If you've been a fan of the US Men's National team for longer than a decade, you've conditioned yourself to temper expectations. Holding up our soccer culture to European and/or South American standards is impractical and yields a futile debate that falls into the banal sports commentary spectrum between the cardboard-dry definitions of "good" and "great." In the past, USMNT miracles typically have come from a 'why not us?' mentality more than a place of promise.
But this era feels different.
Our soccer culture has inverted—all it took was a tiny flip to turn our nation's youth to the global awe of the world's most popular sport. The United States already made up an ethnically and culturally diverse landscape—people just needed access to games and global soccer culture to fully immerse themselves. We as a nation are watching, and it has improved our soccer skills. (God bless you, internet.)
So that's why it wasn't too far of a stretch for USMNT fans—old and new alike—to cast aside their temperance and expect big things from a pair of important games coincidentally against Venezuela last night. The matches proved to be something of a perfect test group for where we are in the country's trajectory in the soccer world.
The first game on the docket last night was a friendly between the USMNT and Venezuela senior national teams. While some people may argue that friendlies don't count, the USMNT are setting themselves up for a grueling set of qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico next week—while trying to dig themselves out of a treacherous 4th place in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Hexagonal standings. Last night was supposed to be about building confidence, setting a tempo, and proving that the USMNT can win against a decent but beatable Venezuela. After all, Venezuela sits at 58th to the U.S.'s 23rd in FIFA rankings.
Then this happened:
The irony to Venezuela's goal in the 29th minute is that it came from a set piece after a series of dangerous counterattacks. The last time that the USMNT was managed under Bruce Arena, from 1998-2006, set pieces and counterattacks were pretty much the USMNT's only threat. The U.S. looked imposing last night, but since this is soccer, actual goals are pretty important. Bruce Arena said this much at the half, with the scoreline hovering at 0-1, after he cut a Fox reporter's question short to say, "Possession means nothing." The man has a point.
On the offensive, the through balls from Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic were sublime, and both Darlington Nagbe and DeAndre Yedlin looked lightning-fast. But Clint Dempsey and Wood simply weren't finishing—not to mention Fabian Johnson blowing an opportunity for a shot on goal, instead opting for a pass to Clint, who had nowhere near the amount of daylight in front of him. As for the other side of the ball, the USMNT were once again haunted by their shaky defending. Just look at that bad clearance, shoddy marking, and blame-gaming on the Venezuela goal. With a back four that out of sorts, counterattacking seems to be the best strategy against the USMNT as they venture into the world of sexy, possession-based offense. (Again, I can't reiterate the irony that long time USMNT fans get from that feeling.)
But—as if Sunil Gulati himself pulled the game's puppet strings to make sure fans in Utah came away with something of a show—wonderchild Christian Pulisic did the soccer equivalent of saying "fuck teamwork" and had a beautiful solo moment. In the 60th minute, he received the ball, shook one man with a deep gouge, and then fired off a shot that split three defenders and the keeper, resulting in a gorgeous goal:
But what's more important about this goal is the look that Pulisic wears after scoring. He's not celebrating. You could try and factor this out to be a byproduct of his position on the team—as the young guy, you shouldn't send the message that you're ready to celebrate when you've only just drawn. But you could also read a little bit of 'this is no Dortmund' look on his face.
The game fizzled out and finished with a 1-1 scoreline, and we're left with a cloud of hypotheticals for the upcoming qualifiers.
Speaking of the youth, the second match last night was a U-20 World Cup quarterfinal appearance against none other than Venezuela, played in South Korea. The USMNT U-20s grabbed headlines for their play in the group stages, as young prospects like Tyler Adams and Jonathan Klinsmann (yes, that Klinsmann) shined on an international stage against their contemporaries. But last night would snuff out that candle in an unceremonious fashion.
The easiest way to describe this game is that it was a haunting carbon copy of USA vs. Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. A keeper made a huge number of saves to keep the team level, the game was tied at 0-0, forcing extra time, the better team (not the U.S.) got two goals that were a long time coming, the U.S. managed a last-gasp goal, and in the end, the better team won out. All this U-20 game was missing was a missed shot from Chris Wondolowski. Hell, even the team's colors were the same—the U.S. in white, the opponents in red.
Here's how this iteration of USA -
Belgium Venezuela played out:
In the end, the youth from USA were sadly sent packing.
Sure, last night's Venezuela matches were two separate games, but both the senior and the u-20 teams' stakes pertain to the future of the sport in our country. The senior team's tie indicated that it's not quite ready to consistently close out every match against lesser components (yes, even if it's a friendly). And the U-20 game proved that there are still those world-beating sharks in the global soccer waters, hungry and capable of chomping us down to size.
The only consolation coming away from these results is that you can identify them as growing pains—as opposed to a return to the norm after a handful of fluke wins. And that's more that can be said of USMNT teams in the past.