United States face another top opponent with Tabarez's Uruguay becoming global force
There are easier ways to bounce back from a bad evening than to face the Uruguay national team.
True, results in friendly matches are not a priority. Even so, the United States' 3-0 defeat to Mexico was a blow to morale, just as Uruguay's 2-1 win away to Costa Rica was a boost. It was a match that illustrated why coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is so keen to stay in charge, and will still be directing operations in St. Louis on Tuesday night.
Tabarez, who is 72 and suffers from a neurological problem that limits his movement, took Uruguay to the World Cup all the way back in 1990. His second spell started almost 14 years ago and has returned Uruguay to the game's top table. Last year in Russia, Uruguay were the most successful South American side, and it might have been thought that the 2018 World Cup would bring his distinguished career to a dignified end. But he carries on, and anyone who watched Friday's win over Costa Rica will understand his motives.
Uruguay were away from home against highly experienced opponents. They were without the three main stalwarts of their side, captain and centre-back Diego Godin, and the world class strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. And still they found a way to win.
Uruguayan football is famous for its deep rooted drive, an inner capacity to dig deep and grind out results in unfavourable circumstances. But it would be an insult to attribute their recent success to this characteristic. After all, in the era before Tabarez took over for his second spell, Uruguay qualified for just one World Cup -- and failed to make it out of the group stage. Since then they have always made it to the World Cup and always made it out of the group stage. Something has clearly changed, and it has everything to do with Tabarez.
Before taking charge in 2006, Tabarez, a qualified teacher, thought long and hard about the effects of globalisation on the modern game. He saw clearly that a country with the population of Uruguay (little more than 3 million) had no chance of maintaining a top-class domestic league. The best players would always be sold abroad, at an ever younger age.
His conclusion was simple. He would have to use the youth ranks of the national team to develop players good enough to secure the future of the senior side. Firstly, this entailed identifying youngsters with the capacity to hold their own at the highest level -- players with speed of thought, movement and technical execution. Once identified, these players were then to be developed, as footballers and as human beings. And crucially, they would receive an intensive course in the importance and tradition of the sky-blue shirt.
The centrepiece of this project has been the under-20 side, envisaged as the conveyor belt to the senior side. The success rate here has been extraordinary; the 2007 U20s produced Suarez and Cavani, along with defender Martin Caceres. In 2009 came centre-back Sebastian Coates, reserve keeper Martin Campana and Nicolas Lodeiro, among others. The 2011 team produced midfielder Matias Vecino.
Two years later came centre-back Jose Gimenez, left-back Diego Laxalt and attacking midfielder Giorgian de Arrascaeta. From 2015 emerged midfielder Nahitan Nandez, 2017 produced the midfield lions Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde, plus left sided Marcelo Saracchi and Matias Vina, who came off the bench to make his debut at left-back on Friday. And the 2019 side produced LA Galaxy winger Brian Rodriguez, who was handed his first start against Costa Rica.
Almost the entire squad, then, are graduates of the Tabarez college course. And the current generation are so promising that, quite rightly, Tabarez cannot drag himself away. Enthused by the potential of his squad, Tabarez is understandably keen to see how far he can take them.
At some point, of course, the likes of Godin, Suarez and Cavani will have to be replaced. All three will surely be past their best by the time the next World Cup comes round. Uruguay have been planning for this, preparing replacements. Gimenez is ready to step up and lead the defence in the absence of Godin. There are high hopes for recent Valencia signing Maxi Gomez as a bull-like striker who could take over from the likes of Suarez and Cavani.
Indeed, the absence of Uruguay's first choice strike duo can also be seen as an opportunity. Having both Suarez and Cavani has over the last few years effectively forced the team into a 4-4-2 formation, which sometimes can leave them looking rigid. Against Costa Rica Gomez operated up front on his own, and was replaced in the second half by match winner Jonathan Rodriguez. Behind him Uruguay lined up in something like a 4-1-4-1, allowing them more freedom to attack down the flanks. An alternative would be a 4-4-1-1, with the talented De Arrascaeta in his most natural role, as a playmaker able to roam behind the centre forward.
Uruguay, then, keep rolling on smoothly, reaping the benefit of years of good preparation. Gregg Berhalter and his men will need the spirit of St. Louis to get the better of them on Tuesday.