Someday, with the benefit of hindsight, Saturday’s United States men’s national team game against Slovenia could turn out to be the day several mainstays got their first chance.
There are enough examples from January camp games the past two decades to allow for as much, and 11 players received their debut in San Antonio — the most in a single game since 1988.
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If that does end up being the case, though, it will be major surprise considering the team’s mostly dull performance in a 1-0 loss against a Slovenian side also made up of players predominantly from its domestic league.
“It wasn’t always perfect, but the will was there, the desire was there, the competitiveness was there, and we kept going to the last whistle trying to get the equalizer,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match.
Times have changed for the United States. The path from January camp to the A-squad isn’t the straightforward promotion it has been at times. Now, with the team’s best players in their early-to-mid 20s playing at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, none of the players who featured against Slovenia are being counted on to play any role — let alone a significant one — when Berhalter has his full complement of players to choose from.
With so few national team games in any given year, it’s tempting to read into each one, but what took place before 9,191 fans in San Antonio is worth an exception. It’s hard to imagine much that transpired will do anything to inform the future of the program. The entire exercise boiled down to nothing more than a glorified scrimmage, even though it represented a record-tying fourth-straight loss against a European opponent.
In a roundabout way, that signifies progress.
With only months before the U.S. hosts the Copa America, and just over two years before the World Cup comes to North America, it wouldn’t bode well for the team if there were holes that needed be filled by unproven MLS players. But that’s not the state of the U.S. talent pool.
This game was more geared toward prepping the age-eligible player for this summer’s under-23 Olympic tournament.
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“I think this is a great opportunity to learn and if you think about 11 guys got their debut tonight, five of the guys who started are Olympic-age eligible,” Berhalter said. “So this is going to be a great learning experience for this group, and I’m really happy with the opportunity to do this camp and think we definitely got something out of it looking forward.”
Berhalter highlighted the play of New England Revolution midfielder Esmir Bajraktarevic and Real Salt Lake forward Diego Luna, as two who left an impression.
“Looking at some individual performances, specifically with the Olympic guys, we knew they were playing senior international, and we wanted to give them that experience and also see how they would do,” Berhalter said. “And I think when you look at guys like Esmir and Diego, they certainly came in and showed that they have a lot of individual ability, but they’re also hardworking.”
Berhalter can now shift his attention to March, when the team tries to win the Nations League for the third straight time, before the Copa America.
“It’s competition time,” Berhalter said. “We have trophies on the line this summer with [the] Copa America in this spring with [the] Nations League, and we’re looking forward to getting the entire group together and trying to win our third consecutive Nations League and then have a great showing at the Copa America.
“So it’s an exciting six months of soccer coming up for the USMNT.”