When the U.S. men's national team plays Colombia in Tampa on Thursday, it will coincide with the most painful of anniversaries. It will be one day and one year since the Americans' bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was extinguished on a steamy night in Couva, Trinidad.
Three days after that debacle, Bruce Arena stepped down as manager. And as of today, with a friendly against Colombia on Thursday in Tampa, they've yet to officially replace him. Interim coach Dave Sarachan has been keeping things ticking along through seven rounds of training camps and friendlies, and confusion reigns supreme around the process. Who's been interviewed? How much consideration is given to playing style or personality? What kind of manager are they even looking for?
The thinking one year ago was that once a new U.S. Soccer Federation president was elected in February, the search for a new coach would kick into overdrive, though perhaps the USSF would wait until after the World Cup to try and find their next leader.
Instead, the process has dragged on and on and on. The election of Carlos Cordeiro as USSF president soon gave way to the search for the first GM of the U.S. men's national team. Earnie Stewart's hiring last June resulted in a start date in August. Two months on from that, there is still no manager in place.
Stewart spent the first few months of his tenure consulting various stakeholders in the sport in a bid to develop a profile of his ideal candidate. Besides a vague declaration that he wanted a coach who plays an "in-your-face" style as well as fluency in English, what is contained in that profile is unknown. All along he has insisted that he wants to take the time to be thorough. That said, a U.S. Soccer spokesperson confirmed that interviews have begun and that Stewart has targeted Nov. 1 to have his preferred candidate on board.
In the interim, eight friendlies have been played and some promising players have made their international debuts. A core group that includes Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga and John Brooks has emerged, though injuries will sideline the first three names on that list during this international window. But as each game slides by, the sense of impatience with the process grows.
"It's time lost," said former U.S. international and ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez. "There could be a player out there who we've not seen yet, who under a different coach could be getting valuable time. The group that will be going forward together would get valuable time.
"It's a national team setting. You have very few opportunities to work with players, so when you do, you have to capitalize; you have to make the most of it. If I am a current player, I don't know where I stand. I don't know who I am showcasing myself for other than the general public. I don't know what the coach who will be in charge is looking for, so when I showcase myself, how do I showcase myself? All these things come into play, they come into question."
Not everyone is of the opinion that the men's program is being damaged -- or at least stunted -- by the lengthy search. It's worth remembering that the bulk of a player's development takes place at the club level. It was there that many a budding international career faded from view during the last cycle. That will need to be avoided this time around, and while the likes of McKennie and Miazga appear to be taking the next steps in their careers, the new season -- and the process of putting a team together -- is still very young.
"Do you really think a couple of friendlies is going to make the difference in anything? Your development comes in 40, 50 or 100 games with your club side," said ESPN television analyst Kasey Keller. "Not having a coach in place against Brazil when you're not going to touch the ball means absolutely nothing. What it does do is it tells the coach, 'This guy's not good enough,' and I'm guessing he's going to figure that out on his own.
"Ideally? Yes, it would be good to have a manager. Big picture-wise? Not that big a deal."
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There is also the fact that friendlies are one thing while competitive matches are quite another, carrying significantly more pressure than what the player pool is experiencing now. That won't begin until the 2019 Gold Cup and will be followed by matches in the nascent CONCACAF Nations League later that year. The Gold Cup in particular will draw plenty of eyes to see just how far along this team is, and how effective the new manager has been in implementing his system.
As for the players currently in the team, there has been a general keep-your-head-down, put-the-work-in mentality. The hiring process and timeline is ultimately beyond their collective control. And while the permanent manager will have his own preferences for what he wants from the player pool, playing well now at least figures to get a player's foot in the door for future call-ups. That means showing the best you can in front of caretaker manager Dave Sarachan.
"Any of the noise from an off-the-field perspective or a future perspective has been minimized [and] muted with this group," said midfielder Wil Trapp, who made his U.S. debut in 2015 but was recalled to the side in January, 2018 under Sarachan. "I think we've done a really good job of taking each camp as an opportunity to play for the national team of the U.S, which is a huge honor, but also to build relationships.
"I think [Sarachan's] approach to each camp has been incredible. I think with that uncertainty, the way's he's addressed the group, the way he's pushed us along and made it really special for everyone in terms of the opponents we're playing and how he's set us up, is amazing."
Yet there is a desire from some players for the hiring process to reach its conclusion. Each friendly provides another layer of accumulated experience, but the benefit of playing matches without a permanent coach in place appears to be reaching its limit.
"You want to get things rolling because with a new coach there's certain tactics, a system of play and all that," said midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who has earned 19 caps since his USMNT debut in 2016. "Obviously, you want to be in the good graces of the new coach, you want to impress early. It's a long cycle but you want to get a head start and get to know the guy and get acclimated to what he brings in."
There is also an emotional component to all of this. Until a permanent manager is hired, it will be difficult to shed what remains of the psychological baggage of the World Cup qualifying failure. The new manager will put their own stamp on things while also representing a complete break from the past. That will make it easier to look forward.
"We feel like we have a point to prove to our country, that we have youth coming forward that's very talented, and we have a lot to play for and a lot to be proud of," said defender Aaron Long, who received his first U.S. call-up in September. "Going forward, yeah, I think it's a little bit emotional. We know that we've got a lot to prove as a unit."
That can only happen with a permanent manager on board.