While most of the U.S. men's national team’s first-choice players enjoy the afterglow of a wild win over Mexico and start their summer breaks, their road to next year’s World Cup has been mapped out.
Elsewhere in Concacaf, 29 lower-ranked countries have been competing this month for three available spots in the final round of World Cup qualifying, which will comprise eight teams for the first time. That competition ended Tuesday evening, with Canada, El Salvador and Panama emerging from the pack. They’ll join the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Jamaica in the Octagonal, a double-round-robin gauntlet from which three nations will book passage to Qatar (a fourth will enter an intercontinental playoff). It begins with three games in early September.
Tuesday’s results finalized most of the U.S.'s qualifying schedule—specific stadiums are still to be determined. The Americans face a challenging stretch at the start, with trips to El Salvador and Honduras bracketing a home game against Canada. For the first time, thanks to delays caused by the pandemic, World Cup qualifying windows will feature three games. The travel and condensed schedule—not to mention the inhospitable conditions at many Concacaf venues—should present challenges to a U.S. program full of younger players lacking qualifying experience.
The U.S.'s recent stretch of four matches in 11 days, which included the Concacaf Nations League semifinal and final in Denver, was designed in part to mimic the logistics of a World Cup window. The May 30 friendly in Switzerland represented a player’s final club game preceding the international break and a transatlantic flight. Three matches at altitude followed: the pair in Colorado and then last week’s friendly against Costa Rica outside Salt Lake City. It was a test of organization and adaptation. Even though U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter gave most Nations League starters a break against the Ticos, he’ll still have acquired information about how they recovered and trained following the first three contests.
"What I realized is that it's going to take a group to get this done," Berhalter said of qualifying. "It's not going to take 11 starters. We need the whole group.”
Shortly after defeating Costa Rica, 4-0, the manager said, “Playing for stakes, playing for [the Nations League] trophy was really important. But it was even more important to turn around [against Costa Rica] and have a good performance. We set out a goal to get nine points this week, and we did that. And I think it took a lot of mental fortitude, a lot of mental strength to get up to the intensity we needed to win this game today.”
Even more fortitude will be required starting in September, when the U.S. faces two games in Central America. There, altitude isn’t an issue. But heat, humidity, field conditions, raucous crowds and more have a habit of making the experience uncomfortable and unpredictable. Among the 14 men who appeared in the U.S.'s last Central American qualifier, a 1-1 draw at Honduras in September 2017, just three are in frame to contribute this September: Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola.
“It’s definitely what this is about,” forward Brenden Aaronson said of the schedule this month. “I think that it’s preparation for all of us. We haven’t done it. A lot of us haven’t done it, you know? It’s good preparation.”
While his key European players take the summer off, Berhalter will have a chance to get a good look at the rest of the U.S. pool during the Concacaf Gold Cup, which kicks off July 10 and runs through the Aug. 1 final. As he said, the “whole group” will be called upon during qualifying, so it’s likely that several roster spots will be won or confirmed next month.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at the U.S.'s tentative World Cup qualifying schedule as it stands following Tuesday’s games. Specific dates were listed by U.S. Soccer but are subject to change within the window’s confines:
Sept. 2 - at El Salvador
The U.S. last played at San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán, Central America’s largest stadium, in March 2009. The qualifier ended in a 2-2 draw. The U.S. is 2-1-3 all-time in El Salvador. The hosts are currently coached by a former U.S. international and U.S. youth coach, Hugo Pérez. His nephew, former U.S. youth international Joshua Pérez, is one of La Selecta's U.S.-born players and scored three goals in the early qualifying rounds.
Sept. 5 - vs. Canada
U.S. Soccer is hoping to finalize and announce the venue for the first home qualifier by the end of July. A site that facilitates travel to and from Central America seems likely.
Sept. 8 - at Honduras
A trip to Honduras means a trip to the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, where the U.S. is a respectable 3-1-1. The most recent match there was the aforementioned tie in 2017.
Oct. 7 - vs. Jamaica
An embarrassing 2015 Gold Cup semifinal setback to the Reggae Boyz in Atlanta should give pause to anyone feeling overconfident ahead of this matchup.
Oct. 10 - at Panama
The USA is 3-0-2 all-time in Panama. Los Canaleros were surprise World Cup qualifiers in 2018, at the Americans' expense.
Oct. 13 - vs. Costa Rica
The last home qualifier against Los Ticos was a disaster—a 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena in Sept. 2017 that cost Bruce Arena’s men decisive points.
Nov. 12 - vs. Mexico
The Columbus Crew’s new Lower.com Field and Minnesota United’s Allianz Field appear to be the leading candidates to host the marquee showdown between the U.S. and El Tri.
Nov. 16 - at Jamaica
The U.S. is 3-1-5 all-time in Kingston. The most recent game in the Jamaican capital was a 2-1 win in June 2013.
Jan. 27 - vs. El Salvador
Jan. 30 - at Canada
The site of Berhalter’s lowest moment as U.S. coach—a comprehensive 2-0 Nations League loss at BMO Field in Toronto in Oct. 2019. Canada hadn't reached the last round of World Cup qualifying since the 1998 cycle.
Feb. 2 - vs. Honduras
March 24 - at Mexico
The Octagonal’s home stretch begins at the Estadio Azteca, where the U.S. is unbeaten in its past three visits—a friendly win in 2012 followed by qualifying draws in ’13 and ’17.
March 27 - vs. Panama
March 30 - at Costa Rica
The U.S. has had tough luck in Costa Rica, where it’s 0-9-2 all-time (including eight straight losses).
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