Head north, away from the heat of the city and into New England. The cradle of revolution. The birthplace of the Constitution. To the land of O’Neill and Twain and Barnum on this high holy day of American exceptionalism. Cross the rivers and drive down the street one’s in-laws lived on when the 19th century became the 20th. Turn the corner and head to the place one’s father–in-law worked after the war, spending his waking hours building and testing airplane engines to ensure a peaceful future for his children. Climb to the top of a press box and look out at the factory he roamed for decades and think how different the landscape is today.
I am here at Rentschler Field, on the campus of Pratt and Whitney, to watch the United States Men’s National Team take on Ghana. Ghana, homeland to my other friend Richard, who is somewhere on that vast continent right now bringing health to thousands, while I sit among other thousands and cheer the movement of a small ball. Richard, who played this beautiful game as I did, and was with me in that never sleeping city at Christmas to argue the nuances of transfer fees, formations, and relegations.
Here for a curious match. For on the one hand, it has to be something of a respite from the relentless pressure of qualifying for the World Cup. Pressure that has lessened, to be sure, with the points taken against Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago. And with the team’s third place spot – at least until September – in the Hex.
But on the other hand, maybe there is no relief. Because while this is just a friendly, all of the players on this squad are fighting for a chance at the World Cup, and are anxious to prove that they deserve a spot on that flight to Russia.
That’s why there is no Michael Bradley here tonight. No Clint Dempsey. No Christian Pulisic or Bobby Wood or Darlington Nagbe or John Brooks or Tim Howard or Geoff Cameron. And you know what? That’s actually great. Because I can remember when the United States struggled to put 11 players on the pitch who were even remotely World Cup quality.
So it falls to players like Dax McCarty, Graham Zusi, Kellyn Acosta, Dom Dwyer and others in this game with Ghana – and the upcoming matches in the Gold Cup – to show Bruce Arena that they deserve a spot in the show. For as Taylor Twellman loves to remind us, every run-up it happens; one or two players break through.
And Arena doesn’t disappoint, with a starting XI that features nine MLS players, and that will give several – including Dwyer and Kenny Saief – their first caps. Up here in the booth, however, they’re looking for something different. Because here in the booth, it’s an away game. Ghanaian reporters from every corner of the globe are on hand, outnumbering those dedicated to covering the USMNT two, three, four to one. And that’s fine. It makes for a more lively proceeding.
After the game, after the U.S. knocked off Ghana by a 2-1 scoreline, Bruce Arena is uncharacteristically happy. He’s happier than I’ve ever seen him at a press conference. “You have to remember,” he tells a Ghanaian journalist “I got fired the last time I lost to Ghana,” and the crowd erupted in laughter. “But Ghana was a good test for us. They’re good players and the relationship between the two countries is great. For a friendly, I thought it was a great game.”
The U.S. players I talked to after the match echoed that sentiment. I ask Zusi if the team started a little slowly, and he nods, but says that’s not unusual for the beginning of the match, and they got in the flow quickly. I ask him if having three Sporting KC players in the starting XI helped add some stability to a side that didn’t have a lot of experience together, and he says “perhaps.” Which is a polite way of saying “no, but nice try, writer-boy.”
Kellyn Acosta makes his way down the line, answering question after question about his goal that ended up being the game winner. And again I am struck by his poise and patience – qualities I’ve not seen in a player this young since DeAndre Yedlin made his presence felt in Brazil. I ask him who he’s trying to learn from on the squad, and what he’s trying to learn. He points to players not here – Jozy, Michael, Clint – for their leadership qualities. Smart.
And then Dax comes by, who I’ve been a fan of since he was first fighting for minutes with the Red Bulls. I tell him that but that I cover NYCFC these days so I’m damn glad he moved to Chicago, and that gets a laugh. I ask him about how the attack seemed to go through him, and if that was the plan or something that evolved. He says that was the plan, and then we talk about the confidence this match gave the team. Dax, who it would seem never lacks confidence, agrees and expects this confidence will extend into the Gold Cup matches that start next week. And thus, in the spirit of confidence, we agree to meet in Philly in a couple of weeks time.
And then they’re gone and it’s time to head home. So I pack up and make my way through the New England moonlight, traffic a fraction of what it was on the way up. Town after quaint New England town slide past me in the darkness, all of whom it seems, are using this day to celebrate their nation’s ancient independence. So I head south, along the Connecticut, across the Naugatuck and the Hoosatonic, towards Empire and Garden, as a thousand different fireworks light my way home.