LISBON -- Tuesday's game between the U.S. men's national team and European champions Portugal will be an opportunity for some younger members of the American player pool to get their first taste of international competition.
Players such as Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie, New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams and Sheffield United defender Cameron Carter-Vickers are among the performers in line to get their first caps. But throughout the past week there have been a few veteran heads by their side like Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and Fulham defender Tim Ream, aiming to ease the youngsters' transition to the international game.
In the wake of the U.S. team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the mere presence of anyone connected with the elimination defeat to Trinidad & Tobago is enough to make the blood boil in certain segments of the U.S. fan base. But now is a valuable time for some knowledge transfer to take place. And the lessons learned from negative experiences can be just as valuable, if not more so, than positive ones.
"I think whenever you build a team, the balance has to be right between veterans -- people that have been there -- with youth because they need someone there that's been a part of it when they haven't," said U.S. caretaker manager Dave Sarachan. "Ale Bedoya, Tim Ream, can you help these guys understand what they're in for, what it really means to be part of the national team and give them a little road map? So as the young guys get experiences under their belt, they can listen to some of the stories of some of the good and the bad. For me that balance is critical in all teams, but also in this particular camp."
Players like McKennie, Adams and Carter-Vickers are all accumulating valuable experience with their clubs. Sarachan said that Tuesday's match isn't one that he thinks McKennie will find overwhelming in terms of the size of the stadium or the crowd. But this isn't a club game, it's a national team game. The vibe from playing for your country is different. The rough-and-tumble games in CONCACAF can bear a scant resemblance to those played in Europe, though that is one experience for which McKennie will have to wait. As such, there is wisdom to be imparted.
"The level and the speed of play and the overall experience should be raised a little bit more," said Sarachan about playing at international level. "It's still new to McKennie to be part of the national team against a highly ranked national opponent. It's just another experience."
Adams, for one, appreciates the fact that a guy like Bedoya is around. He insisted that he doesn't look at Bedoya as a shoulder to lean on, but rather a veteran brain he can probe for any subtle hints and suggestions. He said he had spoken to Bedoya about his time overseas as well as in MLS.
"Bedoya being able to share his experiences is bigger than anything," said Adams. "And it's relatable because we've played against each other this season multiple times now, and he's just easy to talk to. So it's easy to come into the camp confident."
But positive reinforcement, when it comes, is also valued. Players are constantly trying to manufacture confidence, and a positive comment from a veteran can help in that regard. Adams noted he and Bedoya were on the same team in training, and had some success.
"Just having Bedoya say 'good job' keeps me motivated to keep going, keep doing my thing and have fun with it," he said.
Being thrust in the role of mentor has jarred a few memories for both Bedoya and Ream. Bedoya recalled how Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey all helped him get adjusted to the international game.
"Just Dempsey's fearlessness helped me get through a lot of tough situations when your confidence isn't as high," said Bedoya. "That's what I expected with the young guys. They're looking for guys to not just support them, but let them play free."
Ream was reminded of when he broke in with the New York Red Bulls, and it was current Real Salt Lake manager Mike Petke who took the young defender under his wing after Ream "passed a few of Petke's personality tests."
"Petke showed me the ropes of the team and the league and what it was to be a professional," he said. "That's kind of me now. You've got John Brooks who has got quite a few caps, so he's experienced at the international level, but then you've got guys like [Carter-Vickers] and [Matt Miazga] who are coming through. It's nice to be the old head, the wise one, and have guys coming to you asking questions to show them the way. You need one on every team, and on this squad you have a couple of us."
But Ream stressed that the communication between veterans and youngsters isn't -- and can't -- be all one-way traffic.
"I don't think it's necessarily a totem-pole structure," he said about the team's leadership. "It's not something that should be from the top down. It can't just be a one-way street. There's got to be young guys willing and able and comfortable in their communication, and asking questions."
It's a role that both Bedoya and Ream seem willing to embrace. They know better than anyone that their international careers are winding down. This is a chance to keep contributing during what Bedoya admits is "a transitional phase" for the U.S. team.
"I'm just trying to keep them fresh, and making sure that they know being on the national team is a blessing, and not taking these opportunities for granted," said Bedoya. "Go out there and show that they not only belong here but deserve a spot going forward."
For some, Tuesday will mark the first step.