Youthful energy, goalkeeping gaffes, and C.J.'s strong shift: 3 things from a young USMNT's draw in Portugal

The kids were alright in Leiria, where a young U.S. men's side earned a draw with the European champions.

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The U.S. men’s national team took a young squad to Portugal and came out with a 1-1 draw. In some ways, it provided a bit of optimism for the future of the U.S. talent pool. On the other, it was a depressing reminder that the U.S. and those talented young players won’t be playing in Russia next summer.

Here are three takeaways from the draw in Portugal.

1. Surprise! Youth and energy can be a good thing

One of the more frustrating reports to come out of the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualification failure was that Bruce Arena intended to bring a much younger squad to Russia in 2018. The U.S. never got there, in part because the team looked old, slow and, in the Trinidad and Tobago match, disinterested.

In some ways, Arena’s hands were tied. It’s difficult to give a young player his senior national team debut in a must-win game. It shouldn’t have gotten to that point. Those players could have been integrated sooner. But what we saw against Portugal is that some of the younger players were, indeed, ready to be integrated into the team. And if they were good enough for the World Cup, they could have been good enough for a qualifier in Trinidad. At the very least, players who had impressed in the Gold Cup, like Matt Miazga, or had previous national team experience, like Danny Williams, could have played a bigger role in qualifying.

Instead, the U.S. felt it could eke its way into the World Cup and then integrate those young faces. Against Portugal, those younger players were the bright spots for a U.S. team that looked energetic and effective against a young Portugal side. Weston McKennie, especially, impressed – which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering his role for one of the best teams in the Bundesliga. Now we’re left wondering how players like McKennie, Tyler Adams, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Miazga would have done in Russia. We’ll have to wait more than four years until any of them has a chance to play in a World Cup.

2. The goalkeeper job remains one of the most intriguing battles

Ethan Horvath recently lost his starting job at Club Brugge and didn’t cover himself in glory against Portugal. Horvath’s howler gave Portugal an equalizer in the 1-1 draw, and it certainly loosened his grip as the front-runner to replace Tim Howard as the No. 1 on the men’s national team’s depth chart.

But there isn’t much certainty behind Horvath either.

Bill Hamid has long been one of the most promising prospects in the U.S. pool, but injuries and inconsistent form have kept him from breaking through. Now he’ll head off to Europe with FC Midtjylland in Denmark for his first European experience, and he’ll need consistent playing time in order to stay in the hunt for the top job. Jesse Gonzalez is talented, too, but young and raw. Zack Steffen may have put himself into the conversation with a strong season in Columbus. Brad Guzan remains a veteran option after a solid year in Atlanta.

Despite those options, however, the U.S. has uncertainty at the goalkeeper position for the first time since … well, since Tony Meola first grabbed a hold of the U.S. job in 1989. It’s going to be a battle to watch over the next few years.  

3. C.J. Sapong put himself into consideration for bigger role

He is not the youngest guy on the roster, but in a position where Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris have had a lock on the top three spots on the depth chart, Philadelphia’s C.J. Sapong put himself into the conversation with a very strong performance against Portugal.

Sapong, who will turn 29 next month, was strong in hold-up play, pulled wide to run at defenders and cause problems and assisted on McKennie’s debut goal. He may not be the long-term solution at the position, but Sapong has put in a very good shout to be a useful piece in CONCACAF qualifying, where a physical presence to bang and bruise is a huge asset.

Others battling for a spot on the depth chart – Dom Dwyer, Juan Agudelo, Christian Ramirez and Josh Sargent – won’t have an easy task passing Sapong for that spot.  

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