It may be some time yet before the United States men’s national team can surpass the memories of Oct. 11, when a rash of inability, a stunning defeat and an unlikely assemblage of unfortunate external events cost it a place in next summer’s World Cup.
However long that procedure lasts, it will have to unfold in a sequence of bashful baby steps, very much like the ones managed here Tuesday night, when the Americans fought to a 1-1 draw in an exhibition match against Portugal.
For the American players, the game itself held small competitive meaning, besides as a beginning gun of sorts for the awesome task of rebuilding the program. Youth and inexperience were the initial motifs on the chilly night. Central midfielder Weston McKennie, 19, scored the Americans’ goal on a short, surgical dribbling run, producing a standout conduct as one of three players creating their national team appearances. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the 22-year-old goalkeeper Ethan Horvath devoted an embarrassing blunder that permitted Portugal to level the game.
Still, for all the ups and downs from the mixture of new and old faces, the consent was that it had been a good night, a step in the right direction.
“When the national anthem was going, I was smiling a little bit, because I was thinking in my head, ‘I certainly got to this point,’ ” said McKennie, who was born in Texas and plays for Schalke 04 in Germany. “We just needed to turn the page and show the U.S. what the future holds.”
Last month, the American men joined a disgraceful list of high-profile nations — Chile, the Netherlands, and, most newly, Italy — to suffer surprise destruction from the World Cup qualification rounds. The Americans’ crucial loss, on the road against Trinidad and Tobago, left the federation in something of a prolonged tailspin.
Bruce Arena, who was hired as the team’s coach in November 2016, halfway through the qualification cycle, to shepherd a listing squad to the World Cup in Russia, resigned days after the defeat, leaving a staff of associate to guide the team at least to end of the year. The future of the federation’s presidency remains up in the air with an election appearing in February. In the past three quadrennial elections, Sunil Gulati ran unopposed. This time, there already are sufficient challengers to fill a small-sided pickup game even without Gulati, who has yet to assert whether he will enter the race.
No one knows, then, what will happen arrive February, and know one knows perfectly what to do until then.
Amid this state of suspended animation, there was a game to play. The match Tuesday unfolded before 19,017 fans at Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa, a multihued, elliptical arena erected in 2003 next to an 882-year-old castle. The United States had finished the week leading to the match training 90 miles south of the stadium, in Lisbon, where the buzzwords preferred by their interim coach Dave Sarachan — terms like “energy” and “opportunity” — spoke to the greenhorn ambience of the setup.
The system reflected that, too, with eight players 24 years of age or younger. Sarachan managed the players into a 4-1-4-1 design and picked Danny Williams, playing his first game for the national team in more than a year, to serve as captain.
Whatever demand the game might have had to American spectators most likely would be due to the presence of a trio of teenagers creating their national team debuts: McKennie, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, 19, and midfielder Tyler Adams, 18. (Josh Sargent, 17, a bright striker, was nursing a tense right quadriceps and did not dress for the match.)
McKennie produced a principally thorough performance, his baby face belying his aplomb in the central, high-traffic areas of the field. In the 21st minute, he received a pass near the edge of the penalty area from forward C. J. Sapong, created space with an inside-out dribble and coolly curled the ball with his right foot just inside the near post of the goal. He was gathered by his teammates as whistles rained down from the stands.
“I got it, took a touch, kept it close to my feet, and saw the goalkeeper cheating a little bit, so I just attempted to slot it past him, and it went in,” McKennie said.
Adams, meanwhile, displayed the same hyperactive motor and pugnacious influences that have earned him early-career raves with his club, the Red Bulls of Major League Soccer. Deployed on the right flank, he generally found his way to the penalty area and had a couple of scoring chances saved from close range, and also noted himself defensively.
It was a far more distasteful night for Horvath, one of several young goalkeepers lining up for a shot at the job most newly held by Tim Howard. In the 31st minute, Vitorino Antunes, the Portuguese left back, fired an ambitious, swerving, first-time volley from the left wing, far outside the area. The ball escalated right at Horvath — and right through his legs. Stunned by his inaccuracy, Horvath bent forward at the waist, covering his face with his white gloves. After the game, he said he had been caught “thinking about the next play” before securing the ball.
Despite the error, Sarachan exalted Horvath and the rest of the team for the assurance they showed playing against Portugal, the world’s No. 4 team and one that is en route to Russia, in the still long shadow of the United States’ adverse loss last month.
“What I told them after the game was, 2017 was an arduous year for U.S. Soccer, and there are a lot of people out there who weren’t assured what this was going to look like tonight,” Sarachan said. “And I said to the group that I couldn’t be more great. And the future is bright.”