Consider this the second phase of part one, or the next stage of launch somewhere between ignition and orbit—definitely off the ground, but still quite a long way from the destination.
The distinction is this: For most, the next/current international soccer “cycle” began when France won the World Cup last month. For Dave Sarachan and the U.S. national team, it was set in motion well before that.
“Back in November, when we first started against Portugal, after our qualifying and all the way through the June game in France, the approach internally was that that is the start of the next cycle,” Sarachan told SI.com this week. “When our window closed in [October 2017], in my mind the process of the next six friendlies through June was the beginning of building a foundation for the future.
“The World Cup happened. We weren't there. And now, everybody stars with a clean slate come September. My approach and feeling is, we continue to build on the foundation that we’ve established starting back against Portugal [last November] all the way through June, and now picking it up again in September with a very similar approach.”
Sarachan’s very young U.S. team went 2-1-3 in those first six post-Trinidad friendlies, finishing up with a 1-1 draw against France that the manager said, “left a good impression, I think, publicly, but also internally, that these kids can compete.”
The second half of 'Project 2022: Chapter One' starts Sunday, when Sarachan will unveil his first post-World Cup team, and continues through the first two of six higher-profile friendlies this fall. The USA will face Brazil (Sept 7 at the Meadowlands) and Mexico (Sept. 11 in Nashville) this month, then disperse before hosting Colombia and likely Peru in October. In November, they’ll head overseas to play England and Italy. All six opponents rank above No. 22 USA in FIFA’s revamped table, and for Sarachan and his team, the games matter even if they don’t count.
Some continuity and culture have taken root. A general manager, Earnie Stewart, is on board and evaluating Sarachan’s position and the program as a whole. And the next competition, the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, is less than a year away. Sarachan’s job, for as long as he has it, is to manage the subtle change in phases, continue to build on the established foundation, and figure out when to add some seasoning as he contemplates next summer’s tournament—all while balancing his own ambition and/or the work he leaves to his successor.
Sarachan already has given 18 players their senior international debuts, and against Bolivia and France, he fielded the two youngest U.S. lineups since 1990. This is a generation that doesn’t know what it’s like to not have a domestic pro league, and for which a trail was blazed to Europe before they were born. Prior to this summer, they’d never watched a World Cup absent the USA. Sarachan, 64, is getting to know them. He told a story about painting houses to supplement his $2,000 NASL paycheck (the Cornell grad’s pro career started with the Rochester Lancers), cracked a joke about apps and acknowledged that “every generation gets further removed from what it used to be.”
But some things don’t change. Sarachan continues to be adamant about the “need for education about what a culture of a national team is, and what being a professional is all about,” and that informs a significant part of his team-guiding and evaluation. No one escapes scrutiny, including the generation’s top player, Christian Pulisic.
The Borussia Dortmund attacker isn’t expected to be part of this month’s roster because of an injury suffered in Germany. Pulisic, 19, dazzled in 2017. But since the USA was knocked out of the World Cup in Trinidad, his international workload has comprised 89 uneventful minutes against Bolivia at the end of May. And considering this latest injury, it appears that'll be Pulisic’s only U.S. contribution for a calendar year.
Sarachan understands that fitness and club commitments are real issues but said he’s asking for more when his top talent is available. A new coach may revamp rosters or tactics. But Sarachan has talked frequently since taking over about “what it means to be part of the national team,” and he said that’s what he’s going to continue to demand and hone this fall.
“What I want to see from him is a desire, a passion, energy, excitement and a great effort,” Sarachan said of Pulisic. “That should be each and every player that we bring in, and Christian is no different. … Look at the Bolivia game. It was an outlier from that standpoint. Yes, he was tired. He was coming off a long season—whatever the reasons. But when you come in with the national team, those boxes have to be checked.”
In May, they weren’t.
“We needed a little bit more, and I think he knows that, and so, like I said, he’s got the potential to be a major player for the senior national team,” Sarachan added. “Will he maybe be a captain one day? He’s got the ability. We all know. So when he comes in, I’m hoping that he can be influential and bring the group together in an infectious way, and make sure he’s all in, because we need him. He’s that good.
"Christian’s got a lot of people he knows, peers he’s played with. It’s a group of his that he’s familiar with, and I think there’s a chemistry that’s forming with a number of these guys and his peers.”
Several members of this new U.S. generation have referenced that chemistry—they’re advancing and evolving together, and many already are familiar with each other from junior national team camps. But the stress, spotlight and scrutiny of the senior international game remains something they’re still getting used to—including Pulisic. That’s why Sarachan said he’s still committed, for as long as he’s at the helm, to re-introducing some of the program’s veterans from the previous cycle. It probably won’t happen next week, but we very well could see some older, more familiar faces before winter.
Not everyone involved with the U.S. during this period of transition has to be a prospective World Cup 2022 contributor. First, you’ve got to get there, and Sarachan steadfastly believes there are older players who still can impart value, whether it’s at the Gold Cup or once qualifying starts. His critique of Pulisic is an indication why.
“We’re a pool of players. There are those that look at it as young vs. old. It’s not young vs. old. We’re a pool of players. Some have more experience, others don’t,” Sarachan said. “Winning teams have the right blend of youth, laborers, stars and veteran guys. And that’s the right composition, generally, of teams that will be successful.
“If all of a sudden we get toward the Gold Cup and we introduce a whole new set of veteran guys or experienced guys, that would be sort of jumping into the cold pool. I think to re-introduce veteran players earlier than that is important, because they offer perspective. They offer experience. And there’s still quality there," he continued. "What we’ve established is a core of players that now, there are certainly guys who have emerged as leaders without feeling intimidated. But why not have that feeling of all of sudden we’ve got a veteran or two in the locker room, and they’ve got to manage this, see how it integrates, and [realize] they want to learn from that guy?”
Getting the timing right will be important. Too early or too late, and the chemistry and confidence being established by the newer players could be overshadowed or disrupted. This autumn is a good bet. For now, it appears Sarachan will continue to give minutes and mileage to younger/new internationals, and he’s getting a better sense of who might have the potential to stick around once a few veterans begin to blend in–and once the games matter more. Not to mention the fact that players like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Bobby Wood, among others, already have significant experience under their belts and are young enough to stick around through 2022.
“The approach is always, how can we move a group along that will become a group of players that will compete whenever that competition starts,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not watching any and all possible candidates that can be a part of our group. But, to be on the senior roster is not just a complete open door. I think what we’ve established now is a group of players that have proven themselves when they’ve been given the opportunity. But they know this is a work in progress and that now just because they’ve been a part of it doesn’t mean it’s their right going forward. And that’s the culture we’re building within the team, knowing what it really means to represent your country.”
Individuals may come and go, may get hurt and even the very best may have off days. And whether or not Sarachan himself is part of the future, he said he’s pleased so far with the young men who will be.
“There’s been a pretty good sense from the beginning, certainly in November against Portugal, but then in all the steps along the way, that this is a group that’s not going to fail,” Sarachan said. “This is a group that understands we weren’t a part of the World Cup and believe that’s not going to happen to them. What comes with youth sometimes is kind of coming at it a bit with blinders. They don’t have a past to dwell on with the national team. They look to forge ahead, and with youth comes a lot of energy. I see a group that is beginning to understand what it’s going to take to move this thing along."