Four years ago, the United States men's national team shockingly failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. On Thursday night, a squad of fresh-faced talents started on the path to redemption.
It was a... mediocre start.
The United States traveled to El Salvador and left with a scoreless draw in a game that was a bit of a slog to watch, as neither team managed much in the way of consistent chances.
The first half was a rather sloppy affair, with the United States buzzing for the first 10 minutes before El Salvador came into the game and mucked things up a bit. Much of the half was scrappier than Gregg Berhalter would have preferred for his possession-based system.
The U.S. did have the best chance of the first 45, however, as Miles Robinson put his free header in the box off a set piece just over the crossbar.
The second half wasn't much better, as Berhalter's suite of substitutions didn't change the game's flow or find it any better to break down El Salvador's resolute defending.
Kellyn Acosta had the best chance of the second half for either side:
Granted, the United States was without its best player, Christian Pulisic. And they got a point on the road, keeping a clean sheet in a tough environment. The long view is that it wasn't a terrible result.
Steve Davis @SteveDavis90
Not great. But not bad. <br>Plenty of <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/USMNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#USMNT</a> players were whacking their way through the CONCACAF jungle for the first time.<br>So mission (sorta) accomplished - although a couple guys certainly need to be better.<br>Home wins + Road draws gets you to a World Cup
But a team full of young talent—many of whom ply their trade at top European clubs—was expected to do better.
Perhaps most emblematic of the struggles of such players was Sergino Dest, playing at left-back instead of his normal position on the right. While he presents a threat going forward given his pace and inability to beat defenders one-on-one, he was a huge liability in defense, to the point that it's fair to question if he's the right type of fullback for a back-4 system.
But it wasn't just Dest. Gio Reyna and Brendan Aaronson failed to make a major impact in attack. The USMNT in general seemed to lose its flow in the final third, lingering on the ball too long as two defenders seemed to form a wall in front of every attacker who pushed the play out wide. The snappy, incisive passing that got the United States through the midfield seemed to wane as they neared the danger areas.
Of course, CONCACAF qualifiers on the road aren't for the faint of heart. The El Salvadoran crowd was bumping. A number of hard fouls went uncalled. El Salvador deserves credit for executing a game plan that seemed intent on creating a wall in defense and occasionally threatening on the counter.
There was also this moment for Gio Reyna:
Nothing comes easy in CONCACAF. It's a lesson the young and talented Americans learned on Thursday night.
Maximiliano Bretos @MaxBretosSports
BTW, this is how road games in CONCACAF are supposed to look like. Many were under impression our guys were gonna show up from Europe and run circles. That's not how it works. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SLVvUSA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SLVvUSA</a>
These are the types of games the young Americans need to learn how to win. These are the environments they need to learn how to navigate. There is enormous talent for the USMNT, more promise than perhaps any previous generation could boast.
But four years after failing to reach the World Cup, most United States soccer fans are more concerned with the present than the future. They won't be thrilled with what they saw Thursday night, point on the road or not.