EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In a sense, it was probably fitting to begin the lengthy and treacherous road to the next World Cup against the country that has won it more than anybody. What better way, after all, to test a new generation of U.S. men’s national teamers, tasked with undoing the embarrassment inflicted by their predecessors in missing the 2018 edition, than a cycle-opening friendly against a star-studded Brazilian team, the five-time world champions?
On the lineup sheet, Brazil had a world-beater in every position, led by Neymar and Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino and, well, all of them. The U.S., for its part, was without a household name on the field, since wunderkind Christian Pulisic was out with an injury. The other well-established names have retired, or are about to, or have faded from the picture, for now at least. A youth movement has been underway since a band of veterans fell short of qualification for the World Cup in Russia back in October. No American in the starting lineup on Friday was older than 25 and the average age was a tad under 23.
Quietly, that young group has posted solid results and given heartening performances against world powers like European champions Portugal and soon-to-be world champions France – both ties – even though the permanent head coaching position has remained vacant all this time.
If the Brazilians had an obvious upper hand in terms of talent and notoriety, they were also the overwhelming favorites of the yellow-clad crowd. The Brazilian partisans had massed around early, grilling in the parking lot and hoping for a glimpse of their many stars outside the players’ entrance. At MetLife Stadium, in the rather populous state of New Jersey, a more-than-half-empty stadium – likely because of towering ticket prices – was unambiguous in its support of the visiting nation, save for a section of American Outlaws, continuing an unfortunate tradition of the U.S. effectively acting as the away team on home soil.
Yet for all those disadvantages, the Americans acquitted themselves remarkably well, in spite of taking a 2-0 loss. With the standard disclaimers about the inherent difficulty in assessing friendly games assumed here, it wasn’t at all a bad runout. In fact, this was the closest the U.S. had played Brazil in many years – with a head-to-head record that now stands 18-1 in the Brazilians’ favor.
Brazil went ahead early and easily, as Douglas Costa zoomed past the very quick Antonee Robinson and teed up Roberto Firmino for a simple finish in the 12th minute.
Ok, that was pretty 🇧🇷
👀Douglas Costa with the speed move, Firmino puts away the cross. 1-0, Brazil. pic.twitter.com/M1iBo6Ceud
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 8, 2018
Just before halftime, Wil Trapp made the slightest contact with Fabinho in his own box, sending the Brazilian crashing to the grass for a laughably soft penalty, converted by Neymar.
2-0, Brazil. Neymar scores his 58th international goal in the stadium where he got his 1st.
But should it have been a penalty? pic.twitter.com/1wMNfq32gk
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 8, 2018
Yet around those goals – the first surrendered cheaply; the second unfortunately – the U.S. put together nice spells of play. Sure, the young Yanks could be sloppy and nervy. And yes, the visitors commanded possession and had the better of the chances – albeit not by much. But the Americans also pinned Brazil back in their own half at times, and audaciously pinged the ball around. They swung it from side to side. They probed. They prodded. They kept trying.
You would have forgiven a young team for crawling into its shell and trying to avoid a lopsided defeat. But rather than deflate, as previous incarnations of this team were sometimes prone to do after early deficits against big teams, the U.S. kept playing the game it had set out to. It didn’t capitulate, finding an alternative way of avoiding humiliation. It kept its shape and its organization. It kept its cool.
“There could have been a situation where maybe the shoulders slumped, where the confidence was blown,” interim U.S. head coach Dave Sarachan said postgame. “That’s one of the things that I’ve noticed with this group, they don’t lack confidence. They still get on with it [after going behind]. That’s an important mentality. I was pleased about that. I saw some good leadership on the field.”
Trapp echoed his manager: “We just started to calm down and pass the ball, and we saw that there was space to play. We understood, ‘OK, we’re losing now. Now we’ve got to play.’ But we can’t wait to get punched in the face to respond.”
And therein lay as much hope as in the apparent talent and pedigree of this new generation of national teamers, plenty of whom joined major European clubs at a young age and have begun to make a mark there. This young team stayed true to itself, didn’t turn cynical, even when it must have known full well that it was outgunned.
The U.S. even created early chances. A series of Trapp corners to the towering John Brooks created dangerous situations for Brazil. McKennie had a pair of looks face-to-face with goalkeeper Alisson, but didn’t quite get his timing right on either occasion.
Certainly, Brazil never looked like losing. And this American group has an awfully long way to go in its maturation and evolution to consistently compete with a team of this caliber. It might well never get there. But before you can play such a team on remotely even footing, you need to overcome your fear of it.
“This is a great game for us to play,” Sarachan said. “When you’re playing a team like Brazil, arguably as good as any team on the planet, it just challenges you in ways that I think will improve this group as we move forward.”
“We always want to see a team that’s not afraid,” added Sarachan. “And I don’t think we were afraid.”
On Friday, a soundly beaten U.S. team didn’t fold in the face of so much star power and attacking might. And that, in a small way not reflected on the scoresheet or in the program’s history book, is its own kind of victory.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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