SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — If you’re looking for something symbolic that represents the burden this new U.S. men’s national team isn’t carrying into 2022 World Cup qualifying, midfielder Weston McKennie provided it this week.
Asked to share his memories of the Americans’ spectacular failure to advance to the 2018 tournament, the 23-year-old warned that his answer was going to be brief.
“I didn’t really tune in last time to the World Cup qualifiers,” he said. “I watched highlights of the [decisive] Trinidad game, I think like everyone else did. But yeah, I don’t really watch sports so I didn’t really catch a lot of it.”
Kellyn Acosta, on the other hand, definitely watched. He was there, in Couva, where a veteran U.S. squad needing only a draw fell, 2–1, to the Soca Warriors’ junior varsity. Yet Acosta isn’t dwelling on defeat, either. Sure, he wants to avoid similar feelings and similar failure, he acknowledged.
“But I mean as a group, we haven’t really mentioned it,” Acosta added. “Right now, we have a totally different core of guys and right now we’re just looking forward to the task at hand. … We’re looking at where we have desires to be in the World Cup, and that we’re that much closer to achieving that dream of ours.”
The national team’s new slogan is “Only Forward,” and it fits a group of coaches and players who, apart from the uniform, don’t have much of a relationship or resemblance to the men who failed four years ago. Only six of the 26 players originally called in for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against El Salvador (Thursday), Canada (Sunday) and Honduras (Sept. 8) have any qualifying experience at all, and their leader, Christian Pulisic (13 appearances), was a teenage revelation in 2016–17.
They’ve heard the stories, but they’re not stressed or stained by them. This is a youthful, confident U.S. squad featuring 10 UEFA Champions League players (although a pair, Pulisic and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, will be missing in El Salvador). And it’s crammed with European trophy winners and Concacaf Gold Cup and Nations League gold medalists. Since the low point under manager Gregg Berhalter, a lethargic Nations League group-stage loss in Canada in October 2019, the U.S. has reeled off 17 wins in 19 games and climbed to 10th in the FIFA ranking.
It certainly feels like a new era. Now comes the chance to confirm it. Starting Thursday at the Estadio Cuscatlán here in sultry San Salvador and over the next seven months, the U.S. will contest 14 qualifiers against seven Concacaf opponents. The top three finishers in the eight-team, double round-robin will book tickets to Qatar. The fourth-place team will enter an intercontinental playoff. Berhalter has said repeatedly that his overarching goal, beyond doing well at the World Cup and reestablishing the program’s regional hegemony, is to change the way those at home and abroad view American soccer. But he doesn’t see that as a burden, or as a task that must be accomplished while operating from some kind of deficit. Instead, it’s an opportunity.
“We addressed it in June 2019 when we got to play Trinidad in the Gold Cup,” Berhalter said last week regarding any ghosts that might be lingering. “And since then we’ve built this team to be resilient, to be competitive and now it's about looking forward.”
On Wednesday in the Salvadoran capital, Berhalter added, “It's important that we embrace our past and understand our past and who we are as a national team and the heritage of the U.S. national team. That’s really important. But this is a different group—a different opportunity. … [There are] guys that haven’t participated in it before and we’re looking at a fresh start and we want to make our mark as a group, and it starts tomorrow.”
The build Berhalter referenced has been gradual. Tactics have evolved, lessons have been learned and the player pool continues to be refreshed—see the inclusion in the current squad of uncapped 18-year-old FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi. Changing the way the world views American soccer won’t happen overnight and neither will qualifying for the World Cup. Every game will be a grind, because Concacaf always is. The U.S. certainly has the talent to get it done, but this unique region has a way of minimizing advantages in skill, technique and pedigree.
This U.S. group seems to be keenly aware of that, even if it's not dwelling on someone else’s past.
“We’re playing our first World Cup qualifiers and I think we got a little bit of a taste of what it can kind of be like in Nations League and also in Gold Cup,” McKennie said. “Maybe we didn’t get to experience different types of conditions, home field advantage and away and stuff like that, bad pitches maybe, hot weather, maybe bad refs—it’s just things that we’re going to learn on the way and I think it’s things we’re ready to adapt to as a group.”
Indeed, they’ve passed every test so far but one—the road qualifier. Berhalter mentioned understanding the past, and these players do. Multiple men have mentioned in recent days that they’re aware that the 2016–17 team went winless (0-2-3) across five road games during the final round of qualifying. Winning road qualifiers is difficult. But it has to be done, especially by a team that’s talking about changing the perception of American soccer, dominating the region and taking nine points from these first three qualifiers. Winning on the road is a sign that your mentality and resilience matches your talent.
“We know our record away from home. Traditionally, it hasn’t been great and we know that’s something we want to improve,” Berhalter said Wednesday.
Thursday’s opener seems, on paper—where, again, Concacaf qualifiers are rarely decided—like it should be a winnable road game. El Salvador, a team the U.S. defeated 6–0 in a December friendly, is ranked 64th in the world and seventh in the region. Its ties to the U.S. are significant, starting with coach Hugo Pérez, a former USMNT midfielder who managed several U.S. youth sides before returning to his native land in 2015. In addition, La Selecta can call on five U.S.-born players, including Seattle Sounders midfielder Alex Roldan, the younger brother of club teammate and U.S. midfielder Cristian Roldan.
The story lines are good. But El Salvador’s quality is in question. Most of its team plays domestically and of the seven men based in the U.S. or Canada, four are from the second-tier USL Championship. Its two leading scorers have four international goals each and one of them, the Houston Dynamo’s Darwin Cerén, may not play Thursday after getting hurt in his MLS match last weekend.
“Right now, [the U.S. has] three teams that they can field very easily, and all of them are going to be very good and competitive because of the type of players they have,” Pérez told Soccer America.
Yet the Americans cannot and promise they will not take La Selecta lightly. El Salvador showed some skill and spirit at the Gold Cup, defeating Trinidad & Tobago and Guatemala before coming close to a miracle quarterfinal comeback against Qatar. There will be 29,000 fans in the Cuscatlán cauldron, and with the gates opening more than eight hours before kickoff, they’ll have had time to get their juices flowing.
The U.S. already is facing some qualifying adversity thanks to the absences of Pulisic (remaining in Nashville while returning to fitness following his COVID-19 quarantine) and Steffen (back spasms). The “next man up” approach demonstrated during this summer’s tournaments will be key. But at Cuscatlán, the U.S. will also have to overcome a motivated opponent in challenging surroundings. Those two things alone are usually enough to turn road qualifiers into a slog. The U.S. has four wins in 16 road qualifiers across the past two World Cup cycles.
“This is a big game. This is the biggest game that can come [here], the U.S. or Mexico at home. It’s one of those games where they can really change the way they think about themselves and the qualifying tournament,” Cristian Roldan explained here in San Salvador.
He said he’d have around 20 family members at the match. They love him, but they’ll be rooting against him. It’s going to be a tough crowd.
“It’s been a long time coming, but we have to start on the right foot,” Roldan continued. “You have to have a bit of confidence to come into a game like this one to win, but you can’t be arrogant because we know it’s going to be a tough one. [It’s about] finding that right balance between playing with confidence on the field and not overplaying at times.”
The U.S. has every reason to be confident and every reason to be wary—not because of what happened in 2016–17, but because even successful American sides have been tested by smaller teams on home soil. Every challenge is a chance, Berhalter often says. Thursday’s game represents an opportunity to secure three valuable points and a strong start to qualifying. But it also could help this U.S. squad separate itself even further from its predecessor, all while cementing its competitive Concacaf bona fides and proving that it really is ready, collectively, to blaze its own trail.
“This is a different animal. Concacaf qualifying is not the UEFA Champions League. It’s not competing for the Premier League title. This is a different type of a game,” Berhalter said here.
“There’s a different sense of urgency in these games and a lot of times we have a target on our back as the United States, and it’s having to deal with that,” he continued. “That is important—embracing the physicality, the competitiveness of these games is extremely important to be successful. And that’s the main message to the guys. I think we have the quality, and now it’s about, do we have the right mentality?”
More Soccer Coverage: