SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — There wasn’t time for a fitting, formal and collective celebration, one that would properly honor the long-range achievement, the journey, the redemption and relief. Multiple U.S. players called this team a brotherhood ahead of Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifying finale. But mere moments after the Americans finally sealed their place in Qatar, that brotherhood dispersed.
Some players are staying here in the Costa Rican capital until Thursday, while others were scheduled to charter to London overnight. Meanwhile, coach Gregg Berhalter and select U.S. Soccer staff planned to take a red-eye to New York, where they’ll do a few early-morning interviews before boarding a flight to Doha. There, on Friday—fewer than 48 hours after its place was officially assured—the U.S. will learn its opponents in the November-December World Cup.
There will be no parade or opulent, organized party, and that big ‘QUALIFIED’ banner that was unveiled accidentally on Sunday was left behind in Orlando. Instead, the Americans’ long-awaited return to the World Cup, sealed despite Wednesday’s 2-0 loss, was acknowledged quickly with some subdued hugs on the Estadio Nacional field, a salute to the traveling fans, and then, after the sting of defeat had subsided a bit, a healthy dose of champagne and Budweiser in the visiting locker room. This competitive and hungry U.S. squad wanted to close Concacaf’s Octagonal qualifying gauntlet with a historic win. So It took a few additional minutes, and apparently a pre-emptive bottle pop from defender Erik Palmer-Brown, to bring the big picture front and center.
“I think it took me a little bit for it to sink in,” said U.S. forward Christian Pulisic, one of three holdovers from the traumatic 2017 qualifying failure who started Wednesday. “Once we got back in the locker room and just seeing all the guys, I think we’re allowed to be happy and proud that we’re qualified for a World Cup—because this process is not easy.”
The eight World Cup groups, minus a few playoff survivors to be determined, will be revealed Friday, and the U.S. will gather only a few more times before heading to the tournament—it’s 11th overall and first since 2014. So those increasingly euphoric moments together in the dressing room on Wednesday, with Tim Weah manning the team’s new boom box—which was finally acquired in time for this climactic qualifying window—represented a brief but priceless opportunity to rejoice and reflect together before everyone heads their separate ways and Qatar becomes the focus.
“It was muted [at first] because we’re competitors. No one wanted to lose that game,” Berhalter said. “When you don’t win even though you get the reward of qualifying, there is a brief moment of disappointment. For us, it’s about seeing things in perspective, and the perspective is we’re the youngest [U.S.] team to ever qualify for the World Cup … and we’ll be the youngest team at the World Cup. That’s an accomplishment for these guys.”
DeAndre Yedlin, another 2017 holdover, said, “At first it was a little bit awkward because it’s weird celebrating after a loss. … But once we really realized, ‘Man, we qualified and we have achieved this goal that we had,’ then it’s pretty easy after that.”
The Americans’ place in Qatar wasn’t really in doubt prior to kickoff. After deservedly earning four points combined this month in Mexico City and Orlando, the young but maturing U.S. (7-3-4) could afford to lose to Los Ticos by an improbable five goals and still qualify directly thanks to its superior goal differential. As miserable as past trips to Costa Rica have been—the U.S. is now 0-10-2 here all-time—the tension was relatively low.
For Berhalter’s team, Wednesday’s match represented a chance to conclude Concacaf’s 14-game, seven-month Octagonal with a satisfying flourish—another box checked. The U.S. wanted the three points, and Berhalter asked the same men he started six days earlier at the Estadio Azteca to chase them. The realistic worst-case scenario was a 90-minute wait for World Cup confirmation and the odd sensation of making history with a loss. Since the 1990 cycle, every U.S. World Cup qualification (except 1994) was sealed with a win.
For the hosts, who finished the Octagonal with four straight victories, it was about enjoying its resurgence and preparing for the June playoff against New Zealand. Ticos coach Luis Fernando Suárez left little doubt about where his priorities lay when he started just one of nine players carrying a yellow card. Three key Costa Rica veterans at risk of playoff suspension, Celso Borges, Francisco Calvo and Keysher Fuller, didn’t even dress. And superstar goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who stymied the U.S. with multiple sensational saves and six total, left the game in the 79th minute.
With modest expectations coming in, Costa Rica was free to cut loose and have a good time. The Estadio Nacional, which feels much larger than its 36,000 capacity thanks to its track and spectacular arched overhangs, was packed and pulsing. A loud, fast-talking and singing emcee. a bunch of costumed mascots and pre-game fireworks launched from behind the south goal set the tone.
“The atmosphere gave the guys wings from Costa Rica,” Berhalter said.
Although the Americans dominated early, they couldn’t solve Navas. Costa Rica grew into the game and a poor 10-minute stretch midway through the second half sealed the U.S.’s very short-term fate. Costa Rica defender Juan Pablo Vargas and striker Anthony Contreras did the damage.
The setback dropped the U.S. to third in the final Octagonal standings. But that’s sufficient. Its ticket is valid, and Wednesday’s result will fade quickly.
“The bottom line is it’s pass-fail. Are you in the World Cup or are you not,” Zimmerman asked. “We did that. We put ourselves in position to where we could afford to not win the game even though we were going for it.”
It is indeed pass-fail, and despite a steep learning curve for a group lacking Concacaf seasoning; injuries to the likes of Pulisic, Gio Reyna and others; upheaval at center back and striker; and a stiff September test for Berhalter as his team struggled in the opening window and midfield linchpin Weston McKennie was suspended and sent home, the U.S. was never really in mortal danger of repeating its 2017 failure. It was that failure, in fact, that likely led to most of the angst surrounding this campaign. There was some tension following road losses in Panama and Canada, but there was never any genuine jeopardy.
The U.S. didn’t conclude a window below second place until the final whistle Wednesday night (the top three finishers advanced directly to the World Cup). There were no home qualifying defeats like in 2001 or 2016-17. There were no three-game winless runs like in 1997 or 2001 (at one point, the squad that made the World Cup quarterfinals lost three qualifiers in a row). There were no nail-biting, do-or-die games like the 2012 semifinal stage decider against Guatemala in Kansas City, or the must-win match at lowly Barbados in 2000. And the underlying numbers were good. The U.S. played well, for the most part, and led the Octagonal in expected goal difference by a wide margin heading into Wednesday’s finale. For a squad that averages around four years younger than most of the teams that contested the 2018 World Cup, that’s a noteworthy achievement. Once the black qualification T-shirts were distributed and the alcohol started flowing, there was no way Wednesday’s loss was going remove much of that luster.
“We’ve come down and played in some really tough places. We’ve played in some big games and when we’ve needed results, we’ve got them. And I just like the fight of this team and I think we have a lot of quality as well,” Pulisic said. “In a couple days, I don’t think we’ll be thinking about this game too much.”
In his post-game press conference, Berhalter shared some of the themes of the locker room speech that was interrupted by Palmer-Brown and his overeager compatriots.
“I just had a chance to address the team and just reflecting on these last seven months in particular, and how much this team has grown together. Being the youngest team in the world to qualify for the World Cup is no easy task,” he said. “We’re really proud of the guys, We’re really proud of the way they competed throughout these 14 games. Even tonight, I thought the attitude and the mindset was fantastic, going out there to win the game, not going out there to hang on. So it’s a proud moment for the team, proud moment for U.S. soccer and we’re looking forward to competing in the World Cup.”
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