The U.S. national team took a step up in competition on Saturday, and it showed. Facing a Republic of Ireland side that wasn't a powerhouse, but did have the clear edge in experience, the Americans watched a first-half lead fade into a second-half collapse in a 2-1 loss.
It wasn't so much about Ireland having quality as it was the Irish showing the poise to push hard in the final moments for a result, catching the young Americans napping in a match the U.S. never found a way to control.
Offensively, the absence of Christian Pulisic was glaring, with an injury to Kenny Saief during the week limiting Dave Sarachan's playmaker options. Those options were limited even further by several MLS teams that didn't make players available for the June friendlies. So instead of a Darlington Nagbe or Sebastian Lletget, Sarachan went with the no-playmaker central midfield again, turning to Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams to provide energy, and hopefully some creativity in the attacking third.
It didn't quite work out that way, as the U.S. attack struggled to generate clear-cut chances, and the midfield failed to grab ahold of the game. The lone U.S. goal came on a well-worked set piece, but in terms of opportunities in the run of play, the Americans were starved for threatening moments.
Defensively, the U.S. started out well enough, with some of that having to do with Ireland having its own trouble generating effective attacking sequences. As soon as the Irish began to put pressure on, the frailties in the back, and particularly in the U.S. goal, revealed themselves.
Here is a closer look at some of the key takeaways from the U.S. loss to Ireland:
WEAH A RARE BRIGHT SPOT
Bright spots were scarce for the U.S., with Tim Weah's energy in attack being one of them. The Paris Saint-Germain youngster looked much less nervous against Ireland than he did at the start of the Bolivia friendly, and he was the one U.S. player who could offer some semblance of an attacking threat with his speed.
You can see the inexperience in Weah's game, but also the fearlessness that comes with being such a talented and highly-regarded prospect. He showed enough to merit another start against France, but playing him again is as much about giving him the experience as it is about believing he could make a difference against the French.
HAMID LOOKED RUSTY
The goalkeeper position is in a state of transition, and Bill Hamid's shaky performance on Saturday only makes the position look even more wide open. Long considered a frontrunner to take over for the Tim Howard/Brad Guzan/Nick Rimando generation, Hamid looked like a player who hadn't seen many minutes this year. His move to Danish side Midtjylland was an admirable attempt to push himself to a new level, but failing to win the starting job with the Danish champions has caused him to give up ground on a pack of younger options that are closing in on him.
Sarachan will have to consider giving the starting nod to Zack Steffen now. The Columbus Crew goalkeeper has been on a roll in MLS play, and his experience playing with the center-back tandem of Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers works in his favor. Club Leon goalkeeper William Yarbrough is also in the squad, and has more overall experience than Steffen, though he doesn't have anywhere near the upside or athleticism.
PLAYMAKER VOID A GLARING ONE
From the moment it became clear Christian Pulisic wouldn't make the trip for the European friendlies, Sarachan had to know his team would struggle for creativity. Saief was expected to help fill that void, but he went down injured during the week. That left Sarachan with the decision to play McKennie and Adams in front of Wil Trapp in a three-man central midfield that was high on energy, but light on chance generation.
The reality was that the U.S. midfield didn't create chances or impose itself on an Ireland midfield that was older, and you would have thought slower, but the Irish were able to match the U.S. in the middle of the park on a day when McKennie and Adams weren't at their best.
This wasn't the first time we've seen Sarachan deploy this kind of central midfield, but he will want to avoid doing it again in the next match, against France. It's time to let McKennie and Adams sit in deeper roles, with either Joe Corona or Saief (if he's healthy) in front of them. If the U.S. is going to avoid getting embarrassed by France, McKennie and Adams will need to focus their attentions on breaking up plays rather than trying to get into the attack.
CENTRAL DEFENDERS ENDURE A ROUGH DAY
Miazga and Carter-Vickers have long been seen as the future of the center-back position for the U.S., and while one match won't suddenly change that status, the pair didn't exactly do much to put a stronger hold on that label.
The tandem showed their youth at times against some veteran Irish attackers, with Carter-Vickers delivering a studs-up challenge that might have drawn a red card in a CONCACAF road qualifier and Miazga being torched by a nasty move on the sequence leading to Ireland's winning goal. They weren't the only shaky moments for the youngsters, but they were the most memorable.
Could some of that performance be put down to playing in front of a goalkeeper who didn't exactly instill confident — and who didn't seem to communicate that well with his defenders? Quite possibly, but Miazga and Carter-Vickers could also have done better with the ball and with their positioning.
Will Sarachan stick with the tandem against France? It's more than likely, though Tim Parker gave the U.S. manager something to think about with a good showing off the bench on Saturday. The New York Red Bulls defender is in the midst of a career year, and even if he doesn't start against France, he has done enough to justify some more minutes and a place well up the depth chart.
WOOD SCORED, BUT COULD USE HELP UP TOP
Bobby Wood has made a habit of scoring in friendlies in Europe, adding Ireland to the Netherlands and Germany among the places he has found the net at the international level. His strike was a classic poacher's goal, and put some shine on an otherwise forgettable performance.
With no playmaker to provide Wood with steady service, Sarachan will want to think about partnering Wood with Josh Sargent in a 4-4-2 against France. It might sound crazy to deploy anything but a five-man midfield against France's loaded lineup, but giving Wood a strike partner to work off on the counter might help keep the French defense honest. Sargent is young, but makes smart runs, and that pairing could be one we see more of in the future.