CARY, N.C. — It was an occasion worthy of a souvenir, and Marky Delgado had a pretty good one—the traditional signed match ball celebrating a player’s first appearance with the senior U.S. national team.
More than five years after making his pro debut with Chivas USA (RIP), Delgado, who’s now an MLS champion with Toronto FC, finally played for his country at the highest level. And the 22-year-old made an impact. Starting alongside a pair of MLS rivals/colleagues, Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) and Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Delgado helped a young U.S. side dictate the pace for significant stretches of Tuesday’s friendly against Paraguay.
The visitors’ primary creator, Miguel Almirón (Atlanta United), was stifled. And as halftime approached, Delgado helped set up the game’s only goal. His seeing-eye long ball to Adams led directly to a penalty kick converted by forward Bobby Wood. The ball Delgado carried as he departed WakeMed Soccer Park was the tangible reward. But it didn’t necessarily represent his contribution. He’d have received one if he’d played just a few minutes, or had he been the worst player on the pitch.
So for Delgado, the most vital takeaway from the 1-0 win was intangible. After two camps with the USA and 90 productive minutes on Tuesday, he felt a sense of belonging and noticed a nascent tactical identity. Both are important for a young national team in transition.
“Everyone here deserves to be here,” he said of a squad that featured eight uncapped players before kickoff (and another four men with just one). “Everyone here is a competitor on and off the field. Just going in every day to training, it’s very competitive. Everyone’s hungry to prove a point and show they deserve to be here. We don’t have many veteran players here, but the level is definitely very high.”
The long-term faces of the national team—Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, etc.—have been sidelined as the USA tries to recover from last fall’s World Cup qualifying disaster. Some may return down the road, but coach Dave Sarachan’s focus across his three games in charge has been the introduction of the next generation of American talent. They have room to grow and a couple years to get acclimated. But building a national team happens in fits and starts. Players come together for a few days then scatter, and the combinations and permutations are in constant flux.
It’s incumbent on the manager and locker room leadership to establish the tone, set personal and positional expectations and a outline a basic tactical framework. Players arrive and have just a few days to prepare for a game. They can’t afford to start from scratch or reinvent the wheel each time. Predictability, patterns and playing to his team’s strengths didn’t interest Jurgen Klinsmann. Bruce Arena then tried to forge some consistency and coherence, and he did well for a while before inexplicably deviating from what had been working when the stakes were highest. That combination cost the USA a trip to Russia.
Sarachan, who’ll be in charge at least through the pre-World Cup friendlies against Bolivia, Ireland and France, has responded with pragmatism. The soccer hasn’t been sexy (the Americans have scored twice in his three games). He’s sprinkled some experience throughout his lineups, and hasn’t been moved by those interested in seeing more prospects, more substitutions and a more gung-ho approach. Sarachan said Tuesday night that he waited on making changes against Paraguay, and used only four subs instead of six, because most of the men who built the lead deserved to see out the game. National teams are meritocracies and building a winning culture is crucial. At this point, a foundation must be created small piece by small piece.
“We had five real hard training sessions,” Sarachan said. “You only have five days in bringing guys together. You try to make as much headway into making the group become cohesive and work together, and some of them have the advantage of having played [for the national team] before. But it’s like a crash course in communicating.”
So they found familiarity where they could, and much of that was in the 4-1-4-1 Sarachan has deployed in the past three games. In each case, the USA lacked a playmaker or creator who could reliably connect the lone forward to the midfield, or put an opposing defense in disarray with an incisive pass or dribble. The resulting lack of penetration and chance creation was predictable. But such a player isn’t readily available. Christian Pulisic is the most likely candidate for the role long term, but he hasn’t been called in since Sarachan took over. Others are too old to anchor a rebuild.
So the USA has gone without, building what it can in the meantime—establishing roles and responsibilities and playing to the strengths available. Trapp has been very good as a deep-lying shield and distributor. Adams is a star in the making. Darlington Nagbe can shine in the right surroundings, and the likes of Kellyn Acosta (unavailable) and Weston Mckennie (injured) are among the additional assets Sarachan can deploy in midfield.
“We have a deep midfield now [and] with the players that we have these past three camps, [the 4-1-4-1] fits the style pretty well,” Adams told SI.com after Tuesday’s game. “Having one guy that sits and facilitates the play, and then having two 8s who are able to step out and press at the needed times to take the workload off the striker is pretty important. For me, the main attributes of some of the key guys that have been in here—Kenny [Saief] and Darlington this last time, myself, Marky, Wil—we were able to find good combinations and link-up play thru the middle of the field.”
The USA didn’t create much centrally or in the channels of the attacking third, and its ability to shuttle the ball to the outside midfielders or overlapping fullbacks (Jorge Villafaña had a very good game on the left) didn’t amount to much, because crosses were so ineffective against an experienced Paraguayan rearguard. But generating chances from open play is the hardest part of the game, and that may come in time, either because the current group continues to gel or via the addition of Pulisic and older attackers who still have fuel in their international tanks.
Meanwhile, they’ll make do with what’s taking shape. This is a young, athletic group with confidence and range, and the defensive effort and composure has been good in all three games. Sarachan said the formation is designed to create “movement and interchange” among the midfielders, ensuring space is occupied and that the opponent faces pressure from different points and attacking runs from unpredictable positions. The communication and comfort required to execute that can come only with time.
“In camps you play in, you learn guys’ tendencies and you gain chemistry with every player you’re in camp with,” Adams said.
“This is the formation that we kind of want to stick to going forward,” Delgado told SI.com. “I feel like we definitely have the players to really fill this formation, and we’ve got a lot of players with a high fitness level. So going up and down the field is no problem. Tyler can go up and down. Wil does an excellent job holding the fort. He’s a great player. And I felt like the chemistry out there was pretty good for the most part.”
Then, you add to what’s been built. Whether that’s the likes of Acosta or McKennie, vets like Bradley or Jozy Altidore or, when a central playmaker is desired, Pulisic (who can also play wide).
“I don’t think we’re worried about finding a 10 when you have Christian Pulisic, who’s not here,” Adams said. “He’s obviously the future with a lot of other young guys, creative guys, who’ll be in and out of this cycle as well. Once you have someone like that, when he’s going to come back in and slide right in and be the creator, the facilitator, the playmaker of the team—I don’t think we’re too worried about not having a No. 10 in there right now.”
Adams and Delgado have all of four senior caps between them. But that lower number belies their experience. Both play key roles for clubs that are among MLS’s best. Both are vets of the U.S. youth national teams. And both feel good about what’s been established in the early going under Sarachan. Absent an attacking fulcrum, they found a way to get a result. Absent the program’s long-time leaders, they’re stepping up and establishing their own culture.
“Now you have guys like myself, Weston, Christian, who are ready to play big roles,” Adams said. “There are reasons we’re getting minutes at our clubs and we’re able to take the next step to here. You continue to get the experience of these games, you learn each game and you develop your own leadership within the team. You have certain guys who are still leaders and veterans, obviously, but maybe with not as much experience. But we’re able to play a certain role and we’re going to play it to the best of our ability going forward.”
The 4-1-4-1 and the culture being forged under Sarachan could all be undone by his successor, of course. U.S. Soccer is currently working to hire a national team GM who’s supposed to have control over coaching appointments. Sarachan has said he wants the manager’s job, but there will be plenty of competition and pressure for a change-of-pace hire following the World Cup. If another coach fills the role, the senior team’s technical and tactical future will be up to him. But that coach will be inheriting several young players who’ve started to establish their own international intangibles. Those were evident as they held on to the lead late and kept their nerve in the face of some hard, rough play and gamesmanship from the Paraguayans. Delgado’s signed ball is just a symbol. And that, at least, is a start.
“On the night, each man competed great. There was some good soccer played,” Sarachan said. “I couldn’t be more pleased for the group. This game became a real big-boy game—playing a South American team that has a lot of experience, I thought our guys kept their composure when things started to fly, which was fairly good for a young team. And winning is good. … I think it’s another step forward.”