Mar 27, 2018; Cary, NC, USA; United States defender Jorge Villafana (19) and forward Bobby Wood (7) and defender DeAndre Yedlin (2) warm up prior to an international friendly men's soccer match against Paraguay at WakeMed Soccer Park. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Under ordinary circumstances, the U.S. national team’s friendly against France on Saturday afternoon in Lyon would be a tune-up for the 2018 World Cup, which kicks off in Russia June 14.
But there’s hardly anything ordinary about U.S. soccer lately. The Yanks, who failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 last fall, will be watching the action in Russia from the sofa.
The failure to qualify has left many to wonder where America’s soccer compass is pointed; The men’s senior program has an interim coach and a fractured player pool with an aging core; on Thursday, ex-U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper and former U.S. Soccer Federation presidential candidate Hope Solo said she wouldn’t support the joint U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup; and for months, media stories have outlined serious splits within U.S. soccer.
Which brings us back to Saturday’s match in Lyon.
Interim U.S. coach David Sarachan is sending out a very raw, highly inexperienced, fairly baby-faced group of players to do battle with Les Bleus, a European soccer power with an outside shot of challenging for the World Cup in a few days.
It doesn’t matter that the U.S. has never scored against the French, let alone procured a win or a draw. The objective Saturday will be to give the upstart Americans – average age just a shade over 23 – a positive stepping stone through competing against an elite foe in a tough foreign environment.
Youthfulness isn’t the only notable thing about Sarachan’s 24-man roster. Eight of the players are American-born prospects who moved to European clubs or academies between the ages of 14 and 17.
In this octet are Weston McKennie, a central midfielder at Schalke 04 in Germany who developed out of the FC Dallas academy; Bobby Wood, also in Germany as a striker for Hamburger SV who already has 12 international goals; and Keaton Parks, a 20-year-old, attack-minded midfielder from Plano, Texas who made four first team appearances with Portugal’s Benfica last year.
Having domestic talent in Europe certainly isn’t anything new, but most of the time American players opt to go to college, or make a pit stop in Major League Soccer, before going abroad.
“It’s more accepted, and a pathway has opened,” former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, who will serve as an analyst in Russia for Fox Sports, said about high school-age prospects moving to Europe. “Many places, like Germany, have very publicly valued and embraced American talent, and for the players, it’s a unique and very valuable experience.
“As to the pluses and minuses of going overseas versus the more traditional route of going to college, nothing about the more traditional path precludes you from being a good player, or even a great player.”
Some of the best players in American history, including Clint Dempsey, Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel and countless others, attended college. But many coaches, including former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, have expressed uneasiness about the long-term role college soccer will play in player development.
Even so, American soccer is adjusting to a shift of its own making.
The recent rise of youth academies across Major League Soccer – where players like McKennie and his national teammates, such as Matt Miazga (Chelsea via New York Red Bulls) and Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew) had a chance to develop – has decreased MLS teams’ reliance on college players.
Meanwhile, teenage phenoms who leave the U.S. for a new challenge have started to pave their own way. Few American players have the backing to leave home as young as age 14 and completely envelop themselves in soccer. An evaluation of the last eight World Cup rosters showed that only three American-born players since 1990 – John O’Brien, Aaron Johansson, and Landon Donovan – have left the U.S. before college to play in Europe, found success and went on to play in a World Cup.
Today, most of Sarachan’s recent call-ups have made enough of an impact to merit first-team play or going on loan to a lower division team.
That’s to say nothing of Christian Pulisic, who left Hershey, Pa., at 16 and rose through the ranks at Borussia Dortmund, eventually becoming the youngest American player to score in Champions League. Pulisic played in the U.S.’ 3-0 win against Bolivia on May 28, but he won’t feature against France on Saturday, for rest.
As Sarachan cautioned following the Bolivia victory, these American prospects deserve just as much patience as they do excitement. They’re still, mostly, very raw at the international level and are only slowly coming into their own as European club players.
Regardless, their recent success could motivate others to go abroad as well. For the national team, which has seen a number of core members leave top European teams to return to the U.S. in recent years, having players like Josh Sargent, McKennie, and Pulisic make it on their own is a way of replenishing the pool of players competing abroad.
After all, MLS hasn’t sold an American player to a European team in more than two years, according to transactions listed on MLSSoccer.com.
“It’s the viable path that you dream about,” said Lalas, who played at Rutgers and transferred to Padova in the Italian Serie A after the 1994 World Cup. “These players understand that they have more education, more benefits than at any time in U.S. soccer history. The current generation has no idea how little existed back then. … that’s an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come, for these players to grow up in a world where these possibilities exist.”
Here’s the USMNT full roster for France
GOALKEEPERS (3): Bill Hamid (Midtjylland), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC), William Yarbrough (Club León)
DEFENDERS (9): Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Shaq Moore (Levante), Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City), Tim Parker (New York Red Bulls), Antonee Robinson (Everton), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
MIDFIELDERS (10): Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls, Joe Corona (Club America), Luca de la Torre (Fulham) Julian Green (Stuttgart), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Keaton Parks (Benfica), Rubio Rubin (Club Tijuana), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain)
FORWARDS (3): Andrija Novakovich (Reading), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)