It was a very long and somber plane ride home for the United States men’s national team after losing 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10, 2017 in their final World Cup qualifier for Russia 2018. It was a result that meant the U.S. would miss its first World Cup since 1986. Dave Sarachan, then an assistant under head coach Bruce Arena, was sitting next to Arena on the flight when U.S. Soccer managing director of administration Tom King appeared.
“Tom King said, ‘By the way, Bruce, we have this friendly coming up against Portugal,'” Sarachan recounted to ESPN. “And Bruce’s reaction was basically, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not going to be coaching that game. I’m done.'”
With a fan base enraged by the team’s failure and a looming U.S. Soccer presidential election in February, which took on a much different form following that night, there were not a lot of people inside U.S. Soccer thinking about facing Portugal on Nov. 14 in Leiria.
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“The keys were basically handed to me,” Sarachan said. “There was not a lot of interaction with anyone particular at the federation. I got together with my staff and said, ‘We’ve got to represent ourselves in this game.’ I just took the ball and ran with it. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out that we had to start the new cycle in November of 2017. Simple as that.”
Now, five years later and set to play in its first World Cup since Brazil 2014, the USMNT has come a long way since Sarachan assembled that first group of players. It was the dawn of a new era.
“First of all, not everyone that we reached out to could be available or wanted to be available in some cases, but my thinking going in was that we have to introduce new blood,” Sarachan said. “We need to begin the cycle with some of these up-and-coming young guys. But I also had to call in guys like Tim Ream and Alejandro Bedoya, because those guys understood the national team, what it means, what it takes.”
Among the fresh faces summoned to Portugal that week were teenagers Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams — they’ve since become leaders of the national team, but in that moment, they were a touch wide-eyed at what was happening.
“Maybe we were a bit naïve at that moment in time,” Adams said in a September news conference. “I would say that a lot of the young guys that got called were really excited for the opportunity. We were all probably already past that moment in time that we hadn’t qualified for the World Cup, because we weren’t a part of that group, although we knew it probably affected U.S. Soccer in the bigger picture.
“We were only youth national team players that were focusing on what we were doing for our clubs. We really didn’t have the picture in our head that if we didn’t qualify that we’d be getting called into our first national team camp. Everything was accelerated in a sense.”
MLS veteran C.J. Sapong was 28 at the time and one of the more experienced players in camp. What he encountered was a group of players who were allowed the freedom to express themselves on the field.
“You really felt that creativity in that camp. It was very loose,” Sapong said to ESPN. “I’m guessing the coaching staff didn’t know what their fate was, so they kind of leaned into allowing us to express ourselves creatively, but also with coaching in giving pointers to the young guys. You could sense that there was a thirst and a hunger to get better and push their game.”
There were other young players such as Josh Sargent, Ethan Horvath and Cameron Carter-Vickers called into the camp. In the game itself, 10 of the players who played in the game were 24 or younger. Yet it was the 19-year-old McKennie and the 18-year-old Adams who held everyone’s attention. McKennie’s smiling, outgoing personality took hold from the first minute, which included rapping an entire Lil’ Wayne song at the team’s first dinner — “and doing it with swag!” according to Sapong.
Weston McKennie, center, and Tyler Adams, far left, both made their USMNT debuts in the November 2017 friendly at Portugal. Octavio Passos/Getty Images
Meanwhile, Adams brought a limitless amount of energy to training. “I remember the first training session, I had to literally stop and pull Tyler Adams aside and say, ‘Tyler, you’ve got to slow down,'” Sarachan said. “He covered more ground in 15 minutes than the entire group, so those young guys came in with great energy and excitement.”
Sapong added: “I could see right away that Weston and Tyler were special. I remember thinking, ‘This is the grit and the personality that the U.S. needs.’ It’s really more indicative, I think, of the nature of their upbringing because there is a hunger and a fire.”
A group that had been brought together in the wake of the biggest failure in U.S. Soccer history was providing some needed optimism, and at the core of that was Sarachan.
“What stands out to me about Dave is the professionalism he showed,” said Jorge Villafana, who was one of just three players who started against Trinidad and then was called by Sarachan for the Portugal friendly. “He was very good with communication with the young players and I think it was very key at that time for this process. I remember when we were there in the meetings, he made them all aware that they were in a process of renewing and rebuilding the national team and that he was going to bring along young players.”
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By the time kickoff came around, U.S. fans tuning in were eager to see how the likes of McKennie and Adams would fare on their debuts. There had been nothing to feel positive about for weeks, so a strong start for the U.S., punctuated by McKennie’s well-taken goal on a Sapong assist, was the very first sign that the U.S. was headed in a different direction.
“It was a special moment for us, for Weston, who scored on his debut, and we tied that game against a really good opponent,” Adams said. “It showed that the young guns could play and manage themselves against an opponent like that.”
“It was a great moment,” Sarachan said. “I’m not naïve. I know the soccer community hadn’t gotten over Trinidad, but one way you can mitigate some of the hurt is to introduce some young guys and play on level terms. Here we are in Portugal, albeit with no Cristiano Ronaldo, but they still had some good players, so to get the first goal felt good. That’s the whole point with these young guys. You are going to succeed, you are going to fail, you accumulate these experiences. It was a good start to the next cycle.”
A mistake from Horvath allowed Portugal to equalize, but the U.S. hung tough and could consider themselves unlucky for not finding a second goal, especially in the second half when an Adams header thumped off the post. Overall, a 1-1 result at full-time hinted at brighter days ahead.
“It was important to finish the year out the way we did, from an emotional level and soccer level, to begin the healing process, but also building the next cycle of guys,” Sarachan said. “The feeling was that we can get into this next cycle and build a really good group of players who can represent the country.”
While McKennie and Adams will be part of the U.S. team that begins the World Cup against Wales on Monday, the likes of Sapong, Villafana and Sarachan won’t be in the fold for the U.S. in Qatar. But for those three and the others who were part of the U.S. delegation in Portugal that week, it can always be said that they did their part to best navigate the U.S. through its darkest hour. For some, that’s enough.
“It’s cool to talk about this now because looking back in retrospect, I remember that it resonated with me with what was going on and feeling honored to be there,” Sapong said. “It’s honestly my favorite memory with the national team.”
When it’s all said and done, it just might go down as the genesis of U.S. Soccer’s golden generation.