United States midfielder Sebastian Lletget (17) falls to the round with pressure from Uruguay defender Martin Caceres (22) in first half action during an international friendly match between the U.S. men's national team and Uruguay men's national team on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at Busch Stadium. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, email@example.com
Our soccer city has been a barometer of the state of soccer.
The last time the field where Adam Wainwright pitches became a soccer pitch, the U.S. women’s national team was in town, in preparation for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. On that frenzied May night at Busch Stadium, there were 35,761 fans – the third-largest standalone domestic crowd in U.S. women’s soccer history.
On Tuesday, 117 days later, the men played at Busch. The national team was a year removed from the World Cup it didn’t qualify for ... and three long years from the next one. The attendance for the friendly against Uruguay was 20,625.
In the same summer, the crowds in St. Louis have symbolized the state of the two national teams.
More than 15,000 more fans came out for the women’s team, on the cusp of winning the World Cup. Our town saw this team near its zenith. Meanwhile, the men’s national team Tuesday was a lot like the Ballpark Village buildings that loomed over the players at Busch – incomplete and building from the ground up.
The men’s team, stunningly and embarrassingly, did not quality for the 2018 World Cup. With a new coach – the confident and clever Gregg Berhalter – they’re implementing a new … well, everything. And while two St. Louisans were in the starting lineup, the national team didn’t bring any momentum to town, coming off a 3-0 loss to Mexico last Friday, and didn’t even bring its star player – wunderkind Christian Pulisic was overseas.
Oh, and unlike the summer for the women’s game, Tuesday was a school night. And while it was September, Tuesday was as hot as summer.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the scoring. The men’s team held its own against Uruguay. The 1-1 tie was, well, a small victory.
“Overall, I think it was a good step for this group to be able to play a game like this,” said Berhalter, after his young squad played admirably against the world’s fifth-ranked team, though Uruguay was without many of its biggest international stars, including the galactic talent that is Luis Suarez. “We talked about how this opponent was going to be different (than Mexico) – how they were going to be compact and very physical. That’s a very dangerous team on offensive set pieces, and I think we did good job on that, but more importantly, it was about the tenacity of our guys. The relentlessness of guys to hang in there and keep battling.”
Perhaps this will be a building-block game that the rebuilding team looks back on, say, a year later.
“Even in games like against Mexico, you learn things,” said Josh Sargent, the St. Louis native and forward for the national team. “I think the whole process we’re going through is a big learning phase for us.”
Berhalter brings much to the table. His attention to detail and desire to play possession-style soccer is fascinating. He brings an edge. He’ll be a fun coach to watch in the coming year and years. And his journey with the national team will parallel that of Sargent. It was, if anything, fun to see the redhead out there where the Redbirds play. Age 19 and No. 19 for the national team, there was Sargent, who “held his own, and then some” per Berhalter, against the older, seasoned defenders from across the world. There was Sargent, confidently collecting a pass in the 38th minute, and delivering an even better pass for a scoring chance. Later, in the first half’s extra time, he positioned himself perfectly to head a cross from Jordan Morris. A defender pushed him aside. No call. At the half, Sargent shared, the referee apologized to him for missing the call.
Asked what Sargent’s ceiling could be, national team teammate Jackson Yueill said: “Whatever he wants it to be. He’s a great finisher, works really hard, very humble for his age. If he keep that and keeps up the level that he’s been playing, I think he’ll be one of the top players in (Germany’s top professional league) soon – and have a great future.”
For those who came, they soaked in the evening. They understood what the product was going to be from the American side. And frankly, the fans should’ve left impressed, especially after a competitive first half from the boys in red.
It was yet another feather in St. Louis’ soccer cap – a national team game at the big stadium, the same summer Major League Soccer announced it was giving St. Louis a team. But it was also a reminder of how far the men’s team needs to go and grow. And 117 days prior, the women’s game at Busch was a reminder of how far the women’s team had grown – both from a talent standpoint and with fans. That was the marquee U.S. game of the summer in St. Louis, a celebration of talent and tenacity. That was the best our country has to offer in sport. World champs. The men’s team is a work-in-progress like Ballpark Village, and it’s going to take a village to grow this team into international competitors.