most experienced portion of the XI, in spite of Robinson picking up only his third cap, and it showed for the majority of the match. The only major slip up was the 11′ goal by Roberto Firmino. He was left unmarked on a dangerous, trailing run into the box and slotted home a pinpoint cross from Thiago Silva.
After the goal, the US responded well and kept the game in front of them for the most part. There was, of course, the typical sloppy play in the midfield that plagues all young sides, but the mids and defenders recovered well. The worst portion of play in the first half was in their attempts to move forward. There was a certain degree of separation in intent that kept the ball from moving freely and even when things were strung together, and an opportunity emerged, the final ball in or final touch was not there. As the half progressed, Yedlin made his characteristic runs up the pitch and found Weston McKinnie a few times in the box, and even saved a goal with a fantastic recovery run in the 28′. Then, the complexion of the second half was dramatically altered. Brazil re-upped their efforts in the last 10 minutes of the half, pressed forward, and got a ludicrous penalty call on a comical flop by Fabinho. So clear was the flop, that any degree of VAR would have overturned the call. Neymar slotted home the resulting PK to put Brazil up 2-0, just before half, but the US continued to fight and created their best chance of the half in the 45’+1 when Green, who had an up and down performance overall, played in a great ball to McKinnie, who nearly put it in. Again, the game would have had a much different feel if things had just been altered just a little.
At this point, it would not have been shocking to see Brazil come out in the second half with a largely new side, but that was not the case. Neither Brazil, nor the US made any changes at the half, and so the match continued quite similar to how it had already progressed. In the 55′, Sarachan subbed in Tim Weah and Kellyn Acosta for Green and Paul Arriola, who probably put in the weakest performance of the night, and they injected some more life into the US, but goals were elusive for them, an Acosta free kick was one-time volleyed just wide by McKinnie and a long distance effort by Trapp, set up by Weah, was pushed wide for a corner that lead to nothing. The defense had a much better second half and during the few breakdowns, individual efforts by Robinson, making a great recovery to save a goal, and Zack Steffen, pushing some tough shots wide or saving them outright, kept the match at 2-0. The match eventually petered out and the final whistle found the game the same as the half, Brazil up 2-0.
This was one of those matches whose scoreline is worse than the performance. A nearly full Brazil side only earned one goal against an exceedingly young US side that was missing some key players. Unfortunately, those gaps in the attack were quite apparent. Even though they had 11 shots to Brazil’s 12, they only put 2 on goal and they failed to convert on 6 corner kicks. If Pulisic had been on the pitch, you could absolutely imagine some great hold-up play, speedy movement forward, or well-placed set piece service helping to unlock a Brazil defense who did not look unbeatable, but even without him, you can see the team progressing. Yedlin has significantly improved his runs, in both attack and recovery, and overall play; McKinnie was one of the best players out there for the US, sniffing around the Brazil 18 often, and probably would have been Man of the Match if he had slotted in one of his shots; but those honors went to John Brooks, who won his aerial battles, intercepted dangerous passes, smelled out tricky runs, and kept the defense organized enough to hold Brazil mostly at bay. Aside from the big time players, Steffen had a pretty solid night, even if he only had to steer away 4 SOG, Weah and Acosta made a difference when they came on, and Zardes did fine with his short time on the pitch. There were some poor performances though. Green was uneven, Adams was a little sloppy, Trapp never felt fully engaged, Robinson had trouble holding possession and got caught up-field a couple of times, Roldan did not do anything with his 10 minutes on the pitch, and Wood was pretty invisible for the most part, but Arriola probably had the worst night by squandering some valuable chances for the US and not doing anything to make up for it.
Next up for the US is a rivalry match against Mexico on September 11th, Patriots Day, in Nashville, TN. Odds are that the US side will look much different than it did against Brazil. Some of those changes will be voluntary and tactical, but at least one will be forced upon the side. John Brooks is heading back to Germany early to rejoin Wolfsburg, so Cameron Carter-Vickers will likely get the start alongside Miazga. Beyond that, it would be nice to see a more attacking formation, a 4-4-2 perhaps, with the back four only making that one substitution, Weah and Acosta starting over Green and Arriola, and, with Trapp’s spot disappearing, Zardes and Wood up top or maybe give Novakovich or Green the nod over Wood. It will be interesting to see how Sarachan adjusts, but one thing is for certain: they will need more goals if they want to win.
All in all, the result was not great, but it was not terrible either. The US was not embarrassed by Brazil, which, if you took history into account – the US is 1-17-0 against Brazil – was certainly an option. The US struggled in the area where they were expected to struggle, when considering their lack of options, missing players, and dearth of inexperience up top, and it is unreasonable to expect a defense to hold Brazil scoreless for 90 minutes. This was a learning experience and a pretty good kickoff to a new World Cup cycle.