Young USMNT ready to lay World Cup qualifying ghosts to rest vs. Costa Rica

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Inside a luxury hotel roughly 9 miles from the site of the final game of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter was at ease Tuesday. Six days earlier, he called the forthcoming week the most important of his coaching career. Although the team has not officially qualified for the 2022 World Cup yet, no rational observer would seriously still allow for the possibility that the US won’t be headed to Qatar.

The United States can lose by five goals or fewer against Costa Rica on Wednesday and still qualify on a goal differential. It has not lost a competitive game by six goals or more since 1957, a stretch that includes six World Cups, 16 qualifying cycles and several decades in which the sport existed in the country beyond the fringes of public consciousness. At Costa Rica’s National Stadium — against a team that has scored just 11 goals in 13 qualifying matches and will likely rest its best players (due to having nine players on yellow cards ahead of a potential playoff) — the US are huge favorites to progress.

So, yeah, Berhalter exuded confidence that deserve his team would soon officially get to celebrate. It had been earned. At the same time, he was careful not to cast qualification as a foregone conclusion.

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“We’re not taking anything for granted,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. We’re coming here to be aggressive in the game and to win the soccer game. That’s our intention. not going to play for a tie. We know we’re 90 minutes away from a potential berth in the World Cup. Now is not the time to take your foot off the gas.”

It’s an approach his players seem to have bought into — or at least that’s how they’ve represented themselves publicly.

“The guys that have been here and through this path before have told us that, ‘We thought we qualified last World Cup as well. The fans thought we did as well. But we hadn’t when we realized our game was finished and we lost [2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago],'” Player Tyler Adams said. “So, we’re going into this game with the mentality to win.”

Since Berhalter was named the USMNT head coach on Dec. 2, 2018, everything he has done has built toward this moment. Following the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, trust with the country’s broader sporting public was lost. This meant that despite the rise of the most exciting generation of talent the US men’s team has ever seen — with players breaking through at some of the biggest clubs in the world — the team was still appropriately subjected to jokes about reaching soccer’s biggest stage .

In a strange way, this team dealt with both heightened and lowered expectations, depending on one’s perspective. It is a strange place to exist. “The weight [of not qualifying] has carried over,” forward Timothy Weah said. “I wasn’t part of that group, but the media has classified us as a golden generation.”

While that term, “golden generation,” hasn’t been universally accepted, it’s hard not to adopt a positive outlook about what this group of players can eventually be.

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Qualifying hasn’t been flawless. Had the team picked up one fewer point along the way, it would have needed a result in San Jose — a place where it is 0-9-2 all time in World Cup qualifying — to secure automatic passage to Qatar.

After winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup over the summer, the team began qualification in September extremely confident. Maybe overconfident. It quickly learned that winning games in those competitions on home soil doesn’t compare with the rigors playing on the road in qualifying. A draw at El Salvador in the opening match set a negative tone.

“It’s one of those things where I look back at it, and you say, ‘Maybe we were a bit naive in a certain sense,'” Adams said. “You have certain guys on our team that have gone through that qualifying process, but I don’t think they could have really put into words or stressed the difference that a World Cup qualifying process is.

“It’s good to be in the position that we are in now and say to ourselves, ‘Yeah, this was very, very difficult.’ Having one game left, we have to take care of business, but I think we’re happy with the development of the group and the direction that we’re moving in.”

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Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar discuss Christian Pulisic’s performance in the USMNT’s 5-1 win vs. Panama.

Hiccups should have been expected. Twice during qualifying, Berhalter fielded the team’s youngest-ever starting XI for a World Cup qualifying match, and there are 13 players who are 24 years old or younger on the current roster.

“It’s amazing watching them grow, watching them make progress and see them here grow as a group and gain experience and what to do with the club,” Berhalter said. “It’s a really good group of guys to work with. I can’t stress that enough. Hopefully after 90 minutes [Wednesday], we qualify for the World Cup and the guys can enjoy it and look back on their accomplishment and be proud of what they’ve done. No team in the world played our-age team and they’re doing a great job.”

That youth is why the team’s performance since September has the potential to be less indicative of what to expect in Qatar than what we’ve seen from more established teams around the world. Most of the key players are at stages of their careers where development — in some cases significant development — over the next 10 months should be expected.

“I think there’s some players that may even make a step up that we don’t even really know about yet or are just on the fringes,” Berhalter said.

Berhalter’s complex system wasn’t easy for many of the players to pick up but DeAndre Yedlin and Weah both acknowledged that is now less of an issue.

“I’m at a place where I’m super comfortable,” Weah said. I come in, I know the system. I’m playing with guys that I have been playing with since — a lot of the guys I’ve played with since I was 13. The confidence level is much higher when I’m in camp and we just jelled really well together.

Weah and Adams first started playing together in the US youth national team system at the U13 level. Early on, Weah said, it was ingrained from coaches in the program — with current El Salvador coach Hugo Perez one of the first — that they were being developed to help the full national team reach the World Cup.

“We were always talking about the day that we’d be able to qualify and be there within the top dogs,” Weah said. “We’re here right now, and it’s a great experience to do with my brothers.”

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