CARY N.C. — A young U.S. national team, playing in a conservative but sturdy formation that’s becoming familiar under interim coach Dave Sarachan, defeated Paraguay Tuesday night, 1-0, in a friendly between sides that played hard despite their absence from this summer's World Cup.
The USA has scored just two goals under Sarachan, but the second—which came via a Bobby Wood penalty kick toward the end of the first half—was enough to win here at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Here are three thoughts on tightly contested, frequently rough-and-tumble game:
A nice moment in a tough season
It’s been a brutal year for Wood, who’s scored just twice this season for a last-place Hamburg team that’s likely headed out of the Bundesliga. But he’s hit ruts in his club career before and used success with the USA to haul himself out. And although his performance Tuesday was uneven and the Americans didn’t create much going forward, it was Wood’s 45th-minute penalty kick that lifted the hosts to the win. And a goal is a goal.
“Bobby and his club are going through a tough time,” Sarachan said. “[He converted] the penalty and he’s always going to give you the hard work. … I hope he takes this game and goes back to Hamburg with more confidence.”
The absence of a playmaker or someone who could consistently connect Wood to the U.S. midfield (more on that below) limited his impact. He looked uncomfortable without regular service or passes played into space, and he misplayed a couple balls early. But he got his opportunity at the close of the first half thanks to midfielder teammates Marky Delgado and Tyler Adams, who linked up in the U.S. half. Adams fed Delgado with a short pass then took off, and the Toronto FC man sent a long ball over the Paraguayan midfield and on to the foot of his streaking teammate. Adams was brought down by Paraguay goalkeeper Roberto Fernández, and Wood rolled in the ensuing penalty.
The USA had more time with the ball on the wings, so perhaps a bigger target forward like C.J. Sapong, who started in Sarachan’s first two games in charge, would’ve been more effective. But Wood has been good for the USA in the past and clearly needed the boost Tuesday. Regardless of whether it makes a difference back in Germany, it made the difference in Cary.
Sarachan: Hiding but highlighting U.S. weakness
For the third straight game, Sarachan deployed the USA in a 4-1-4-1 that helped his side win the midfield but resulted in frustration entering the attacking third. That 4-1-4-1 has comprised different players with different skills. But the common thread across Sarachan’s three games has been the absence of a central attacking presence who can unlock a well-organized defense, either with a killer penetrating pass or a dribble that forces defenders to vacate their preferred positions.
A case can be made, of course, that such a player isn’t readily available at this point. Christian Pulisic can play centrally, but he has yet to feature under Sarachan. Others, like Sacha Kljestan, don’t fit in with the current youth movement. The Orlando City playmaker may have helped Tuesday, but at 32, he won’t be considered a long-term solution for a rebuilding program.
So the 4-1-4-1 may be Sarachan’s effort to adapt to the absence of a creative connector, but it also highlighted that absence. Wil Trapp is one of MLS’s top holding midfielders, and he played Tuesday behind Adams and Delgado, a USA debutant who’s a skillful shuttler. Collectively, they blunted the Paraguayan counter and Atlanta United star Miguel Almirón, helped the hosts build out of the back and moved the ball with precision to the outside midfielders or the fullbacks.
But when Paraguay didn’t press, the USA lacked the quality to break through. The attack was predictable and somewhat conservative, and without a player who could hit a pass that might give Wood a look at goal, or one who could dribble past a Paraguayan defender, the U.S. was static higher up the field. The passes that did some damage were hit between the lines from further back. Trapp and right midfielder Darlington Nagbe each had a couple, and Delgado hit the ball that led to the decisive penalty.
Pulisic likely will return to the USA for the upcoming friendlies against Bolivia, Ireland and France. And considering the strength of the latter two, Sarachan might wind up calling up some older, more experienced players. Perhaps someone who can fit that central, creative role is somewhere in the pool (Kenny Saief, who played on the left Tuesday, also has spent time in the middle). But so far, the manager seems to think the USA needs to learn to play without one.
A sobering, slightly surreal night
At times, it seemed Tuesday’s the game mattered. Paraguay was physical—and brutal at times—and was committed to the tackle like a team needing three points, not one that’s going to miss the World Cup. The visitors were shown five yellow cards, and at least one—a two-footed, lunging tackle by Rodrigo Rojas—could’ve been red. Sarachan said afterward he was impressed with his young squad's composure.
And Sarachan, who at Monday’s pregame press conference that he wished he could give playing time to his entire team, instead coached most of the match like it was the third game of a group stage. In the 75th minute, he’d used only one substitute of an allotted six. And Paris Saint-Germain’s Tim Weah didn’t make his USA debut until the 86th. Two subs went unused.
The sell-out crowd of 9,895 was in good spirits. Anger over the Americans’ failure to qualify may have been mitigated by the interest in seeing some younger talent and the fact that this was the national team’s first appearance in the Triangle in a dozen years. So there was some atmosphere.
“We felt it was like a real home game,” Sarachan said.
But in the end, the lack of a U.S. breakthrough and the absence of so many familiar faces and names reminded everyone what Tuesday’s game really was—a standalone exhibition without much long-term purpose, and a reminder of the frustrating state of current affairs.
Elsewhere in the country Tuesday, Mexico was preparing for the World Cup in a sold-out stadium in Dallas, while Peru and Iceland got ready for long-awaited appearances on the sport’s biggest stage at Red Bull Arena. But the U.S., the site of all those games, isn’t going. Adams, Trapp and Weah, along with goalkeeper Zack Steffen and center backs Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers—who played well and deserve a mention—may be the future. But the present is a team of international newbies playing in a hospitable but small second-division stadium. It was a bit strange, and not where U.S. Soccer expected to be. And there are more of these nights to come.