The US men’s national soccer team wraps up World Cup qualifying Wednesday night with a game in Costa Rica. The Americans have already assured themselves of, at worst, a spot in the continental playoffs, and it would take a historically bad loss for them to fall out of one of the automatic spots.
Still, the job isn’t finished, as the players and coach Gregg Berhalter were quick to remind everyone after Sunday’s Route of Panama. So here’s a look at five things you should know ahead of the game:
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
A spot at the World Cup in Qatar later this year.
Concacaf’s top three finishers in qualifying automatically get spots in the 32-team World Cup field while the fourth-place squad goes to a one-game playoff against a team from Oceania in June. The USMNT is currently second, three points behind Canada.
Costa Rica is currently fourth. But because it is only three points behind the United States, it still has a mathematical chance to drop the USMNT into the playoff spot. To do that, though, Costa Rica would have to beat the Americans by six goals or more, and the odds of that happening are very, very, very slim.
The USMNT hasn’t lost a game for that many goals since 1979, which is still the Dark Ages of American soccer. The most goals Costa Rica has ever scored against the US is four, in a World Cup qualifier last cycle. And the Ticos haven’t scored more than two goals in a game this qualifying cycle.
Costa Rica’s better chance to get one of the automatic spots is to leapfrog Mexico, currently third. But even that would require a Mexico loss and for the Ticos to beat the USMNT by at least four goals.
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WHO’S GOING TO PLAY?
Berhalter insists he’s going to play his regulars. The USMNT has never won a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica – never won a game, period – and Berhalter said the team is “excited” at the prospect of ending that streak.
“The group is looking forward to the challenge. We know our history here,” Berhalter said Tuesday. “The way I’ve seen this group is they’ve been embracing challenges from the start of qualification and this is another one.”
The larger issue is with Costa Rica, because anyone who picks up their second yellow card will have to sit out the playoff for yellow card accumulation. Nine of the Ticos’ regular players, including starters Francisco Calvo, Joel Campbell, Keysher Fuller and Johan Venegas, have yellow cards.
Berhalter said they expect Costa Rica to play their regular lineup. But given the Ticos’ long odds of avoiding the playoff, don’t be surprised if they don’t.
IS EVERYONE HEALTHY?
The USMNT was ravaged by a stomach bug after the Mexico game, with Berhalter saying Tuesday that about 30 people in the delegation have been affected. That includes Gio Reyna, who came on as a substitute in the second half Sunday.
“He was on the field for 45 minutes and he was struggling. After the game, it was a tough time,” Berhalter said.
But Reyna and the rest of the team seem to be “turning the corner,” Berhalter said.
“There are still some guys yesterday that were a little bit up in the air, but I think we’re getting a decent spot,” he said.
Berhalter also said that Reggie Cannon, who missed the Mexico and Panama games after testing positive for COVID, is back with the team.
WHAT’S NEXT AFTER COSTA RICA?
The World Cup draw is Friday. While Berhalter attends, his players will head back to their club teams to, in the cases of the European players, finish out their seasons and, for the MLS guys, to really get theirs going.
The USMNT will have games in June as part of Concacaf’s Nations League tournament, and it will also likely play two friendlies during the international window in September. Berhalter might already have a pretty good idea of who his roster for Qatar will be, but those games will help solidify his choices from him.
WHAT ARE THE USMNT’S CHANCES IN QATAR?
It’s hard to say because a lot will depend on the draw, which takes place Friday. If the USMNT is drawn into a “Group of Death,” or has the potential for strong opponents in the knockout rounds, it could make for a tough tournament.
But this is arguably the most talented group the USMNT has and qualified for, though rocky at times, has given them invaluable experience on the field and off. It’s probably four years too early to say they can legitimately contend for the World Cup title, but if they get a friendly draw and some good breaks, a deep run is not out of the question.
“I think we’re just … finding our best consistency now,” Tyler Adams said. “Our goal at the end of this qualifying is to say we’re on the up of our development and we’re continuing to move in the right direction.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism