The majority of the players called in to the United States men’s national team’s training camp here this week were not in Trinidad and Tobago last month when the squad endured a humiliating end to its World Cup qualifying campaign.
“I was in bed and woke up in the middle of the night to a bunch of texts,” said defender Matt Miazga, who plays his club soccer in the Netherlands. “I watched the highlights in the morning. It was shocking.”
In the wake of that defeat, U.S. Soccer this week left home the core of the team that failed to qualify for Russia and instead assembled an experimental roster — a mix of veterans, newcomers and even a few teenagers — for next week’s friendly against Portugal. But that change in personnel has done little to dissipate the thick cloud of trauma that followed the coaches and players onto the field on Wednesday as they took their first steps into a yearslong competitive purgatory.
The World Cup is seven months away, and the only game on the Americans’ schedule is Tuesday’s exhibition in Leiria. The coaching staff is temporary. The federation’s leadership is in disarray. There are more questions than answers.
And so the players here, most of them blameless in the qualifying debacle, were fully aware that the weight of disappointment would rest on their shoulders, that the task of starting to rehabilitate the spirit of the program was, for the moment, in their hands.
“Everyone has to take responsibility,” said Miazga, 22, who along with several other young players should have the chance now to showcase his talents over the next few years. “Everyone has to look in the mirror and focus on what they can do to represent the country and the badge the right way.”
Late Tuesday night, in a hotel conference room in Lisbon, the team’s caretaker coach Dave Sarachan gathered the arriving players for an introductory meeting. Sarachan, the longtime assistant to the former national team coach Bruce Arena, spoke openly about the feeling of shock that lingered from the team’s train-wreck defeat last month.
“The elephant in the room was there,” Sarachan said. “I felt it was important to at least address the fact that, for myself and others involved, we were gutted by what happened. That’s not going to go away for a while.”
Sarachan acknowledged, too, that things could be unsettled for a while. The federation will hold its presidential election in February, and several candidates already have announced their intention to challenge the incumbent, Sunil Gulati. Only then will the federation focus fully on the task of hiring a new coach to replace Arena, and on the larger plan to return to the World Cup in 2022.
Sarachan said it was an honor to coach the team, even for one match. What the future held he did not know.Sarachan said Bedoya — who was on the team during its qualifying run, but did not feature in the final defeat — would be tactically useful against Portugal, the No. 3-ranked team in the world, but also necessary as an experienced voice in a training camp full of unseasoned youngsters.
Bedoya, who labeled the Trinidad loss a “gut punch” that he was still trying to get over, said he was surprised to receive a call-up. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I thought there’d probably be wholesale changes throughout the whole team.”
But he said he embraced the opportunity to represent his country, to help the young players find their feet, and to fill a role for the program as it continues its healing process.