Sometimes that hoped-for breath of fresh air is just halitosis, but try telling Weston McKennie this was a meaningless and pointless first step on the road to 2022.
The midfielder scored on his US senior debut on Tuesday, providing a low-wattage moment of brightness for a program still enveloped in gloom.
The 19-year-old Texan spent part of his youth in Germany and starts for Schalke in the Bundesliga. Born in the Dallas suburb of Little Elm, he developed in the FC Dallas youth system and is friends with Christian Pulisic, of Borussia Dortmund, who was the stand-out American in the Concacaf qualifying campaign.
McKennie dribbled into the area in the 21st minute, feinted to fool Ricardo Ferreira then slid in a low shot to the near post that sent Beto sprawling in the wrong direction. He also hit the crossbar with a second-half header.
His performance offered the hint of a promising future, which was as much as this friendly with Portugal in Leiria could ever deliver, coming so soon after the Americans’ head-scratching, face-palming inability to reach next summer’s World Cup finals.
So the night will have enduring positive personal significance for McKennie, even if, more broadly, it will be nothing more than a footnote once a new manager is appointed next year and the reinvention process begins in earnest.
For now, the important action is off the field as US Soccer presidential candidates jostle ahead of February’s election in the hope of unseating the incumbent, Sunil Gulati. He has failed to resign and may seek a fourth four-year term despite appointing Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena, the two coaches who oversaw a qualifying campaign that lacked the actual qualifying.
This was always going to be an occasion pungent with the stench of of what-iffery. However long it takes to get over an entirely avoidable failure to reach a World Cup, 35 days is surely not enough. The presence of Arena on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast team only added to the lingering sense of regret at the US missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
That a star-shorn side comprised of young pretenders, solid but unexceptional veterans and out-of-fashion names plucked from the reject bin could impress for long periods away to the reigning European champions served to make the US’s absence in Russia seem even more baffling. That said, this was an exhibition against an under-strength, semi-interested Portugal and much of the US’s success stemmed from their greater energy and appetite.
The last time these nations met was a 2-2 draw in the 2014 World Cup, an outcome that helped Klinsmann’s side advance to the knock-out rounds at Portugal’s expense and breed a mood of optimism about the team’s long-term prospects that proved illusory.
Interim head coach Dave Sarachan picked eight starters aged 24 and under – compared with four in the starting XI that lost 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago last month, when a draw would have been enough to reach Russia.
He also handed a first cap to 18-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams and gave forward CJ Sapong his first appearance since January 2012 – reward for a 16-goal season with the Philadelphia Union. The most experienced US international on show, DeAndre Yedlin, was the only starting survivor from the T&T debacle, winning his 49th cap.
Sapong was effective in a first half that the US controlled until the equalizer. There was no Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal – who did qualify for the finals – and Tuesday’s most recognizable veteran, Pepe limped off after nine minutes.
Sapong crossed for Adams in the 20th minute but his weak shot made for an easy save by Beto. Seconds later, McKennie’s composed finish gave the visitors a lead that did not last.
With Tim Howard’s long tenure surely concluded, goalkeeper is a questionable position for the US. In his second appearance, 22-year-old Club Brugge goalkeeper Ethan Horvath did his candidacy no favors, conceding a grim equalizer in the 31st minute.
Vitorino Antunes lashed a bouncing ball into the box from the left wing but Horvath dived over it. The gloves that failed to capture the ball covered his face, hiding what one assumes was a look of horror and embarrassment.
At the break, Sarachan replaced Horvath with Bill Hamid and Cameron Carter-Vickers, the Essex-born defender on loan at Sheffield United from Tottenham Hotspur, won his first cap.
Adams might have joined McKennie in the debut goal club but his 52nd-minute header from six yards out was superbly saved by Beto, though the goalkeeper ought to have been given no chance.
McKennie then headed off the bar and another England-born player, striker Dom Dwyer, arrived as a late substitute.
Inside the last 20 minutes, Carter-Vickers almost scored from point-blank range but a leaping Beto denied him with his feet as the two vied for a loose ball.
The contest petered out and ended 1-1 – a forgettable result on a night with bittersweet undertones. Perhaps 2018 would have been too soon for the likes of McKennie, Adams and Carter-Vickers, but 2022 seems excessively far away.
This article was written by Tom Dart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 14th November 2017 23.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010