COLUMBUS, Ohio – The typhoon raised by the American Outlaws behind the north goal of Lower.com Field was still billowing in the afternoon breeze when the disaster struck.
“Our future is now,” read the massive banner. But just 60 seconds after Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying game against Costa Rica, the future of the United States men’s team looked in jeopardy. A brief punt from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a somewhat surprising choice to start in place of workhorse Matt Turner, helped unleash an attack from Tico that ended with a slow, sight shot from defender Keysher Fuller bouncing off Steffen’s right. And with that, the US was losing this mostly imperative match before the smoke from the pregame pyrotechnics finished hitting Columbus night.
This month’s three-game qualifying window focused on responses. The United States had to respond to the absence of its two most dangerous attackers, the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. He had to respond to Sunday’s loss in Panama, which was probably his worst performance under coach Gregg Berhalter. And he had to respond after that shocking collapse of the first minute. That is a test for any team. And it represents an especially intriguing challenge for someone so young and inexperienced. The starting line-up Berhalter chose to face Costa Rica was the youngest in the history of the program’s World Cup qualifying rounds. It had an average of 22 years and 61 days.
“That is basically something unheard of in international football,” Berhalter said.
The Americans controlled the competition, immobilized Costa Rica and deserved the good luck to come. Sergiño Dest, the 20-year-old defender, brought the United States level with a surprising draw in the 25th minute. The hosts survived a pair of nail-biting defensive errors on either side of halftime and then at the 66th, Tim Weah, a last-minute addition to the US lineup, fired the game winner home. The 2-1 win and three points lifted the second-place Americans to a 3-1-2 record, strengthened their hold on one of Concacaf’s three direct moorings to the 2022 World Cup and helped boost morale ahead of the November showdown with Mexico.
Both windows of three games have been a routine. The United States didn’t get it right in September until the second half of the third game. There was a steep learning curve for a team of rookies in qualifying, injuries and the sensational suspension of midfield anchor Weston McKennie. This month, a relatively easy opening win over Jamaica was followed by the faceplant against Panama, sparking considerable conversation and concern about Berhalter’s faith in the depth of his player pool and the team’s mental toughness. Fuller’s goal provided a more symbolic obstacle. The Americans cleared it up with aplomb.
“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them by external forces. We have enough internal pressure to want to play a certain way. We want to play well and we want to win games, ”said the coach. But the whole qualification for the World Cup is difficult. All qualification for the World Cup is a challenge. And sometimes I feel like people forget that and people think it’s a piece of cake and we’re going to play the youngest team in US Soccer history in one game, and we’re just going to quickly go through these games. It is not realistic. “
They are young enough that seven players on the current squad, six of whom saw action on Wednesday, were not born when Columbus hosted its first World Cup qualifying game in the fall of 2000. The old Crew Stadium it had become a symbolic and spiritual place. home to a national team lacking an official one, a stronghold where Americans routinely challenged Mexico for regional supremacy and lost only once. The place is now different and much more modern. But if Columbus is truly the spiritual home of the national team, then the ghosts were handed over to the Americans on Wednesday.
Winger Paul Arriola stopped injured during warm-ups, and Weah found out five minutes before kickoff was about to begin. The 21-year-old Lille striker struggled in Panama but had an unexpected opportunity to make amends in Columbus. Moments before being replaced in the second half, he made a smart run between the Costa Rican left-back and center-back, positioned himself on a short pass from Dest and finished off the post and goalkeeper Leonel Moreira. It was scored as an own goal, which seemed unfair to Weah and upset Berhalter.
“I don’t think it’s an own goal. I think we have to change that, ”Berhalter said. “I think that’s Tim’s goal. So we’ll talk to FIFA about that or whoever we need and see if we can reverse that. “
Weah was glad he started and was still on the field, making the most of that twist of fate.
“I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndre [Yedlin] in the band getting ready to get in, so I had the idea that they were going to replace me, “he said. “My goal was to stay focused until then, and it just so happened that the ball went wide to [Dest], and I saw the race and I hit it once and it turned out it went in. He was just concentrating on those moments. “
Moreira’s inability to corner Weah’s offer also represented a bit of good luck for the hosts. Costa Rican legend Keylor Navas, a three-time UEFA Champions League winner, started the match but left after the first half with a muscle injury. Maybe he rejects Weah’s shot. Maybe that’s the difference between one point and three.
But the United States earned its luck. His response to the initial deficit was confident and emphatic. All the movement, proactivity and dynamism that Panama was lacking was on display in Columbus, where Berhalter unfolded nine new headlines (Weah and Yunus Musah were the only remnants). The Americans did not yield after Costa Rica’s goal. Rather, they soon imposed their will in midfield and led the game. When a quarter of an hour passed, the United States was clearly on the rise. Dest’s goal was a blast: a 13-pass play that included nine players and ended with a brilliant space-creating lure led by McKennie and then an emphatic left-foot from Barcelona’s back.
He was also responding. Dest had a miserable night in the first octagonal match in El Salvador and was up early. He was then injured in the subsequent game against Canada. Wednesday was a welcome boost, and Dest acknowledged his return to form with lively exhortations to the crowd as he exited the match in the 73rd minute.
“Obviously I grew up in the Netherlands and the Concacaf teams play a little bit differently,” said Dest. “The intensity is high. They work a lot. They work really hard and it’s just physical. It is physical. But, I mean, we can do that too, you know? And I think if you work as a team we can beat all the teams. “
No one has ever doubted the potential of this squad. It is full of players who are on the books of the best clubs in the sport and others who are attracting their attention. However, putting that potential into practice has not been easy. Berhalter has argued that ups and downs should be expected. That’s a function of youth and trying to qualify from a region whose teams have a habit of overriding talent or pedigree advantages. Conditions are tough, the journey is routine, and the opposition desperate and cunning. Any point is good. Recovering from a poor performance with a win from behind is a sign that the necessary composure and confidence are developing.
“At first we weren’t sharp enough,” Dest said. “After a couple of minutes we got into the game and created more chances, and we were in the middle. The mentality of this group is still correct, you know? We work together. We do it together. “
Berhalter didn’t have to stretch to make a link between Sunday’s loss and Fuller’s early goal.
“My initial thought was, ‘Here we go. We have to respond. ‘ We challenged the guys to respond after a poor performance in Panama, and this was going to be another element that we had to respond to, ”he said.
“If you look at the Germans, Frances, Brazils, they are basically playing 28 and 29 year old teams. So, for us, to be navigating through this Concacaf ranking, which is a bear, a monster, with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field, particularly by dropping a goal, and then the second half was a goal up and handling the game really well. … I am proud of the effort, ”added Berhalter. “The guys showed a lot of poise and they are growing. They are growing as a team. “
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.