COLUMBUS, Ohio – The tifo hoisted by the US Outlaws behind the northern goal of Lower.com Field was still fluttering in the evening breeze when disaster struck.
“Our future is now,” said the massive banner. But with just 60 seconds of Wednesday’s World Cup qualifying game against Costa Rica, the future of the United States men’s national team looked in jeopardy. A short clearance from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a somewhat surprising choice to start in place of workaholic Matt Turner, helped spark an attack from Tico that ended with a slow shot from defender Keysher Fuller rebounding to the right by Steffen. And with that, the United States was losing that mostly must-see match before the smoke from the pre-match pyrotechnics had finished drifting on Columbus night.
This month’s three-game qualifying window was all about the answers. The United States had to respond to the absence of their two most dangerous strikers, the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. He had to react to Sunday’s loss to Panama, which was arguably his worst performance under Gregg Berhalter. And he had to react after this astonishing first minute outage. It’s a test for any team. And that presents a particularly intriguing challenge for someone so inexperienced and young. The starting lineup Berhalter chose to face Costa Rica was the youngest in the history of the program’s World Cup qualifying. It lasted an average of 22 years and 61 days.
“It’s fundamentally unheard of in international football,” said Berhalter.
The Americans controlled the contest, pinned Costa Rica, and earned the good fortune to come. 20-year-old outside-back Sergiño Dest brought the American standard back with a superb equalizer in the 25th minute. The hosts survived a few biting defensive errors on either side of the half, then in the 66th, Tim Weah, a last-minute addition to the American roster, sacked the game winner. The 2-1 and three-point win took the Americans to second place to a 3-1-2 record, tightening their grip on one of Concacaf’s three direct berths at the 2022 World Cup and helped boost morale ahead of the November showdown with Mexico.
The two three-game windows were a chore. The United States only hit their stride in September heading into the second half of Game 3. There has been a steep learning curve for a skilled rookie team, injuries and the sensational suspension of anchor midfielder Weston McKennie. This month, a relatively easy opening victory over Jamaica was followed by the faceplant against Panama, which sparked considerable conversation and concern over Berhalter’s faith in the depth of his player pool and the mental strength of the team. Fuller’s goal provided yet another symbolic hurdle. The Americans cleared it with aplomb.
“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is to put pressure on them because of outside 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 manager. “But all qualifying for the World Cup is tough. All qualifying for the World Cup is difficult. And sometimes I feel like people just forget that and people think it’s a piece of cake and we’re going to face the youngest team in American football history in a game, and we’re just going to go through these matches brilliantly. It is not realistic.
They are young enough that seven of the current squad, six of whom played on Wednesday, were not born when Columbus hosted their first World Cup qualifying game in the fall of 2000. The former Crew Stadium was become a symbolic and spiritual place. the home of a national team with no official team, a stronghold where the Americans regularly challenged Mexico for regional supremacy and only lost 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 surrendered to the Americans on Wednesday.
Winger Paul Arriola suffered an injury during warm-ups and Weah learned five minutes before kick-off that he was about to start. The 21-year-old Lille forward struggled in Panama but had an unexpected chance to redeem himself from Columbus. Moments before he was substituted in the second half, he made a smart run between Costa Rica’s left and center defenders, positioned himself on a short pass from Dest and hammered a shot to the post and the keeper. Leonel Moreira. He was scored as an own own goal, which seemed unfair to Weah and angered 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 or whoever we need it to and see if we can reverse that. “
Weah was just happy to have started and still be on the pitch, and he made the most of that twist of fate.
“I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndré [Yedlin] on the sidelines preparing to come in, I kind of got the idea that I was going to be replaced, ”he said. “My goal was just to stay focused until then, and it turns out the ball came out wide for [Dest], and I saw the run and I just touched it once and it happened. It was just to be focused in those moments.
Moreira’s inability to correct Weah’s candidacy also represented a bit of luck for the hosts. Three-time UEFA Champions League winner Costa Rican legend Keylor Navas started the game but left after the first half due to a muscle injury. Maybe he parries Weah’s shot. Maybe that’s the difference between a point and three.
But the United States had its chance. His response to the initial deficit was confident and emphatic. All the movement, proactivity and dynamism that Panama lacked was on display in Columbus, where Berhalter deployed nine new starters (Weah and Yunus Musah were the only survivors). The Americans did not give in after Costa Rica’s goal. On the contrary, they quickly imposed their will on the midfield and carried the game. After a quarter of an hour, the United States were clearly in the dominant position. Dest’s goal was a thing of beauty – a 13-pass move that included nine players and ended in a brilliant space-creating lure led by McKennie, then an emphatic left-foot explosion from Barcelona’s full-back .
He was responding too. Dest had a miserable night at the octagonal opening in El Salvador and got up early. He was then injured in the next game against Canada. Wednesday was a welcome boost, and Dest acknowledged his return to form with lively urges to the crowd as he left the game in the 73rd minute.
“Obviously I grew up in Holland and in the Concacaf teams they play a little differently,” Dest said. “The intensity is high. They work a lot. They work very hard and it’s just physical. It’s physical. But, I mean, we can do that too, you know? And I think if you just work as a team, we can beat every team. “
No one has ever doubted the potential of this team. It is full of players registered with the best clubs in the sport and others who catch their attention. However, putting this potential into practice has not been transparent. Berhalter argued that there are ups and downs to be expected. It’s a function of youth and trying to qualify in a region whose teams are used to canceling out the advantages in terms of talent or pedigree. The conditions are difficult, the journey is arduous, and the opposition is desperate and savvy. Any point is good. Bouncing back from a poor performance with a victory from behind is a sign that the required composure and confidence is developing.
“At first we weren’t sharp enough,” Dest said. “After a few minutes we got into the game and created more chances, and we were in their half. The mentality of this band is always right, you know? We work together. We do it together.
Berhalter didn’t have to stretch to tie Sunday’s loss to Fuller’s opening goal.
“My initial thought was, ‘Here we go. We must respond. We challenged the guys to react after a poor performance in Panama, and that was going to be another thing we had to react to, ”he said.
“If you look at the Germans, Frances, Brazil, they mainly face teams of 28 and 29 years old. So for us to navigate through that qualifying Concacaf, which is a bear – a monster – with this group, and the amount of balance they have shown on the pitch, especially losing one goal and then the second. halftime being up a goal and handling the game very well.… I’m proud of the effort, ”added Berhalter. “The guys have shown a lot of balance and they are growing. They grow up as a team.
More USMNT coverage from Brian Straus: