CHESTER, Pa. — The United States is, indeed, preparing for the World Cup. It just happens to be the 2022 men’s tournament in Qatar, not this summer’s spectacle in Russia.
And so when the Americans gathered Monday for a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in a low-key friendly at Talen Energy Stadium, an interim coach named seven players age 22 or younger to his starting lineup. Four were teenagers, three of whom are employed by German Bundesliga clubs and one with the runaway French champion. Only two players on the 22-man squad were born in the 1980s — and they arrived late that decade.
If U.S. soccer is going to recover from the humiliation of last fall’s qualifying fiasco — one that ended a string of seven World Cup appearances and prompted reevaluation of the program from top to bottom — the starting point is implementing a set of promising young players who carry little baggage from this waning failed cycle.
For experience and transitional purposes, several usual suspects are likely to remain in the mix. But as the Americans turn the corner, they will become more about Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tim Weah than Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.
“We have a wider pool of good, young players than we have had for many years, but they are still young,” interim boss Dave Sarachan said. “We want to be optimistic and there is hope, but we have to let this play out before we start anointing this generation. Each step of the way will begin to add up, and you are going to realize there is going to be some good talent coming through.”
Josh Sargent, an 18-year-old forward who has yet to play first-team pro soccer, scored in his debut. Weah, 18, scored in his second appearance. In all, six players earned their first cap. Walker Zimmerman, who at 25 is ancient in this group, began the scoring late in the first half with his first international goal.
Sarachan, Bruce Arena’s top lieutenant last year, has shepherded the process. He will remain in charge through Saturday’s friendly at Ireland and the June 9 visit to France. In all likelihood, a new boss will be in place for September tests against Mexico and probably Brazil. The Americans are expected to host two powers in October, then visit England and Italy in November.
Under Sarachan, the team has posted a 2-0-2 record, recorded three consecutive shutouts and hasn’t conceded a goal in 329 minutes — baby steps for a program finding its way again.
On this night, the young charges were energetic, ambitious and carefree. Their technical work, however, did not always comply. Touches were off and bonds were slow to take hold against a weak, inexperienced foe.
Weah, a rising prospect at Paris Saint-Germain, was a prime example.
“He was all over the shop. He was the prototypical young, nervous guy,” Sarachan said. “Everyone assumes because he is on the books at a place like PSG that he’s going to be such a certain level. I think he can get there, but he’s not there. … He’s going to be a good player, but he’s got some growing to do.”
The centerpiece was — and will continue to be — Pulisic, the dynamic 19-year-old attacker for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund via Hershey, Pa. On the heels of a stressful German season, Pulisic displayed leadership and enthusiasm but was clearly operating on tired, uncooperative legs.
The Americans broke through in the 37th minute when Zimmerman, making his third national team appearance, nodded in Joe Corona’s corner kick from 11 yards.
Seven minutes after intermission, as Bolivian goalkeeper Carlos Lampe exchanged passes with right back Luis Haquin, Sargent applied pressure between them. When Lampe tried flipping the ball over him, Sargent turned and gathered it, then bore down on the embarrassed keeper for the finish. The forward will begin his first season with Germany’s Werder Bremen this coming season.
Others to debut were goalkeeper Alex Bono (Toronto FC), defenders Antonee Robinson (Everton), Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City) and Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United) and midfielder Keaton Parks (Benfica).
In the 59th minute, Robinson, 20, crossed to the six-yard box for the fast-charging Weah to one-time into the net. Robinson is under contract with Everton in the Premier League and spent the season on loan at second-division Bolton.
With young players on the spot, the coaching staff will have to begin managing expectations.
“If you want to get to A, you still start at D and then to C and to be B. We are very quick to jump them up to the A category,” Sarachan said. “That’s a process we have to manage with expectations and a lot of noise on the outside. They are going to feel good about tonight, but there’s a lot of room to get better.”