For his first match in charge of the US men’s national team, Gregg Berhalter named Aaron Long as captain in only his third international appearance. The obvious choice, Michael Bradley, had more caps than the rest of the squad put together.
If handing the armband to Long was an attempt to accelerate the defender’s development, it also felt like a symbolic break with the past – even as Bradley was out on the field performing well in a midfield holding role as the US eased past Panama, 3-0, in a friendly on Sunday in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Arizona.
“I told him that he’ll still be a leader when he’s on the field by his performance. The armband is maybe just authority but you can lead through your actions,” Berhalter said. “You don’t get to have 143 caps unless you have real quality.”
Bradley denied he was disappointed. “There’s a group of guys who have to now start to take more responsibility and be encouraged and engaged to put more on their shoulders, to think about more than just themselves and their own performance; to think about the group, to think about things in a bigger way, to take on more,” he said. “Aaron is certainly one them.”
Long, who is 26 but only broke into the New York Red Bulls line-up in 2017, was named MLS defender of the year for 2018. Bradley, 31, made his national team debut in 2006 and first captained his country in 2015.
In truth this was more of a phony war. Other than Phoenix being relatively near the squad’s Californian base (and seeming like an apt place for the US to rise from the ashes of their failure to reach Russia) there was little logic in hiring a 63,400-capacity NFL stadium for an unappetizing friendly game in January, when crowds are often meagre.
So it proved on Sunday with an attendance of only 9,040 as the overwhelming majority of the 4.7 million Phoenix-area residents opted against spending $40 or more to see a squad of MLS players in a place that does not have an MLS franchise.
Perhaps some fans preferred the storylines and stars of the WWE Royal Rumble in downtown Phoenix, which drew a far larger crowd at the same time. The only rumbling at State Farm Stadium was the sound an over-amped public address system makes when noise echoes off empty seats.
It is not easy to kick off a new era with the requisite upbeat mood when the saturnine sight of a near-vacant arena evokes the apathy caused by past disappointments. Nor was the opponent ever likely to get supporters stampeding to the box office: a Panama side (coached by Gary Stempel, a former Millwall community officer) also stacked with inexperienced domestic league players and far weaker than the outfit that was shellacked in the group stage at last year’s World Cup.
The US team, of course, was chiefly performing for an audience of one. Berhalter was enticed away from the Columbus Crew last December, 14 months after the shocking loss to Trinidad & Tobago on the final night of Concacaf World Cup qualifying that cost the Americans a place at the tournament.
The 45-year-old former defender stood on the touchline, trim, in dark clothes, stubble on his chin; sometimes stoic, at other moments making urgent, plaintive gestures. For him the drama is in the details.
“When I addressed the group after the game I said it was a good baseline. It gave us enough content to work with,” he said. “Some of the movements we were working with on the wings were very complicated movements, it involves three players interchanging with the intention to disorganise the defence and get behind the lines. You could see it, sometimes we were a bit tentative with that and then there were other times where it came off and it was really nice.”
Seven players won their first caps, two as substitutes. And two scored: the bustling midfielder Djordje Mihailovic with a low shot in the 40th minute before an 89th-minute tap-in for the substitute striker Christian Ramirez. The attack-minded right back, Nick Lima – another debutant – demonstrated aggression to win the ball and precision to cross it for Zimmerman to score an 80th-minute header. The US controlled possession and other than the odd hapless pass and the errant finishing of Gyasi Zardes there was little to grouse about.
A set-up that once had quixotic visions of competing with the best teams on the planet following the promise of the 2014 World Cup must set global ambitions aside for now and prove it can dominate its region in this summer’s Gold Cup. On the immediate horizon is episode two of the Berhalter show, a friendly against Costa Rica on Saturday in San Jose, California.
It is hard to imagine that more than a handful of the players who featured on Sunday will be involved when the big occasions roll around. With that in mind, no less significant than this victory was the news that Tyler Adams, the 19-year-old midfielder, looked assured in his Bundesliga debut for Leipzig earlier in the day. Competition, perhaps, for Bradley, after a day when he underlined he still has plenty to offer yet also glimpsed his future obsolescence.