It's still a little odd seeing guys like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones—hell, even Jozy Altidore—in their USMNT jerseys and remembering that these are not the players they once were. It's tough to wean yourself away from, say, watching Altidore temporarily putting the U.S. up 2-1 on Chile last night and shouting "Jozy!" when in reality, you're watching Chile's C- team go blow-for-blow with our A- team, smack dab in the middle of the most important soccer leagues' seasons, all because our best players' club careers no longer matter.
Everything surrounding last night's friendly was more telling of the state of American soccer than anything that happened on the pitch. It was held when most of the soccer world's attention was focused on the latter stages of Europe's domestic club cup competitions, or maybe on the ongoing African Cup of Nations. In other words, this was no regularly scheduled FIFA international break, and anyone who's anyone on the world stage was busy playing somewhere else.
Chile's roster reflected this. It was an assortment of might-bes and never-weres. More than half of their squad was either 30 and up or 21 and under. Eight of the 16 Chileans that eventually got into the game were earning their first cap. In total, the roster that attended the match had 146 international appearances between them. Despite manager Jorge Sampaoli's trademark intensity throughout the game, this was little more than a consolation prize for Chilean players who will most likely never appear in a serious international fixture.
In contrast, the starting lineup for the USMNT was short only a handful of the expected regulars in our full-strength side. Only three of the starting XI weren't present at the 2014 World Cup. The Americans present counted 481 caps between themselves. And if Chris Wondolowski—a player only diehard MLS and USMNT fans had probably heard of before he became a regular bench presence in World Cup qualifying just a few years ago—were on the Chilean team, he'd have been the second-most decorated member and have the most international goals.
All of which combined to make yesterday's match so emotionally confusing. Should USMNT fans be excited to watch something approaching their best team, incorporating some potentially promising tactical innovations, with a couple young guys who might grow into key roles in the near future? Or is it better to leave home the studs and run out even more young guys to see how they fare, letting the hardcore followers catch another glimpse at some of the names we've read about in 2018 World Cup roster projection articles? More importantly, what does it say about our best players that while most of the world's elite are fighting through fatigue, injuries, and all the other travails in the hearts of the important club seasons, the vast majority of ours are at home, barely into preseason preparations for MLS?
It's the fundamental question: what is the country working towards when not in an international tournament? Is it to hone the talents of our 25 or so best players until they can eventually make a real run at winning the World Cup? Or is it to greatly increase our production of good-to-great soccer players, so that they are good enough to compete on the highest levels of the game which would hopefully be reflected by improved World Cup performances? It's the difference between process and results; is it better to concentrate on wins or on trying to improve the talent, which might not be as successful in the short term?
This is a debate that separates two large sections of USMNT fans, especially when considering the ongoing Exodus of American players from Europe. For the former group, having America's best playing in MLS is at best a good thing and at worst neutral. The players can forge a closer bond with each other, possibly developing stronger understandings of their international teammates' preferences on the field (think Bradley and Altidore in Toronto), and can make it to more U.S.-based training sessions. After all, the U.S. has historically over-performed in World Cups in relation to talent level, based on their chemistry, fitness, athleticism, and collective play; American players playing together should only strengthen our usual advantages.
The latter group, though, would rather see Americans competing separately but at the highest levels week-in and week-out. They look jealously at a team like Croatia, who (generally)
haven't done anything of note on the international level since separating from Yugoslavia but who have key players on powerhouse clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid, while developing a few budding superstars already breaking into the biggest teams in the sport. For them, seeing great Americans is more important than seeing a great American team. And most of our current best players giving up trying to test themselves at the highest levels—sometimes understandably (Dempsey), sometimes less so (Bradley)—in favor of bossing MLS is exactly the opposite of what they want to see.
Ultimately, it all comes back to how you felt watching Chile vs. the U.S.—a 3-2 victory for the Chileans, by the way—with one team's top guys there on the pitch and the other's best players resting in London and Madrid and Turin. While American fans will undoubtedly hoot and holler for those USMNT players when the World Cup cycle starts up again, fans of top-level soccer will be seeing a lot more of those absent Chileans until then. For many of us, that's a shame.