Any fears that the U.S. men's national team would suffer from a hangover and let its guard down after Sunday's thrilling Concacaf Nations League final win over Mexico were quickly extinguished.
Brenden Aaronson scored in the eighth minute, Daryl Dike and Reggie Cannon scored the first senior international goals of their respective careers, Gio Reyna came off the bench to convert a penalty kick and the U.S. cruised by Costa Rica with a 4–0 friendly win Wednesday night in Utah. It capped a four-game, 3-1-0 stretch for what's considered to be the top group at coach Gregg Berhalter's disposal.
For days and weeks, the U.S. staff and players referred to this window, which began with training in late May, included a May 30 friendly defeat to Switzerland and then three wins over Concacaf foes, as a dry run ahead of World Cup qualifying. The travel and rapid nature of the match schedule was meant to "repeat the cadence" of a three-game qualifying window, which will largely be how Concacaf conducts its Octagonal through multiple fixture blocks in the final round. Ensuring there was no downtick in energy and effort, no matter if the stakes had been lessened as they were on Wednesday, was of the utmost importance.
"For us on the team level, what's most important now is turning around and playing tomorrow—we were on a high on Sunday and how do you get back to a level that you can perform on Wednesday, because that's what World Cup qualifying is," Berhalter said prior to the match. "It's going to be about a result on Sunday, no matter what it is, you still have to turn it around and perform on Wednesday."
There was never going to be an entirely apples-to-apples replication of a World Cup qualifying, because that's impossible, but some other elements also threw off the balance a bit. Extra time won't be played in World Cup qualifiers, for instance, but it was on Sunday, so an additional 30 minutes (and an intense 30 minutes at that, which doesn't account for the stoppages, VAR reviews and other lengtheners) surely factored into the nine lineup changes made between Sunday and Wednesday—something that might be less likely to happen in a qualifying window.
And while the U.S. was committed to bringing a strong effort into Wednesday's friendly, that doesn't mean its opponent had to share the same conviction. Following two consecutive defeats on penalty shootouts in the Nations League final four, and with a number of key players not available, you could understand why Costa Rica may have come out a bit flat.
There was a noticeable and understandable decrease in intensity, then—and how, really, could there not have been?—as things got started at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium, but it didn't take long for the U.S. to erase all notions that it'd be an off night, at least from its standpoint.
Aaronson fired home his third international goal just over seven minutes in, following up a blocked chance from Daryl Dike, who wasn't on the 23-man Nations League roster, but did remain with the team throughout this camp with the expectation that he'd play in the friendly. The sequence was sharp all around, with Mark McKenzie's pass setting up Sebastian Lletget, who played Antonee Robinson down the left. The Fulham fullback curled a cross forward for Dike instead of squaring slightly backward for Aaronson, and it paid off with the early goal.
McKenzie again was a catalyst out of the back for the USA's second, splitting the lines with a pass that allowed Dike, who had stayed onside, to run onto the ball in stride, take his time and deliver a confident finish in the 42nd minute.
Aaronson's confidence, coming off his first half-season in Europe with Red Bull Salzburg, continued to show through, as he nearly created what would've been a third for the U.S., with Yunus Musah ultimately firing wide.
The USA's third came just over six minutes into the second half, though, with Reggie Cannon pushing forward, pouncing on a ball in the Costa Rica midfield and surging forward before delivering a confident left-footed finish.
The fourth came after a series of substitutions, with Reyna, just into the game, getting stomped on and pushed inside the Costa Rica box. The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund star took the opportunity to roll home a penalty in the 77th minute, making him the USA's fourth goalscorer on the night who was 22 or younger.
The result was never in question, and the U.S. was always in full control. So if maintaining momentum and finishing this window on the right foot was the goal, consider that reached.
"This week helped bring the group together in tournament form, playing for stakes," Berhalter said after the match. "It was more important to turn around today to have a good performance."
Tyler Adams, who captained the U.S. for the first time and played 62 minutes on the night, had previously discussed the importance of creating the experience of a nine-point window, something the U.S. can draw back on and envision when the pressure ramps up and each point is a step closer to booking a ticket to Qatar. With the Nations League wins over Honduras and Mexico and Wednesday's friendly, it's now accomplished that.
"The vibe in the team and the emotion in the team is obviously very positive [after the Mexico win]," Adams said prior to the match. "Anytime you can win a game like that, obviously raise a trophy with a bunch of your longtime friends, longtime teammates, it's special. It brings the bond much and much closer together. For me, I think the most important thing is we're here, we participated in the Nations League, we have these friendlies for a reason, and that's to set us up for success in the future. Especially qualifying.
"For me, my focus has already changed. you take that in, you enjoy the moment while you can, but winning this game [vs.] Costa Rica will be the cherry on top."
And so it was. But the concurrent matches happening at the lower rungs of Concacaf during this window play an important role in the USMNT's future as well. The first round of World Cup qualifying in the region has been completed, with three two-match series set for June 12 and 15, from which the three winners will complete the eight-team final round. The pairing of greatest intrigue to the U.S. is the one between Saint Kitts and Nevis and El Salvador, with the winner hosting the U.S.'s first match of the Octagonal (Trinidad and Tobago, which ended the U.S.'s World Cup quest short of Russia in 2017, was eliminated in first-round group play and won't be a factor going forward; a return to Couva had previously been a possibility for the opener).
Haiti-Canada and Panama-Curaçao are the other matchups that will determine future opponents in qualifying, and while all the U.S.'s focus has been on replicating a qualifying window, beating Mexico and winning a trophy, there is attention being paid elsewhere. Berhalter indicated that his staff was monitoring everything closely, on site.
"We have personnel at the games, we're scouting them," Berhalter said. "It's an important step for us to get ahold of whoever's going to be in the group of eight, we want to know as much information as possible."
The job from this window has been done, and this summer's Gold Cup, while maintaining its status as a regional championship, will be used more for testing out those not necessarily on the top of the depth chart and perhaps expanding the pool of those who are turned to in the fall.
It's all about World Cup qualifying from here on out.
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