CHESTER, Pa. – For the fans demanding to see younger players introduced to the US national team, they got their wish on Tuesday against Colombia as 21-year-old Eric Lichaj and 20-year-old Brek Shea received their first caps with the USA. But they were very different debuts.
Shea started the match on the left wing of a 4-3-3 formation and just like the rest of the US team, the first half proved a struggle. The FC Dallas midfielder admitted later that it had been a while since he last played in a 4-3-3 and that the tactical set-up forced him to play further inside than he would have preferred. That made it easier for the Colombian defenders to close him down.
“I think there are plays in the first half where the game is going fast for Brek, faster than most games he’s used to,” US manager Bob Bradley said. “It takes him a little longer to figure out where he needs to go. That’s part of the experience. Forty-five minutes is a good start.”
Despite the speed of play argument, it was a questionable move by the US coaching to have a young player debut in a formation which he was neither familiar with nor comfortable.
And if the tactics and the speed of play weren't difficult enough to cope with, there was also a bout of the nerves.
“Definitely I was a bit nervous to be honest,” Shea said. “But towards the end of the first half I started to get more comfortable and it was good.”
It was very different for Aston Villa's Lichaj, who was brought on at halftime for right back Jonathan Spector, while Shea made way for veteran Clint Dempsey. Bradley and Lichaj’s teammates all pointed out his physical traits, which allowed him to stand out against Colombia on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen throughout this camp that physically he’s got really good bursts of speed,” Bradley said, pumping his arm as a sign of physical strength. “He’s strong and I thought competed very well tonight.”
Lichaj immediately came on and did not hesitate to attack down the right. He also delivered what could have been the game-winning goal on a cross which Jozy Altidore headed wide.
“No nerves,” Lichaj said. “There were barely any people in the crowd compared to what I’m used to. So I had no nerves, I just enjoyed it.
“That’s just how I normally play. [Bradley] told me we needed more energy. Nothing was really happening the first half. So that’s what I did.”
Should Lichaj be called up to the next USMNT match in South Africa on Nov. 17, that game will fall on his 22nd birthday in Cape Town. Judging by his play on Saturday, he has probably earned another invite.
“Eric’s a tremendous young player,” US midfielder Stuart Holden said. “He’s got a lot of talent and a lot of upside. With all the young players there’s a learning curve and getting that experience in those games. … I thought he handled the pressure well.”