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USMNT youngsters impress in shock draw against France

01:38 GMT+3 10/06/2018
Paul Pogba Tyler Adams France USA friendly 2018
In a match they were expected to lose badly, the Americans gave the highly-favored French a stiff test in their final World Cup warm-up

It was supposed to be bloodbath, the kind of embarrassing result you come to expect in a matchup of teams a world apart in the talent department. The U.S. national team's squad of youngsters probably had a combined transfer value less than the individual price tags of half of France's starters, but on Saturday the USMNT came together and delivered the kind of gutsy defensive team performance we used to take for granted from the United States.

The French did dominate play, and tested the U.S. defense right down to the final second — which required a highlight real-worthy double save from Zack Steffen — but the USMNT held on for a 1-1 draw that completed an admirable group effort against one of the best teams in the world.

U.S. caretaker coach Dave Sarachan may have been coaching his final match in charge, but he did well to set up his team in a system that gave them a chance against France's vaunted attack. He scrapped the 4-5-1 we had seen in the team's more recent friendlies and deployed the team in a 5-3-2, handing starting debuts to Tim Parker and Shaq Moore, while starting Antonee Robinson at left wingback. All three of those players could have been considered somewhat surprising starting options, and all three rewarded Sarachan's faith with strong efforts against a France attack featuring Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba.

Any suggestion that the Americans shouldn't have set up in such a defensive posture is ludicrous. It would have done this group of U.S. players no good to try and trot them out in an attacking lineup against an opponent with such a punishing set of weapons. The French would have ripped the U.S. to shreds in what would have been a negative experience for a young group still adapting to the international game.

Instead, the U.S. came out in a 5-3-2, with Robinson and Moore as wingbacks. It was a system that required serious work from the midfield, and discpline from the trio of central defenders, and the Americans delivered just that. Tyler Adams was excellent, matching the energy of the all-world France midfielder N'Golo Kante, while Wil Trapp and Weston McKennie put in good shifts as well. Together they helped limit the danger caused by the ever-dangerous Griezmann and the tricky Pogba.

Parker was the best of the three U.S. center backs, though Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers both made numerous defensive plays to help keep France from generating easy chances. All three defenders had their nervy moments, but they each helped boost their stock, especially Parker, who European clubs will certainly take a look at.

Julian Green was the unlikely goal-scoring hero, pouncing on a France blunder to score a well-taken goal that felt like his true re-introduction to the U.S. national team. He had become a forgotten man after leaving Bayern Munich, but his re-emergence with 2. Bundesliga side Greuther Furth helped him earn a look for the recent U.S. friendlies and on Saturday he made the most of that opportunity.

Perhaps no player made a greater statement than Steffen, who made seven saves to solidify his status as the leading candidate to take over as the starting U.S. goalkeeper heading into the next World Cup qualifying cycle. The Columbus Crew goalkeeper looked poised, made smart decisions and also flashed his ability to make stunning saves as well. The U.S. is still a year away from playing in a competitive match — the 2019 Gold Cup will provide that — but Steffen heads into the summer looking like the top name on the U.S. goalkeeper depth chart.

As good as the aforementioned individual performances were, Saturday's draw was much more about the collective effort of the group and the sense that we saw for the first time in a long time a U.S. team that showed real fight and real heart against a superior opponent. It used to be that the USMNT was known for those very qualities, for the sum being greater than the parts, for a collective spirit that could test and push and sometimes knock off world powers. We saw that most recently in the 2014 World Cup against Belgium, when the U.S. fought hard through regulation before being ripped apart in extra time. The 2009 Confederations Cup win against Spain, 2006 World Cup draw against eventual champion Italy, 2002 World Cup shocker win against Portugal and 1994 win against highly-favored Colombia were examples of American teams coming together to exceed expectations and surprise opponents.

Somewhere, newly-hired USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart had to be smiling. The man spearheading the search for the program's next coach had recently talked about wanting to re-instill some of the qualities in the program that have gotten lost — one of which was the reputation for having a superior fighting spirit. Stewart saw some of that on Saturday, which has to feel good as he embarks on a very important job.

In the end, Saturday's draw was still just a friendly, and the U.S. is still a year away from a match that matters. We're still a few months from knowing who will be hired as head coach going into the next cycle, but for this collection of young Americans — many of whom will be key building blocks in the program's recovery efforts — Saturday's draw was a confidence booster and special day they can build on.

It was also a perfect gift for U.S. fans who will sit down to watch the World Cup later this month, and now instead of just dwelling on last October's qualifying disaster, they can instead think about the bright spots they saw on Saturday, and the promise they hold for the future.