Next generation has shown the U.S. should trust in youth
For the first time in a while -- eight months, at least -- the future looks brighter for the U.S. men's national team. For that reason, the service given by the old guard should remain exactly where it is: in the past. Now is the time for the next generation, several of whom wrestled France's stars to a creditable 1-1 draw in Lyon on Saturday.
If U.S. Soccer is to take a meaningful step forward, following the gut-punching misery of October's defeat to Trinidad and Tobago and failure to reach the World Cup in Russia, which starts Thursday, it must end the careers of nearly all the players who were part of that debacle in Couva.
Granted, France missed enough chances to win several games, but even if you discount the result itself, there was plenty of spirit and optimism to suggest that the U.S. should just move forward from here without the majority players that got them into this strange and uncertain mess. Heck, one of the exceptions to that, Christian Pulisic, wasn't even playing against the 1998 World Cup winners.
Goalkeepers tend to play into their late 30s, but just because Gianluigi Buffon can do it doesn't mean that the older U.S. shot-stoppers should, at least not at international level. The acrobatic confidence of Zack Steffen against a bleu assault was pleasing to the eye; he'll surely let in some goals for the national team over the course of his career, but he seems capable of shrugging off a setback.
Meanwhile, the defense was battered with 19 shots as France enjoyed 70 percent of possession, but a trio of inexperienced center-backs -- Tim Parker, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers -- kept their cool and strained just enough to put France in difficult shooting positions. On the outside, the athleticism of Antonee Robinson and Shaq Moore ably covered up the fact that they're still learning their responsibilities.
The three-man midfield was predictably overrun thanks to a lumpen 5-3-2 formation, but Weston McKennie, Wil Trapp and Tyler Adams atoned by using their stamina and hustle to fill space, deny passing lanes or simply swallow up French attackers to prevent them from clear shots on goal. It wasn't pretty, and more confidence and calm in possession would also help, but it's something upon which to build.
The U.S. forwards were poor -- Bobby Wood tried gamely but strayed offside on what could have been a vital second goal -- given the lack of support they received, but Julian Green, back in the fold after a seemingly eternal absence, pounced on his one clear-cut chance and made the hosts pay. That's all you can really ask for.
So who cares if the Americans had only two shots all game and just 30 percent of possession? To frustrate one of the front-runners to win the whole thing in Russia carries its own cultural cachet, and as this group spends more time playing together at the international level (especially when Pulisic returns to the fold), from such green shoots can things truly grow.
And therein lies the vital point: Time together is needed before qualifying for the 2022 World Cup begins at the end of next year; the best way to do that is to put the national team's future at their feet. Arguably the biggest failing of recent years is the attempt to straddle two worlds, balancing the demands of the here-and-now and a CONCACAF trophy or two, with bedding in players to take the team forward.
For example, the 2017 Gold Cup was a successful one for the U.S., but the fact that Bruce Arena called for the cavalry -- Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard were among those brought in for the knockout rounds -- was a grim message. Namely, "Thanks for your help, but we'll take it from here." Such shifts should not happen again.
Observers have looked at the way Germany rebuilt in the 2000s after its own international humiliation as the template for how the USSF should remake itself. I think that is the wrong approach. Instead, the U.S. should look at how Chile did things.
Marcelo Bielsa's arrival in 2007 was met with skepticism, but he quickly transformed a conservative style of play and trusted in a promising crop of young players -- among them Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel -- who finished third at that year's Under-20 World Cup. Over time and with consistency, that groundwork yielded success after Bielsa's exit, including two trips to the World Cup round of 16, back-to-back Copa America titles and a runner-up finish at the 2017 Confederations Cup.
The tenets of Bielsa's coaching went beyond the wacky 3-3-3-1 formation: By drilling his players on their effort, intensity, footballing intelligence and positivity, he created a fearless group -- consisting of many largely unheralded players -- who took the game to any opponent.
"He delivered a message," author Armando Silva said. "We can play as equals, we can take on the more historically powerful teams and cause them problems, or at least try to, instead of living in constant fear of being thrashed."
The current U.S. squad is experimental and still finding its feet, but the vital thing is that it lacks institutional muscle memory: These players have not carried the weight of a nation by, say, losing to Ghana or missing a chance to beat Belgium at World Cups, or finishing fourth in a Gold Cup that you're hosting.
They have not yet been burdened by the emotional strain of life in the USMNT fishbowl, where a draw against Honduras is used as a bludgeon on social media. As such, there is a blank canvas for the next manager beyond caretaker Dave Sarachan, who deserves credit for leaning on the kids in 2018, to imprint. They're young, eager, hungry and malleable. Let them fly free.
James Tyler is a senior editor for ESPN FC. He can be found on Twitter @JamesTylerESPN.