The United States has sealed its return to the World Cup

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – It wasn’t exactly a spring break, but the United States men’s soccer team traveled to Costa Rica this week carrying all the stress and psychological burden of high school seniors in the second semester.

The hardest work, however, was over. All that was required of players in the final match of the World Cup qualifiers was minimal: just avoiding a six-goal defeat in Wednesday’s game in Costa Rica – a deficit they did not record in a competitive match at age 65 – would ask for a World Cup ticket later this year in Qatar.

But far-reaching disasters are not an abstract danger to American men. Five years ago, they traveled to Trinidad in similar sunny circumstances and, after a web of incredible events, they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That fiasco has accompanied the team every day since.

On Wednesday night, therefore, redemption came. In the 14th and final game of their qualifying campaign, in front of a lively sold-out crowd in San José, the United States lost to Costa Rica 2-0, which was more than enough to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

The relief and satisfaction of the Americans was clear at the last whistle, because the players and coaches hugged and gave five on the field. After all, they didn’t need to win, just to avoid a unilateral defeat.

“The team is ecstatic, really excited to qualify for the World Cup,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Qualifications are hard, and we did it.”

The U.S. started the day in second place in the regional rankings for North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica was three points behind, in fourth place. The Americans could therefore lose, but as long as they maintained a huge lead over the Costa Ricans in the goal differential, which is the first tie-break, they were still secured one of the automatic places in the qualifiers.

Canada and Mexico will join the Americans in Qatar, as they took over two other automatic places from the region, but Costa Rica still has a chance to enter the playoffs in June against New Zealand. The team seemed to recognize the long chances of advancing to third place in the table on Wednesday and planned accordingly: resting several regular players who had earned yellow cards earlier in the tournament, ensuring they didn’t pick up another on Wednesday and be suspended for the summer playoffs.

But the fans barely bothered, they filled the national stadium to jump and sing in a festive atmosphere. When Juan Pablo Vargas scored in the 51st minute, they let out loud, collective shouts, as if the trophy were on the line. When Anthony Contreras doubled Costa Rica’s lead in the 59th, they jumped to their feet and chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”)

The American team will soon find out more about what and when awaits in the next meaningful matches: Berhalter is preparing to fly to Doha after the match for the draw of the World Cup on Friday, which will determine the competition groups for the tournament when it starts in November.

Yet, for one day, he and his team could enjoy the simple pleasure of just being called again.

The feeling was sweeter because they deprived him five years ago. That huge failure – the team’s first absence from the 1986 World Cup – felt fresh in the minds of the team and its fans during this qualifying cycle. But the interim was long.

“It was one of the hardest days of my life and I will never forget it,” said striker Christian Pulisic, one of the few backlogs from the 2017 group. “We are all extremely proud to be in this position and to have qualified for the World Cup.”

He paused.

“This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and right now the emotions are a little crazy.”

The team he played for at the time was disbanded after the defeat in Trinidad – his coaches were fired, many of his players expelled from future camps – and reassembled with carefully measured steps.

A new generation of players has been introduced to the team, but protected from media control. Current holders such as Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie got the first important minutes.

The American Football Federation elected a new president in early 2018. That summer, it hired Earnie Stewart as the general manager of the men’s team, in a newly created position. Then, in December, after more than a year with an interim coach, the team hired Berhalter to revitalize the program.

On Wednesday night, Berhalter set up a substantially full lineup, corroborating his pre-match statement that the U.S. is playing to win. It didn’t matter that the Americans never seemed particularly close. With each second ticking, they felt safer.

The team at first hesitated to celebrate in the locker room, still frustrated by the loss. Eventually, a sense of pure joy passed through the space, and champagne and beer began to splash.

“It’s a moment to think and be really proud,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who came out of the locker room with goggles on his head. “From here on out, it’s a sprint to the World Cup.”

Back in September, when the qualification campaign for 2022 finally started after several months of delays related to the coronavirus, the younger generation was given the task of banishing the demons of their predecessors. That effort had a tough start, the foreplay of the players can boast of collecting quick wins that brought a draw in El Salvador and another draw at home against Canada. Berhalter admitted this week that his players were “hit in the teeth” in the first few games.

“We were potentially overconfident, we didn’t understand what qualifications were and we quickly learned that lesson,” he said. The maturation of his young players would become the dominant action of the competition. And lessons in that regard have arrived.

The players coped with a penalized schedule of regional qualifiers that required them to play three games in three cities a week on four occasions. They endured injuries and suspensions at various times of some of their best players.

They endured, close to the goal, a collective gastrointestinal disaster, with 30 team members and staff suffering from a devastating stomach bug after their game last week in Mexico City.

Overall, the trials ended up being easier to accept because they achieved their goal.

“As a team, we have created connections and chemistry that, to be honest, is very, very different from many of the teams I’ve played for,” Adams said, citing the team’s collective youth as the reason. closeness. “Gregg talks about the fact that, by qualifying for the World Cup, we really want to rewrite how these American fans look at us, not just through our style of play, but our intensity, our commitment, our belief that we want to take over American football. to the next level. ”

What’s coming now? What does that next level look like?

The unglamorous torment of qualifying is forgotten when the real matches of the World Cup are on the horizon. Fear can dissipate. Anticipation can be built.

The team is filled with young players – in many cases playing leading roles in prominent clubs in Europe – whose individual ascending paths should, in theory, be good for the group.

“I think we can do damage, man,” Pulisic said. “I think the country will stand behind us, and we will give it everything we have.”

Berhalter also pointed out that the following months provided enough time for players who are currently on the fringes of the team, or those who are not involved at all, to join the group in Qatar.

But all this will be resolved in the coming months. For now, after a stress-free trip to Costa Rica, they are here – and that’s reason enough for them to celebrate.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.