Youthful USMNT squad's final exam will be a brutal one as full-strength France awaits

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Dan Mullan
The third of the U.S. national team's three pre-World Cup friendlies sees the Americans taking on a stacked French side in its final World Cup tuneup

Since the current U.S. national team was thrown together with a collection of youngsters still finding their feet as professionals, let alone internationals, we have heard about the tests being thrown their way.

First there was a Bolivia B team, in a home game that could be best described as a cushy pop quiz . Then came a trip overseas, to take on a more mature Republic of Ireland squad in a mid-term exam that showed the young Americans just how much they have to learn .

That loss to Ireland provided a dose of reality, which should ensure the U.S. team has its eyes wide open heading into Saturday's friendly against France, a powerhouse and World Cup contender boasting some of the best players in the world. The French will deploy their strongest possible squad in their final pre-World Cup tuneup, which is going to force the USMNT to either step up to the challenge or risk being annihilated.

"We know that we’re not preparing for a tournament, but at the same time these are invaluable experiences for a group of players that is just starting to come together," U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp said. "It’s their last game before the World Cup so we know that the energy, the excitement from them, the quality, should be high and we’re prepared for it, we’re excited for it.

"It’ll be difficult, but these are the games you want to play in."

The lackluster showing against Ireland shouldn't necessarily be used to measure how the Americans will respond against the French. Since this run of friendlies was announced, the France match has been seen as the showcase, the one most players were circling on the calendar. It isn't a stretch to think some U.S. players overlooked Ireland, but there are no surprises on Saturday. They will be taking on the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, which is the type of challenge that should bring the best out of a brash crop of young American talents.

"One thing I’ll tell you about this group is they don’t get intimidated," U.S. caretaker coach Dave Sarachan said. "When we played Portugal in November with a similar younger team, FIFA had them third in the world, and they played without fear. This group is going to do the same.

"Once we step on the field this group will compete."

The USMNT will once again be without its best player — Christian Pulisic — who went on vacation and skipped the team's European-based friendlies. His absence, coupled with the injury to Kenny Saief and the inability to secure releases of some MLS-based midfielders, has left this U.S. team facing a playmaker drought. Sarachan turned to Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams as a central tandem in front of Trapp, a partnership that yielded very little in the way of chances created.

The good news is that central midfield trio will have to be much more focused on defending and trying to slow down France's vaunted attack, which plays to the strengths of McKennie and Adams, though the U.S. as a group still needs to do a better job of keeping the ball and moving it around.

"I think we were a little bit afraid to play when there was some pressure on us," U.S. defender Tim Parker said. "I think we just have to work on getting in good spots for one another when we have the ball. This way it makes it easier for the next guy."

From an individual standpoint, Saturday's friendly should tell us quite a bit about several youngsters. Tim Weah plays for Paris Saint-German and has expressed his excitement about facing the French. The 18-year-old winger has impressed in the team's recent friendlies, but finding success against France's defense will be an entirely different kind of challenge.

GFX USMNT Projected XI vs France

McKennie will have his opportunity to face off against Champions League caliber competition as he prepares to fight for a regular role in Schalke's looming Champions League campaign, while Adams is expected to make a move to a top European league in the near future, and going up against the likes of Griezmann and Kante should only help raise his profile.

Defensively, the center back tandem of Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-VIckers had some shaky moments against Ireland, but will find a significantly more difficult challenge on Saturday. That's assuming Sarachan doesn't break up the pairing to give a start to Parker, who was impressive off the bench against Ireland.

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Whichever defense Sarachan settles on will need to play much better than the unit that faced Ireland. As much as the Americans are a long shot to knock off Les Bleus, the only chance they have of avoiding being overrun is if the team's defensive shape and commitment is excellent.

"We just want to make the game tough for them," Parker said. "I think we want to put on a good showing for ourselves, but obviously not make it easy for them." 

 

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