Pick your poison this weekend: would you rather hope for the best or have nothing to lose?
The FIFA break means a double dose of international soccer. The US senior team gets a crack at Guatemala, a cagey nation they have had no trouble with in the past. After an away fixture on Saturday, the nations meet in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday in a match they have to win to keep moving in World Cup qualification. A match in which the next big Next Big Thing may make his debut.
The United States U-23 has to do the same thing, which, I mean, “win” sounds easy, but winning will be much more difficult for the younger Yankees. Ah yes, the team that makes you feel old – all players are born in 1993 or later, and have only a passing familiarity with A Tribe Called Quest – plays the wildly talented Colombians. The winner of this home-and-away goes to the Olympics, a stated goal of Jürgen Klinsmann for a while now.
The U-23 seems to be the more compelling matchup, mostly because the youngsters have yet to disappoint. Colombia is damn good, but the US matches up well with them. Matt Miazga anchors the Yanks’ athletic backline, and Desevio Payne is as skillful as his name is awesome. The midfield has a ton of names MLS fans are familiar with: Wil Trapp, Fatai Alashe, Dillon Serna and Matt Polster are all steely holding-types that’ll be tested early and often. If you’re more into the European types, both Julian Green and Emerson Hyndman are hype-fueled, barely out of their teens, and looking to make a name on the international stage.
Nobody in their right mind expects the American youngsters to win, of course, which is usually when the US does best. If they can pull off something incredible, whether or not Jordan Morris needs his left foot to do it, then the squad advances to Rio. This group is reminiscent of everyone’s beloved 2002-era USMNT: loads of athleticism, a sprinkling of talent, and an Instragrammable insouciance that doesn’t preach fearlessness but rather does not know fear. Their Olympic campaign has been maddeningly inconsistent, but hey: inconsistency begets thrilling upsets.
Their senior-team counterparts, well, I can put it this way. They haven’t lost to Guatemala in Guatemala since 1989. Tuesday’s match is in Columbus, the USMNT’s unofficial home — particularly during Ohio’s ornery and grey, “spring” weather when hosting a team from balmy Central America. Anything less than 4 points from these two matchups is the opposite of thrilling. Soothing, maddening, what have you.
That’s why Klinsmann has brought out the old guard. Tim Howard’s a dinosaur, but one of those big scary ones. Michael Bradley will spend the whole game trying to unlock a defensive bunker. Chris Wondolowski will enter the field to American curses in 80th minute and leave it receiving Guatemalan curses after scoring minutes later. This is American soccer sinceabout 2010 or 2011.
“But what if,” soccer Twitter whispers in your ear, or comes as close to whispering as a cacophonous mass of fury can. “What if a teenager the likes of which this country has never seen comes in, and he can change all that?”
Christian Pulisic is 17, from a nondescript part of Pennsylvania, and plays on the wing for one of the best and most exciting teams in Europe (Borussia Dortmund but you knew that.) He’s not travelling with the USMNT to Guatemala but reports are in that he’ll join up with them back stateside.
This is definitely a big deal. It isn’t that there haven’t been teenage phenomena before, even as recently as Juan Agudelo. But it’s rare that the rest of the world has agreed that yes, this American youngster is worthy of attention. Slender, quick, and possessing dronelike vision and striking capabilities, Pulisic is like Landon Donovan if the US legend grew up watching YouTube clips of Pirlo.
He won’t make much of a difference against Guatemala, but he doesn’t really need to. Guatemala is one of CONCACAF’s most cynical sides and will simply try and give the untiring, unkillable Carlos Ruiz a handful of half-chances hoping he can convert. That’s not to say Sam’s Army should dismiss them. Ask LA Galaxy fans what happens when you sleep on Marco Pappa. It is rather to say that this is not one of those moments when the music swells, the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves, and someone with a glint in their eye says “a child will lead us.” All it should take to beat Guatemala twice is Clint Dempsey’s right foot.
If you want to see what the US men look like in their new kits and hear what it sounds like as they adapt to new tricks, this week is your chance. Two versions, four matches, and one glimpse at the beckoning future. It may be the first time we can say with this version of the USMNT that you won’t be disappointed.
This post was composed by soccer know-it-all and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at: @AJKhn.
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