CHESTER, Pa. -- "Potential" may be the dirtiest word in American soccer. When attached to the latest young phenom, it's a word that tempts, teases and oftentimes disappoints as players fall short of lofty -- and in some cases, unattainable -- expectations. It can also corrupt when it's used as a justification for giving players opportunities that haven't been earned.
There was certainly plenty of potential on display in the U.S. national team's 3-0 win over Bolivia on Monday. The three goal scorers (Walker Zimmerman, Josh Sargent and Tim Weah) all celebrated their first international tallies. Another five players made their U.S. debuts. The Americans dominated proceedings, and the result, especially after Zimmerman's 37th minute opener, was never really in doubt.
But there were some reminders during the match that demanded the game be put in in its proper context. Bolivia was playing with an under-strength side because of a conflict with the country's domestic league. And then there were those moments when some of the more youthful elements of the U.S. side showed their inexperience, whether it was a poor touch, a shanked cross or just nerves.
"I thought for good segments of the game, the soccer was pretty good," said U.S. caretaker manager Dave Sarachan. "I thought in the first half we had a number of opportunities to bury some chances, but we looked young. We looked young in terms of patience and quality, but that's what these games are all about."
Weah seemed to encapsulate that assessment. He had some passes that didn't come close to finding their intended targets and then nearly had to leave the game due to a knee injury. But he got back on his feet, combined well with Sargent, and in the second half, he scored with an authoritative first-time finish.
"[Weah] was all over the shop," said Sarachan. "He looked like a kid who has never played at a higher level, [then] a guy that was looking to come out of a game where he wasn't even sure if he was hurt, [and later] to flying and beating guys."
Weah, 18, admitted he was nervous, even more so than during his recent start for club side Paris Saint-Germain.
"With PSG I had already played two games," he said. "It was my first start, but it was also the end of the season, you're kind of just relaxing. I wasn't that nervous. I was nervous on my [U.S.] debut, and I was nervous here. Now I got the chance and I'm on the stage to start the game to show the [fans] what I can really do. That was just going through my mind at the moment even though it was just a friendly."
Not only was it Sargent's first start with the U.S. but it was his first professional match at any level. Yes, he's signed with Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, but his birth year meant he couldn't play any professional games with the club this season. For that reason, his inclusion in the side has, with some justification, led to questions about how a player with no professional experience is now playing for the national team.
Sarachan thought it was worth taking a shot.
"We're very thin at the No. 9 position in American soccer in my opinion," said Sarachan. "So here's a kid that has progressed throughout all the age groups and [youth] World Cup settings, and I'm not projecting Josh to be a starter from here on in with the men's team, but he possesses a certain mentality and frame. And why not look at him at a time when you can? We need goal scorers, we need to give them opportunities, and so for me, I didn't even think twice about it.
"I think this was the perfect time to give him a little introduction."
But Sarachan acknowledged that the situation will need to be managed carefully. At some point, Sargent will need to be logging steady minutes with Bremen otherwise the meritocracy that needs to be established within the team goes out the window. And it's true not just in Sargent's case, but with all of the young players on the current roster.
"I think it's my responsibility [and that of] our staff and our program to make sure that they understand that there are still steps. If you want to get to "A," you still start at "D" and "C," then to "B." We're very quick [as a country] to jump them into the "A" category. I think that's a process that we have to manage with a lot of expectations, with a lot of noise on the outside.
"They're going to feel good about tonight," he continued. "But when I go through the tape and have meetings with guys, and we talk, there's a lot of room to get better. So it's just that constant communication that has to take place so they don't put themselves ahead of things, but it's not easy to close out a lot of noise for these young kids, that's for sure."
The irony, of course, was that the player who had done the most to live up to considerable hype, Pulisic, was noticeably less than his best on the evening even if he did have his moments of danger.
"Christian looked like he's ready to take a break," Sarachan said. Yet his teammates were there to pick up the slack, a welcome development given the team's over-dependency on Pulisic during World Cup qualifying. The first-timers especially could enjoy the cool of the evening.
"If I call my mom now, she's probably going to be screaming," said Weah.
Sargent meanwhile was left to reflect on a whirlwind last season, one that was capped off with Monday's goal.
"I haven't had a lot of time to just calm down and think about it. It's a really proud feeling I'd say; going from one level to the next, being able to prove myself, so it's a really immense feeling of pride."
Up next is a pair of friendlies against Ireland and France. Those matches will certainly pose more difficulties than Monday's encounter and provide another valuable experience for a young side.
"We want to be optimistic, and there is hope, but I think we need to let this play out before we start anointing or saying 'This next generation..., '" Sarachan said. "But each step of the way, all these friendlies like tonight and the past and what we've got coming up, we'll begin to add up where I think you're going to realize that there's going to be some good talent coming through."