Sports

The Biggest Challenges the U.S. Men Will Face in the World Cup

Whew—they made it in. Now what?

Pulisic shoots on goal against Navas
Christian Pulisic facing off with Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas at Estadio Nacional in San José, Costa Rica, on Wednesday.  Mayela Lopez/Reuters via USA Today Sports

Four and a half years after missing the 2018 World Cup, three days after getting Zeno’s arrow levels of close to the 2022 edition, the United States men’s national team stumbled into a guaranteed place in Qatar later this year after finishing qualifying with a 2–0 loss in Costa Rica Wednesday.

It needed every point it earned, and most of the goals too, to beat the Costa Ricans to the final automatic qualifying spot, but that’s why you earn the points and score the goals. The team earned its celebrations, at least for now, and fans should celebrate too. The U.S. men are going back to the World Cup, and that’s good for the players, good for the coach, and good for the sport of soccer in this country. If there’s anything that modern times have taught us, it’s that it’s OK to find happiness in a return to the status quo when the alternative is so unpleasant. Relief can have the same absolute value as joy.

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Granted, it was almost exclusively relief when the whistle blew in San José after Costa Rica scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the second half, putting itself (barely) on pace to get the six goals required to beat the U.S. to third place and consign the Americans to an intercontinental playoff with New Zealand. The goals had a lot in common: poor U.S. defending on set pieces and mistakes from goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

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They were not particularly indicative of the game, which had the sort of energy a lot of friendly matches do where the team that’s trying harder at any given moment appears to be on top. The Americans held the edge in the first half, but were thwarted over and over by Costa Rica’s all-world goalkeeper Keylor Navas. For much of the second-half, the heavily rotated Costa Rican team outhustled an exhausted U.S. squad, but created little to show for it outside of those two set pieces.

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The result felt bad but was fine in the end, another reminder after two consecutive positive performances that qualifying is still hard. As mentioned on the Paramount+ broadcast, the top five teams in this eight-team tournament have lost just one home game out of 35 attempts. Every team Costa Rica has played since November has fallen into the same trap against them; there was little reason to really believe that the U.S. would be the exception. Perhaps the U.S. could have done better than the draws they managed in El Salvador and Jamaica, but predictions that the young U.S. team would or should roll through the region on the strength of its raw talent were always naive.

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Besides, much of that talent has missed a lot of time. Gio Reyna, the team’s most creative player, has showed exactly what the U.S. was missing during the six months and 10 games he was out during his cameos this window: a change of pace, a killer pass, a level of ball security few American players can match. We have yet to see anything close to what this team looks like at full strength. As MLS’s Charles Boehm and Jonathan Sigal calculated, through 13 matches none of Christian Pulisic, Reyna, Tim Weah, and Sergiño Dest had played more than half of the USMNT’s qualifying minutes. Weston McKennie and Brenden Aaronson are both under 60 percent. If there is one thing you’re going to worry about that’s going to really ruin this team’s chances of a good World Cup performance, it has to be the team’s collective health. (Its inconsistency can be No. 2.) The carousel of available players spins so fast you’d swear some of them are each other’s secret identities, never in the same room at the same time.

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Amid those absences, Berhalter has done an effective if methodical job of strengthening his lineup over the course of the past year. He eased out the likes of Tim Ream and Mark McKenzie and more forcibly jettisoned John Brooks in favor of building his defense around the MLS pairing of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman and was rewarded for it with six clean sheets in the nine games they’ve started together. He finally found a set of trusted backups for his midfield, with Kellyn Acosta the more defensive choice and Luca de la Torre a more offensive option. (Berhalter’s slow integration of players like de la Torre into the fold was another key grumble in the fanbase, but it seems at least worth considering that the gradualness may have helped set the stage for the success.) Steffen’s poor performance in Costa Rica may have provided a long-term answer to the Matt Turner/Steffen dilemma. It’s true that Berhalter hasn’t yet found a sure-thing starter at center forward, but if you know of one you should email him, because nobody else has any idea who that should be either.

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Answering that question will be key for the team’s prospects going forward. The disappointment of 2018 and the team’s up-and-down performances on the road to Qatar meant qualifying felt extra freighted this year, but qualification has only scratched the surface of this group’s potential. After already unfurling one premature banner this week, a “Mission Accomplished” one would only be appropriate as metacommentary. (Few of the players on the team are old enough to even get that reference.)

Still, you can’t hit your stretch goals without making it to your baselines first. The last time the U.S. men played a World Cup match, Reyna and Ricardo Pepi were 11. (The U.S. women have won two World Cups since then, so the nation has not been lacking for successful soccer role models.) The only player on the latest roster who played in Brazil in 2014 is DeAndre Yedlin. The only other one who might make the final cut is Brooks, though he hasn’t been called up since October. (Sorry, Julian Green, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.) It’s an entirely new generation who are going to get exposed to the game’s premier international competition.

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They’ll bring a new generation of fans too. Gallup polls taken just months after the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup showed soccer as the nation’s fourth-most popular spectator sport and growing. Having a men’s team playing in a World Cup again will accelerate that growth. People who tuned out after the failure in 2017 will slowly find the team coming back into focus with an entirely new cast of characters beyond just Pulisic. Reyna is going to get endorsement deals where he can scowl at any number of cameras. Tyler Adams is going to be on magazine covers that ask rhetorical questions about whether he’s the team’s most important player. McKennie is going to be an absolute media star.

And all that is just going to be the warmup lap for 2026, when the United States, Canada, and Mexico will jointly host the newly expanded World Cup. The USMNT has already qualified for that one. It’s only going to pick up momentum between here and there. There’s bound to be plenty of joy, relief, and even frustration along the way.

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