Scuffed, Vol. 2 ∞ March 27, 2017

A New Hope. Everyone thought Honduras would sit back on defense, absorb pressure, and spring into a dangerous counterattack. A scoreline no more glamorous than 2–1 was in the offing, and the U.S. would have to be patient. Bruce Arena went with what looked like a 4–1–3–2, with Christian Pulisic in a forward central role behind strikers Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. That surprisingly aggressive triangle of attack was the story of the night, because they broke the Honduran defense. By the time it was 3–0, it wasn’t even clear what strategy Honduras had employed. Watch all the highlights here.

In the fifth minute, a scramble above the Honduras box left the ball at Altidore’s feet and he clipped a waist-high through ball to spring Pulisic, who was, as usual, moving with purpose off the ball. The 18-year-old’s snap shot from an angle drew a good save, but the conscientious Sebastian Lletget lurked on the back post and tapped the deflection in. 1–0, United States. Exactly the start needed to avoid the slugfest Honduras manager Jorge Luis Pinto — who’s no slouch — probably wanted.

Despite the goal, it took a while for the U.S. to settle in. Pulisic was sloppy early. Omar Gonzalez looked uncertain. Lletget, playing right outside midfield in his first World Cup qualifier, was taken off for Alejandro Bedoya after an ankle-crunching tackle on the sideline. Then the Americans scored a second time, and it was a weird one. Michael Bradley collected the ball on the right and wandered across the top of the box in his ponderous, non-threatening way. Nobody closed him down, the keeper’s line of sight was blocked by Altidore’s bulk (Jozy quietly had an excellent match), and Bradley shot from 20 yards with his left foot. Side netting. 2–0.

But the goal of the night, the one that gave us a flash of the immense possibilities, was the third one, a world-class combination between Pulisic and Dempsey that killed off the game and made hearts sing across the nation. Pulisic, growing in confidence as the night progressed, picked up the ball on the left sideline, scythed toward the box and scooped the ball over the back line into the path of a charging Dempsey, who shouldered the ball down, and, with defender Henry Figueroa draped on his left side, went to ground to thrash a half-volley into the top corner. It was unstoppable and cathartic. The goal showed the teenager’s class, but it also was the 34-year-old Dempsey’s latest statement of utter grit and swagger. Argue with me about Landon Donovan if you want, but with his instincts, masculinity, success at Fulham and white hot rage when he scores, Dempsey is the global face of American soccer. Good to have him back. There were three more goals to come — one from Pulisic and two more from Dempsey. They were all worth celebrating. But the third goal was the past, present and future melding in a moment of transcendence. Come to think of it, that’s the definition of the present. Whatever. The new guy we love and the old guy we love made beautiful soccer together. Mazel tov America.

Darlington Nagbe and Jorge Villafana won’t get much attention for their performances, but they were a calming, mistake-free presence on the left. Kudos to them. Brooks, our best defender, had a good match. He left the field early with a reported sinus infection, flew back to Germany and will miss the qualifier against Panama. As qualifying continues, blessed be the day we have Geoff Cameron (another good performance on Friday, even though he was out of position), Fabian Johnson and Deandre Yedlin on the field at the same time. Grateful for your service, Omar Gonzalez, but I’ll be glad when you’re back on the bench. Also worth noting, Honduras didn’t look great (midfielder Jorge Claros deserves a special prosecutor), particularly after that third goal, so let’s keep it all in perspective.

Now, after the November humiliations at the hands of Mexico and Costa Rica, we’re squarely back in the hunt to finish in the top three of the Hex, and even without Brooks should be favored against Panama on Tuesday. That’s 9 p.m. CT on television networks nobody has at home.

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The Number Six. Another thing I want to discuss in more detail is Michael Bradley. Or, at least, his position, the number 6, who sits in front of the back four, protects them, tackles decisively, and moves the ball from defense to offense smoothly without mistakes. Javier Mascherano, Julian Weigl, Sergio Busquets, N’golo Kante and Paul Pogba come to mind as world-class examples. Not coincidentally all five of them represent nations that have won World Cups and been in a final the last three go-rounds.

Despite Bradley’s goal on Friday, for me he wasn’t terribly convincing. I’m no Bradley hater. I get that he keeps the ball moving and reliably tends to his defensive assignments. I don’t pretend there’s anyone better in the U.S. player pool at this moment. But the 29-year-old looks slow and lethargic, which is how he looked in the 2014 World Cup, and he too often lacks incisiveness with his passing and interventions. So let’s talk about the future! There are quality American holding midfielders coming up through the ranks, and three of them stand out.

18-year-old Tyler Adams got a start for the New York Red Bulls on Saturday in a 0–0 draw against Real Salt Lake, and he bossed the match. He closed down opponents with alacrity (as Rob Usry said, “your first touch better be immaculate if Tyler Adams is on the field”), bounced out of tackles with the rock at his feet and dropped pinpoint passes on teammates (mostly wingers) all over the field. It was Adams’ second career start. His first was last year and he wasn’t ready. This time he was the best player on the field, and folks, he just turned 18. Watch how his season plays out. As Matthew Doyle said, “I’ve spoken with some very smart folks who think he is the best non-Christian Pulisic prospect in the USMNT pipeline.”

Already a starter for FC Dallas, Kellyn Acosta, 21, is probably the closest of this trio to getting real first team minutes in the middle of the field with the national team. His game-winning golazo of a free kick in the CONCACAF Champion’s League semi-finals a couple weeks ago signaled his class and growing confidence. He’s playing as more of a box-to-box midfielder, rather than the deep-lying position Bradley plays, but word is he’s clicking on all cylinders for maybe the best team in the MLS — controlling the tempo of matches, passing well, getting in on the attack. He’s already on the USMNT roster, and may get playing time Tuesday. Klinsmann used him as a left back, which was widely and rightly derided as foolishness. Acosta could pair with Bradley in some formations the way Jermaine Jones does, or fill in for Bradley in a pinch. For now he’s the heir apparent.

The most intriguing potential replacement for Bradley is Weston McKennie, 18, who got his first start for mid-table Bundesliga giants Schalke last week in a friendly against a nearly full-strength second-division Hannover side. (Hannover’s good. They’re 4 points from the top of Bundesliga 2.) McKennie is one of three American teenagers in Schalke’s vaunted youth system — the Schalkemericans. For McKennie, who signed with Schalke from FC Dallas last summer, it was a big day, his first start for the first team. He looked comfortable in the middle — quick, technical, decent at distributing the ball and athletic enough to be disruptive. Nats Abroad put together a highlight reel of good moments from him. He also had a few giveaways in dangerous spots, which you won’t see there. Here are two nice details I noticed. First, (wearing #2) he closes a passing lane very rapidly to deflect a pass. Then notice the way he brings down the ball after it’s cleared by his goalkeeper and headed back by a teammate. Three quick touches — chest, right foot, left footed pass to a teammate — and he has smoothly turned a loose ball into clear possession, despite being sandwiched by Hannover midfielders. Soccer’s a game of details and that type of quick, technical work in tight space is what’s required of top-level midfielders. McKennie may well not make it into the first team for Schalke in a Bundesliga match this year, but he’s probably the most promising under-the-radar American teenager in Europe right now, and Schalke, the 14th most valuable football club in the world, doesn’t mess around. They have a plan for him. He’ll be called into the U-20 World Cup this summer, and should start getting more attention. He’s already getting some.

See you next week with some thoughts on Panama and whatever else comes up.

Scuffed is an experimental weekly soccer newsletter focused on the U.S. Men’s National Team, and the players who could one day make it better. Please share it with anyone you think might want to sign up.