Last month, the American men joined an ignominious list of high-profile nations — Chile, the Netherlands, and, most recently, Italy — to suffer surprise elimination from the World Cup qualification rounds. The Americans’ fateful loss, on the road against Trinidad and Tobago, left the federation in something of a prolonged tailspin.
Bruce Arena, who was hired as the team’s coach in November 2016, midway through the qualification cycle, to shepherd a listing squad to the World Cup in Russia, resigned days after the defeat, leaving a staff of assistants to guide the team at least to end of the year. The future of the federation’s presidency remains up in the air with an election coming in February. In the previous three quadrennial elections, Sunil Gulati ran unopposed. This time, there already are enough challengers to fill a small-sided pickup game even without Gulati, who has yet to declare whether he will enter the race.
No one knows, then, what will happen come February, and know one knows quite what to do until then.
Amid this state of suspended animation, there was a game to play. The match Tuesday unfolded before 19,017 fans at Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa, a multihued, elliptical arena erected in 2003 next to an 882-year-old castle. The United States had spent the week leading to the match training 90 miles south of the stadium, in Lisbon, where the buzzwords favored by their interim coach Dave Sarachan — terms like “energy” and “opportunity” — spoke to the greenhorn ambience of the setup.
The lineup reflected that, too, with eight players 24 years of age or younger. Sarachan arranged the players into a 4-1-4-1 formation and picked Danny Williams, playing his first game for the national team in more than a year, to serve as captain.
Whatever appeal the game might have had to American spectators most likely would be due to the presence of a trio of teenagers making their national team debuts: McKennie, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, 19, and midfielder Tyler Adams, 18. (Josh Sargent, 17, a promising striker, was nursing a strained right quadriceps and did not dress for the match.)
McKennie produced a particularly thorough performance, his baby face belying his equanimity in the central, high-traffic areas of the field. In the 21st minute, he received a pass near the edge of the penalty area from forward C. J. Sapong, created space with an inside-out dribble and coolly curled the ball with his right foot just inside the near post of the goal. He was swarmed by his teammates as whistles rained down from the stands.
“I got it, took a touch, kept it close to my feet, and saw the goalkeeper cheating a little bit, so I just tried to slot it past him, and it went in,” McKennie said.
Adams, meanwhile, showed the same hyperactive motor and pugnacious impulses that have earned him early-career raves with his club, the Red Bulls of Major League Soccer. Deployed on the right flank, he frequently found his way to the penalty area and had a couple of scoring chances saved from close range, and also distinguished himself defensively.
It was a far more disappointing night for Horvath, one of several young goalkeepers lining up for a shot at the job most recently held by Tim Howard. In the 31st minute, Vitorino Antunes, the Portuguese left back, fired an ambitious, swerving, first-time volley from the left wing, far outside the area. The ball rocketed right at Horvath — and right through his legs. Stunned by his blunder, Horvath bent forward at the waist, covering his face with his white gloves. After the game, he said he had been caught “thinking about the next play” before securing the ball.
Despite the error, Sarachan praised Horvath and the rest of the team for the confidence they showed playing against Portugal, the world’s No. 4 team and one that is headed to Russia, in the still long shadow of the United States’ disastrous loss last month.
“What I told them after the game was, 2017 was a difficult year for U.S. Soccer, and there are a lot of people out there who weren’t sure what this was going to look like tonight,” Sarachan said. “And I said to the group that I couldn’t be more proud. And the future is bright.”