Young USMNT passes test of toughness in gritty win over Paraguay

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Facing a South American squad that wasn't interested keeping things friendly, the U.S. national team saw its young squad respond well to the challenge

Sometimes friendlies play out like friendlies generally do, with pleasantries, few tough challenges and open, attacking soccer between teams that accept there isn't anything of value up for grabs.

Then you have matches like Tuesday's U.S. national team friendly against Paraguay, when things get increasingly testy and what started out as a friendly morphed into an intense and heated battle.

It might seem silly for that to occur in a match with nothing tangible on the line, but the reality is national team players spend their careers playing matches that matter and it is only natural for that competitive DNA to be triggered when an opponent takes a few too many liberties. Paraguay did just that, responding poorly to being outplayed by the Americans, and what started out as a few chippy challenges quickly escalated into full-blown studs-up tackles backed by pushes and shoves.

It led to an intense second half that caretaker U.S. coach Dave Sarachan probably didn't mind at all, because it gave him and U.S. fans a chance to see how this young U.S. team would respond to being pushed around.

The Americans responded by giving it right back to the Paraguayans, whether it was DeAndre Yedlin racing into full-blooded challenges, U.S. central defenders Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers thwarting the threats the South Americans were able to put together, Tyler Adams racing around pestering opponents all over the field or Wil Trapp neutralizing fellow MLSer Miguel Almiron.

"This game became a real big boy game and these guys kept their composure when things started to fly," Sarachan said after the match. "These games are valuable in the players’ development. When we start getting into qualifying, games will look like this. There's a lot of physicality."

The sentiment among U.S. fans was this was a friendly to give playing time to all the young players on the squad, but as tempers boiled, and beating Paraguay gained increasing significance for the Americans on the field, Sarachan held off on the wholesale subs he might have deployed if the match had played out like a friendly rather than like a match with the intensity of a World Cup qualifier. Sarachan held off on the subs and let his team finish what it started. Tim Weah and Andrija Novakovich could have come on sooner, but still managed to enter the match and show some good glimpses in their national team debuts.

Was it a complete performance for the U.S.? Not at all. As much as the Americans were able to control possession, they far too often failed to generate truly dangerous opportunities, and aside from some flashes from Kenny Saief, and Marky Delgado's beautiful line-splitting pass to Tyler Adams to draw the game-winning penalty, there wasn't much creativity to speak of. Yes, missing Christian Pulisic is one thing, but a midfield with Saief and Nagbe should have been able to generate more and part of that should fall on how Sarachan set up his lineup, as well as his decision not to bring on Novakovich (77th minute) and Weah (86th minute) until late in the match.

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Matt Miazga Zack Steffen USA

Lack of creativity aside, it was refreshing to see a team of young Americans show the mental fortitude to respond so well to having their toughness tested. That, combined with the excellent soccer played by the likes of Trapp, Adams, Miazga, Carter-Vickers and Jorge Villafana made Tuesday's victory feel as good as anything U.S. players or fans have been able to feel good about since that 4-0 World Cup qualifying romp over Panama that came just before the nightmare in Trinidad & Tobago last October.

Tuesday's win felt more like a fresh start for the U.S. national team program, definitely more than last November's draw against Portugal, or January's draw with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not just because it was a win, but because it showed us that this young generation has some heart to go along with their promising talent.

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