U.S. youngsters like McKennie eager to show what they can do vs. Portugal
LISBON - The U.S. men's national team has hit rock bottom. At least that's what everyone connected to the program hopes. The dream of going to the 2018 World Cup has been obliterated, with a reckoning within the team and the U.S. Soccer Federation now at hand.
It is against this backdrop that the U.S. men have one more game to play in 2017, a friendly against Portugal in Leiria. And it is here that the U.S. aims to provide a morsel of the fuel that drives national teams everywhere: hope.
With the MLS Cup playoffs down to the final four and players like Christian Pulisic being rested, that hope is pinned on a roster littered with young but unproven talents, from defenders Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers to midfielders Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie to forward Josh Sargent. There are some wizened heads as well, including defender John Brooks, full-back DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, but the anticipation surrounding the U.S. for this match is centered on youth.
To a certain degree, it seems unfair to put that kind of burden on inexperienced players, especially against the reigning European champions. But rebuilding the U.S. side has to begin at some point. To be clear: There will be a balance on the field between veterans and youngsters, but it's also a chance to gauge the progress of some promising players.
That World Cup qualifying failure still lingers, of course. For those who were there, the stain of that humiliation is one that doesn't wash away. Even for those players that weren't, the loss to Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualifying still had an impact. A chance to play in a World Cup, no matter how remote, is now gone.
"When I woke up and checked the result on Twitter, at first I didn't think it was real," said Carter-Vickers. "I had to check another source to get the score of the game. But I was super disappointed for all the players that were part of it, and disappointed for myself."
Acting U.S. manager Dave Sarachan addressed that issue on the first night of training camp, while the presence of so many young players has allowed the focus to be more on the future.
"With youth comes youthful energy, optimism, opportunity, and so to be around that energy has been good," said Sarachan in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "And the idea isn't 'Hey guys, we're ramping up for the next cycle.' That's not the message.
"The message is use this opportunity to begin your journey with the national program. You're here because we think you have a future."
The player whose future appears brightest at the moment is McKennie. It's a rarity for an American teenager to come into a Bundesliga side and log consistent minutes, even if the likes of Pulisic has made it more familiar. The native of Little Elm, Texas, has done just that, appearing in seven of Schalke's 11 matches, although his early success wasn't completely unexpected.
"It's something that I was willing to take on," said McKennie about his club opportunities. "I was kind of prepared for it. Of course, no one can predict a rapid success, but it's something a kid wishes and dreams for, so when it comes to you it's like, 'Wow, it's here, and I want to do everything I can to make sure it stays this way and just keep moving forward.'"
There is a tendency to think that having played under the bright lights of the Bundesliga, there is little that would faze McKennie. But these are human beings, not robots, and young ones at that, susceptible to some of the same emotions as anyone else.
"It may seem like I'm a calm customer. I like to dance, I like to sing in the locker room," said McKennie. "But when it comes time to play, I'm real serious. Of course I get a little nervous because I care about the game, but I'm going to go out there and do my best."
McKennie has certainly caught the eye of Sarachan, and has looked every bit the prototypical central midfielder. He seems a lock to get his first cap and possibly start.
"McKennie has come in with confidence, and he's shown that he's very good on the ball," said Sarachan. "Now that I've seen him, his composure on the ball, he's gotten a little bit stronger, his reading of things has been clear. He's mobile enough. That's why these games are so good: You can get a sense of guys. You get to measure yourself against the best. We'll see when the game gets fast what they look like."
There have been others, too. Sarachan spoke well of Miazga and Carter-Vickers, two players who are using loan spells to further their careers: Miazga is getting playing time at Dutch side Vitesse and Carter-Vickers with English second-tier side Sheffield United.
"But both seem confident. They're not overwhelmed by being here," said Sarachan.
That is the vibe running through much of this camp. Not only are many of the younger players not overwhelmed, but also they're taking an approach whereby they're actively embracing the opportunity.
"I feel like I've taken every experience as it comes," said Adams. "But more than anything, I don't want to look back and say I regret anything or that I missed a certain opportunity. I live in the moment, have fun with it. The fact that I can now look back and say that I've been called up to the senior national team is something that means so much to me -- it was a childhood dream of mine. So I'm having fun with it and that's the most important thing."
Sarachan's approach this week has been to keep things simple, and "not overload the group with a lot of words and information." His focus has been on having the players get to know one another, and there is already some built-in familiarity within the squad. Miazga and Carter-Vickers played together on the squad that went to the 2015 U-20 World Cup. McKennie and Kellyn Acosta are products of FC Dallas' academy.
That hasn't prevented some traditions from continuing, including what McKennie called "an initiation" whereby new players had to get up and sing in front of the entire team. McKennie's choice? Lil Wayne's "A Milli."
Of course, there is still a game to be played. Expectations are certainly low given what has transpired over the past two months, even as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho were left off Portugal's roster. A strong performance of any kind would allow for some healing to begin.
McKennie put it best "We want to give U.S. soccer fans a breath of fresh air and try to show them what the future can look like."
And a bit of hope too.
-- Tuesday's game has a higher purpose than to simply entertain the crowd. The proceeds of the match will go towards helping victims of wildfires in and around Leiria. A telethon will take place before the match, with all three national networks in Portugal broadcasting the match.
The U.S. is also chipping in. U.S. Ambassador to Portugal George Glass said that the U.S. had provided $50,000 donation to help in the short-term, with a third of the money providing feed for farm animals and the remaining two-thirds going to the Red Cross to provide tents for those residents who lost their homes. Ambassador Glass added that help from USAID and the U.S. Forest Service would also be provided in the long term.
"A lot of these people, they lost everything," said Glass. "To come out here and to watch the government work as quickly as it did to get those resources was enlightening and very heartfelt. It meant a lot to be able to do that as quickly as we did."
-- One U.S. youngster who might have to wait for his first appearance is forward Josh Sargent. Sargent came into camp carrying what Sarachan described as a "lower body injury."
He looked to be a full participant in Sunday's training session -- at least that portion that was open to the media -- but on Monday Sargent could be seen sitting out the latter part of warm-ups.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.