KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup can serve many purposes. They give teams an opportunity to decide the right lineups and fine-tune their style of play, and to come up with contingency plays for both.

And when a team is young and inexperienced, it can also provide a glimpse at what is possible.

The U.S. men’s national soccer team played Uruguay to a 0-0 draw on Sunday. No, they didn’t capitalize on the scoring chances they had and, in the opening minutes of the game, appeared unsettled by Uruguay’s pressure and skill.

But settle in they ultimately did, containing a team that made a run to the quarterfinals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and which boasts two of the most potent strikers in the world.

“You want to go into the World Cup with confidence that you can beat anyone on any given day,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “In 2002, we played Italy and Russia and Germany before the World Cup, and that gave us a ton of confidence that we could compete with anybody.”

The USMNT’s Tim Weah and Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez head the ball during a friendly at Children’s Mercy Park.

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That 2002 team, of course, made it all the way to the quarterfinals in Japan and South Korea, the deepest run the USMNT has made in modern history.

This Uruguay game was a badly needed test for the Americans. While this is the deepest and most talented team the U.S. men have had, DeAndre Yedlin is the only player who has played in a World Cup because the USMNT didn’t qualify for the 2018 tournament. There are many players at big European clubs, sure, playing for league titles and in the Champions League.

But it’s not the same as playing in a World Cup.

Also, because of COVID, the USMNT has seen few teams outside of Concacaf over the last two years. Uruguay is, to put it nicely, an upgrade, one of South America’s top teams and the No. 13 team in the world in the latest FIFA rankings.

The USMNT also played Morocco, another World Cup team that is ranked 24th in the world, on Wednesday.

“It’s very important to have back-to-back opponents in the top 25, with quality players all over the pitch. Guys that have experience, World Cup experience, big-time game experience,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “It was an opportunity for us.”

For the defense in particular.

The USMNT suffered a blow when Miles Robinson, who had established himself with Zimmerman as the team’s best center backs, tore his Achilles last month. They also are without Sergino Dest, the Barcelona defender who is recovering from a hamstring injury.

To hold Uruguay scoreless as Berhalter was experimenting with different players on the backline, was no small thing. Sean Johnson, who was making his first start in goal since January 2020, was a big part of that, stopping shots from both Darwin Nunez and Edinson Cavani.

“We talked to the center backs about embracing that challenge, enjoying the challenge,” Berhalter said. “It’s not often that you get to play against guys that quality, and I think they did a really good job.

“It wasn’t easy. I think when Cavani came in, he gave us even more problems, but they hung in there and they battled.”

And that will pay dividends come November and December, when the competition gets tougher with every stage of the World Cup.

If the USMNT makes it to the knockout rounds, there will be no gimme games. Every team they face will be one of the world’s best. But the Americans will be able to look back on a game like Sunday and know that they can play with any team they face. That they won’t be overmatched.

That they, too, belong.

“It’s a top team in the world. They’ve won a World Cup,” Christian Pulisic said. “It’s a good country, a good team. They gave us a good challenge.”

In this game, at least, that was even more important than the final score.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: For USMNT at World Cup, belief will be as important as talent

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