COLUMBUS, Ohio — The tifo hoisted by the American Outlaws behind the north goal of Lower.com Field was still fluttering in the evening breeze when disaster struck.
“Our Future Is Now,” the massive banner read. But just 60 seconds into Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, the U.S. men’s national team’s future appeared imperiled. A short clearance by goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a somewhat surprising choice to start in place of workhorse Matt Turner, helped spark a Tico attack that ended with a slow, seeing-eye shot from defender Keysher Fuller bouncing in to Steffen’s right. And with that, the U.S. was losing this mostly must-win match before the smoke from the pre-game pyrotechnics had finished drifting into the Columbus night.
This month’s three-game qualifying window was about responses. The U.S. had to respond to the absence of its two most dangerous attacking players, the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. It had to respond to Sunday’s loss in Panama, which was probably its worst performance under coach Gregg Berhalter. And it had to respond following that stunning first-minute breakdown. That’s a test for any team. And it represents an especially intriguing challenge for one so inexperienced and young. The starting lineup Berhalter chose to face Costa Rica was the youngest in the program’s World Cup qualifying history. It averaged 22 years and 61 days.
“That’s basically unheard of in international football,” Berhalter said.
The Americans controlled the contest, pinned Costa Rica back and deserved the good fortune to come. Sergiño Dest, the 20-year-old outside back, brought the U.S. level with a stunning 25th-minute equalizer. The hosts survived a couple nail-biting defensive errors on either side of halftime and then in the 66th, Tim Weah—a last-minute addition to the U.S. lineup—fired home the game-winner. The 2–1 victory and three points lifted the second-place Americans to a 3-1-2 record, strengthened their hold on one of Concacaf’s three direct berths to the 2022 World Cup and helped boost morale ahead of the November showdown with Mexico.
Both three-game windows have been a grind. The U.S. didn’t hit its stride in September until the second half of the third game. There was a steep learning curve for a team of qualifying debutants, 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, which generated considerable conversation and concern about Berhalter’s faith in the depth of his player pool and the team’s mental fortitude. Fuller’s goal provided one more symbolic hurdle. The Americans cleared it with aplomb.
“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces. We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way. We want to play well and we want to win games,” the manager said. “But all of World Cup qualifying is difficult. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging. And sometimes I feel like people forget that and people think it’s a cakewalk and we’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a game, and we’re just going to breeze through these games. It’s not realistic.”
They’re young enough that seven players on the current squad, six of whom saw action on Wednesday, weren’t born when Columbus hosted its first World Cup qualifier back in the fall of 2000. The old Crew Stadium had become a symbolic and spiritual home for a national team lacking an official one, a fortress where the Americans routinely challenged Mexico for regional supremacy and lost only once. The venue is now different and far more modern. But if Columbus really is the national team’s spiritual home, then the ghosts delivered for the Americans on Wednesday.
Winger Paul Arriola pulled up injured during warm-ups, and Weah found out five minutes before kickoff that he was going to start. The 21-year-old Lille attacker struggled in Panama but got an unexpected chance to make amends in Columbus. Moments before he was set to be replaced in the second half, he made a smart run between the Costa Rican left and center backs, positioned himself over a short pass from Dest and hammered a shot off the post and goalkeeper Leonel Moreira. It was scored as an own goal, which seemed unfair to Weah and rankled Berhalter.
“I don’t think it’s an own goal. I think we gotta get that changed,” Berhalter declared. “I think it’s Tim’s goal. So we’ll talk to FIFA about that or whoever we need to and see if we can get that reversed.”
Weah was just glad he started and was still on the field, and he made the most of that twist of fate.
“I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndre [Yedlin] on the sideline getting ready to come in so I kind of had the idea that I was going to get subbed out,” he said. “My goal was just to stay focused until then, and it just so happened that the ball came out wide to [Dest], and I saw the run and I just hit it one time and it happened to go in. It was just being focused in those moments.”
Moreira’s inability to corral Weah’s bid also represented a bit of good fortune for the hosts. Costa Rican legend Keylor Navas, a three-time UEFA Champions League winner, started the match but departed after the first half with a muscle injury. Perhaps he parries Weah’s shot. Perhaps that’s the difference between one point and three.
But the U.S. earned its luck. Its response to the early deficit was confident and emphatic. All the movement, proactivity and dynamism that was missing in Panama was on display in Columbus, where Berhalter deployed nine new starters (Weah and Yunus Musah were the only holdovers). The Americans didn’t buckle after Costa Rica’s goal. Rather, they soon imposed their will in midfield and carried the play. By the time a quarter hour had passed, the U.S. was clearly in the ascendancy. Dest’s goal was a thing of beauty—a 13-pass move that included nine players and which finished with a brilliant, space-creating decoy run by McKennie and then an emphatic left-footed blast by the Barcelona back.
He was responding too. Dest had a miserable night in the Octagonal opener in El Salvador and was lifted early. He then got hurt in the subsequent game against Canada. Wednesday was a welcome boost, and Dest acknowledged his return to form with animated exhortations to the crowd as he exited the match in the 73rd minute.
“Obviously I grew up in Holland and the Concacaf teams, they play a little bit different,” Dest said. “The intensity is high. They work a lot. They work really hard and it’s just physical. It’s physical. But, I mean, we can also do that, you know? And I think if you just work as a team we can beat every team.”
Nobody has ever doubted this squad’s potential. It’s loaded with players who are on the books at the sport’s top clubs and others who are attracting their attention. Putting that potential into practice, however, hasn’t been seamless. Berhalter has argued that ups and downs should be expected. That’s a function of youth and of trying to qualify from a region whose teams have a habit of nullifying edges in talent or pedigree. Conditions are tough, the travel is a grind and the opposition is desperate and savvy. Any point is a good one. Rebounding from a poor performance with a come-from-behind win is a sign that the composure and confidence required is developing.
“The beginning we weren’t sharp enough,” Dest said. “After a couple minutes we came into the game and created more chances, and we were in their half. The mentality of this group is still right, you know? We work together. We do it together.”
Berhalter didn’t have to stretch to draw a link between the Sunday’s loss and Fuller’s early goal.
“My initial thought was, ‘Here we go. We’ve got to respond.’ We challenged the guys to respond after a poor performance in Panama, and this was going to be another element that we needed to respond to,” he said.
“If you go look at the Germanys, Frances, Brazils, they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams. So for us to be navigating through this Concacaf qualifying, which is a bear—a monster—with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field, particularly going down a goal, and then the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well. … I’m proud of the effort,” Berhalter added. “The guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing. They’re growing as a team.”
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