In his final match as U.S. soccer coach, Dave Sarachan gave Christian Pulisic the captain’s arm band for the first time and sent out the youngest lineup since the American team started keeping records.
Matteo Politano scored his first international goal in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time, and Italy beat the United States 1-0 in an exhibition Tuesday night at Genk, Belgium, as Pulisic became the youngest captain since the American team’s records began in 1990.
Pulisic was the only holdover in the U.S. starting lineup from last Thursday’s 3-0 loss at England. At 20 years, 63 days, Pulisic bettered Landon Donovan, who was 22 years, 220 days when he first captained the Americans in a World Cup qualifier at El Salvador on Oct. 9, 2004, a match regular captain Claudio Reyna missed because of a quadriceps injury.
“It’s a huge honor. For the coaches, the staff, the team to trust me to be captain of the team, it means everything,” Pulisic said. “I was never a captain in my life and now to be for the United States men’s national team, it’s an incredible honor. It doesn’t matter what age you are. I will never forget this moment.”
Before last week, Pulisic had played just once for the U.S. since the October 2017 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances. He missed some games because of minor injuries, others to concentrate on his club career with Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
Coach Bruce Arena quit after the loss in Trinidad and was replaced on an interim basis by Sarachan, his top assistant. As the U.S. Soccer Federation restructured under new president Carlos Cordeiro, Sarachan transitioned to a younger roster and guided the Americans to three wins, five losses and four ties in 12 exhibitions.
“Well, it was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it’s evident there’s going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarachan said. “To look back on the games that we played, the players that we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth, I’m certain it’s going to pay dividends down the line. So for me I feel as though when the next person comes in, they’re going to have a great starting point and that makes me feel good.”
Pulisic was moved from wide midfield to forward in a 3-5-2 formation against Italy. The new coach will face the issue of where to deploy Pulisic, who usually is wide for Dortmund.
Romain Gall, a 23-year-old midfielder, replaced Pulisic in the 83rd minute and became the 23rd player to make his debut under Sarachan. New U.S. general manager Earnie Stewart has said a new coach will be hired later this year, and Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter is the favorite. The new coach will take over for a January training camp followed by a pair of friendlies, and his first competitive matches will be next June at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“In a lot of ways with the interim role, it’s a difficult space to navigate, and I think he did it extremely well,” midfielder Wil Trapp said of the 64-year-old Sarachan. “He could have mailed it in in a lot of ways but he didn’t do that one bit. He did all of us as a players a real service.”
Nine of the 11 U.S. starters were 23 or younger, and the lineup’s average age of 22 years, 71 days was an American record low, besting the 22-160 against Bolivia on May 28.
Ethan Horvath, a 23-year-old goalkeeper on his home field for Club Brugge, made his third international appearance and first since last November at Portugal. He had five saves before the goal by Politano, a 25-year-old winger playing his second match for the Azzurri.
Politano passed to Marco Verratti about 25 yards above the penalty arc and sprinted through the penalty area. Roberto Gagliardini beat defender Aaron Long to Verratti’s feed into the area and poked the ball ahead to the onrushing Politano, who cut past Jorge Villafana, touched the ball from his left foot to his right and beat Horvath from 8 yards. The goal with about 25 seconds left capped a buildup that included a dozen passes.
“I’m kind of disappointed with the late goal, but on the other side I think I can be proud of how I performed tonight,” said Horvath, who in the last month has gotten regular club playing time for the first stretch this season. “The past year has not been easy. And all I can do is believe in myself and believe what I’m doing each day is the correct thing.”
Notes: The U.S. will play Costa Rica in an exhibition on Feb. 2 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California. … The U.S. finished with three wins, five losses and three draws in 2018, its fewest games in a year since going 1-2 in 1987, all that June at the President’s Cup in South Korea. The Americans have one win and three draws in 12 matches against Italy.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.