CARY, NC — Spring is the season of starting anew.
It’s fitting that the winter muck is finally giving way to warmer weather in Cary, North Carolina ahead of the upcoming friendly for U.S. Soccer against Paraguay on Tuesday. Just yesterday, there was slushy snow plaguing the skies, but today, the sun was shining over WakeMed Soccer Park to warm the air as the team took to the field to train.
There is a strange aura surrounding the USMNT at the moment. Without the hustle and bustle of an approaching World Cup to occupy the focus, there is the tentative feeling of starting anew, with a long journey ahead but new faces ready to stand to the challenges in front of them.
“It’s been useful to get to know one another, on the field, off the field, a lot of new faces,” said interim head coach Dave Sarachan at his pre-match press conference. “It’s always exciting to build towards something, and that something is tomorrow night against Paraguay. It’ll be a great test for our young guys, and just another opportunity to get on the field and give the guys a real look against a quality opponent.”
Those new guys are abundant. The U.S. roster is chock full of fresh faces, including eight players without a single cap for the U.S. national team, and another 10 with five or fewer caps. The average age of the roster is just a hair over 23 years old. DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood combine for 85 caps – the rest of the roster combines for a total of 77.
With so many young faces, Sarachan was guarded about singling out individuals who have impressed him over the past few days in training, but was open about how this roster brings a completely new outlook to the group, and without the usual faces like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, or other veteran players, the feel of the trip has been turned upside down.
“A few things have stood out to me,” Sarachan said. “One is they have a youthful confidence; they come in from their environments where they’re playing. They’re drawing on a little bit of the past that we had against Bosnia and Portugal with this young group, so there’s a little bit of consistency for a few of the guys, but they come in with what I would say a clean slate in their minds, so they’re looking to impress by pushing each day in training.”
“Obviously with youth comes enthusiasm and energy, but I think the soccer has impressed me so far in training. Now, when the curtain goes up and the lights show tomorrow night, we’ll see how it looks when it really counts, but I think the confidence of the young group and playing without a lot of fear has been the two things that have stood out to me.”
With such a young group, Sarachan refused to really go into the play of any particular players – or get into any specifics of his lineup plan for tomorrow’s game – perhaps to keep the heads of the young players on their shoulders, but he did name drop a few youngsters he hadn’t seen before.
“I hate to single out anyone because that means I’m leaving out a lot of players,” Sarachan said as he thought long and hard about who he wanted to talk about, “but there are some new faces here that I didn’t know well…Antonee Robinson, Andrija Novakovich…maybe some of the guys I’ve gotten to know a little bit, certainly Tyler [Adams] and all the rest I’ve known, but a few guys that we brought in that…even [Erik] Palmer-Brown that I have never personally coached, just to get to know them and get to see them…nobody’s here that shouldn’t be here.”
While the head coach watches with intent, the players are eyeing their opportunity with a vigor not reflected by the atmosphere of the venue.
“Even though a lot of us weren’t involved in the qualifying campaign, we still kind of felt the disappointment and the pain of not making the World Cup,” said 20-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers. “So we definitely feel like we need to work together and work with the coach and work with US Soccer in general to get back on track and get the wheels moving again.”
Without anyone to truly take charge, and with time to develop without the pressure of a meaningful game in the near future, there’s room for the young players to grow into their roles and make an impression, and they are reflecting that.
“We’re all young players, none of us are at the peak of our careers yet, or none of us are playing at the highest level yet,” Carter-Vickers said. “So it’s definitely a stepping stone and just trying to kind of all develop together and grow up as a team and get to a World Cup level.”
So with the U.S. left out this summer and likely another 18 months until qualifying starts for the next cycle, what are the stakes of tomorrow’s match? “Starting over I think, for the whole team” said 18-year-old Tim Weah, “and setting everything straight from the get-go together as a young group.”
“If you look at the rosters at the three friendlies we’ve had,” Sarachan said, “the theme has been giving players the opportunity that we feel are going to be part of the bigger picture. And again, we don’t want to get so far ahead of ourselves. You just can’t predict a year from now, but what you hope is that all these friendlies, and all these matches, and all the programming going through 2018 will pay dividends in terms of the investment we’re making to players that we think when the qualifying begins and the next Gold Cup and all the other competitions, that they will be ready.”
Spring is in the air. The sun is shining. U.S. Soccer is playing a game in North Carolina for the first time in 12 years. There’s a very long way to go, and while the lingering disappointment is still palpable in Cary, a new leaf must be turned, and in the shadows of a college basketball state still focused on the finality of the NCAA Tournament, WakeMed Soccer Field could be the start of a new beginning. Tomorrow will shed more light on just how well the budding talent is growing.