Young USMNT ready to put ghosts of World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica to rest

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — In a luxury hotel about 15 kilometers from the site of the last game of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, the coach of the United States men’s national team, Gregg Berhalter, was at comfortable on Tuesday. Six days earlier, he had called the coming week the most important of his coaching career. Although the team has yet to officially qualify for the 2022 World Cup, no rational observer would seriously consider the possibility of the United States not going to Qatar.

The United States can lose by five goals or less to Costa Rica on Wednesday and still qualify on goal differential. He hasn’t lost a competitive game by six or more goals since 1957, a streak that includes six World Cups, 16 qualifying rounds and several decades in which the sport has existed in the country beyond the confines of public consciousness. At the National Stadium in Costa Rica – 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 possible qualifier) ​​– the States States are huge favorites for progress.

So, yes, Berhalter rightly expressed confidence that his team would soon officially get to celebrate. It was deserved. At the same time, he was careful not to regard qualification as inevitable.

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“We don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. We come here to be aggressive in the game and to win the game of football. That’s our intention. We’re not going to be careful. We’re not going to sit down. We’re is not going to play for a tie. We know we are 90 minutes away from a potential World Cup place. Now is not the time to let off the accelerator.”

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

“Guys who have been here and gone through this path have said to us, ‘We thought we also qualified for the last World Cup. Fans thought we did too. lost [2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago]”, said midfielder Tyler Adams. “So we go into this game with the mentality of winning.

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

In a weird way, this team has dealt with both increased and decreased expectations, depending on one’s perspective. It’s a strange place to exist. “The weight [of not qualifying] reported,” striker Timothy Weah said. “I wasn’t in that group, but the media categorized us as a golden generation.”

While this term “golden generation” has not been universally accepted, it’s hard not to take a positive view of what this group of gamers can possibly be.

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Qualifying was not without fault. Had the team picked up a point less along the way, it would have taken a result in San Jose – a place where they are still 0-9-2 in World Cup qualifying – to secure a passage. automatic in Qatar.

After winning the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup in the summer, the team entered qualification in September with great confidence. Maybe too confident. He quickly learned that winning matches in these home competitions doesn’t compare to the rigors of playing on the road in qualifying. A draw in El Salvador in the opening game set a negative tone.

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

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

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

The hiccups should have been expected. Twice in qualifying, Berhalter has fielded the team’s youngest starting XI for a World Cup qualifier, and there are 13 players aged 24 or younger on the current roster.

“It’s amazing to watch them grow, to see them progress and to see them here grow as a group and gain experience and know what to do with the club,” said Berhalter. “They’re 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 achievement and be proud of what they have done. No team in the world has faced a team our age and they are doing a great job.”

This youthfulness is why the team’s performances since September have 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 in their careers where development – in some cases significant development – over the next 10 months should be expected.

“I think there are players who could even take a step forward that we’re not even aware of yet or who are just on the sidelines,” Berhalter said.

Berhalter’s complex system hasn’t been easy for many players to understand, but both DeAndre Yedlin and Weah have acknowledged that it’s now less of a problem.

“I’m at a place where I’m super comfortable,” Weah said. “I come in, I know the system. I’m playing with guys I’ve been playing with since – a lot of guys I’ve played with since I was 13. The level of confidence is much higher when I’m at the camp and we got on really well together. I think it shows on the pitch and this team has a crazy amount of swagger.

Weah and Adams began playing together in the U.S. Youth National Team system at the U13 level. From the start, Weah said, the program’s coaches – current Salvadoran coach Hugo Perez being one of the first – were developed to help the full national team reach the World Cup.

“We were always talking about the day when we could qualify and be among the best,” Weah said. “We’re here right now, and it’s a great experience to do with my brothers.”

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