SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — It was not quite spring break, but the United States men’s soccer team traveled to Costa Rica this week carrying all the stress and psychological burden of second-semester college seniors.
The hardest work, after all, was over. All that was required of the players in the final match of the World Cup qualification competition was the bare minimum: By merely avoiding a six-goal loss in their game on Wednesday at Costa Rica — a deficit they had not registered in a competitive match in 65 years — they would claim a ticket to the World Cup later this year in Qatar.
Long-shot disasters, though, are no abstract peril for the American men. Five years ago, they traveled to Trinidad in similarly sunny circumstances and, after a confluence of improbable events, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That fiasco has dogged the team every day since.
On Wednesday night, then, came some redemption. In the 14th and final game of their qualifying campaign, in front of a lively sellout crowd in San José, the United States strolled to a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica that was more than sufficient to clinch a berth at the 2022 World Cup.
The Americans’ relief and satisfaction was clear at the final whistle, as the players and coaches hugged and high-fived on the field. They had not needed to win, after all, just merely avoid a lopsided defeat.
“The team’s ecstatic, really excited to be qualified for the World Cup,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Qualifying is a grind, and we did it.”
The U.S. started the day in second place in the regional standings for North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica was three points behind, in fourth. The Americans, then, could lose, but as long as they maintained their massive lead over the Costa Ricans in goal differential, which is the first tiebreaker, they were still assured one of the automatic qualification spots.
Canada and Mexico will join the Americans in Qatar, having claimed the other two automatic places from the region, but Costa Rica still has a chance to get in through a playoff in June against New Zealand. The team had seemed to recognize the long odds of moving up to third in the standings on Wednesday and planned accordingly: It rested several regulars who had earned yellow cards earlier in the tournament, ensuring they would not pick up another on Wednesday and be suspended for the summer playoff.
But the fans barely seemed to mind, filling the national stadium to bounce and sing in the festive atmosphere. When Juan Pablo Vargas scored in the 51st minute, they let out booming, collective shouts, as if a trophy had been on the line. When Anthony Contreras doubled Costa Rica’s lead in the 59th, they popped to their feet and chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”)
The American team will soon learn more about what and who awaits in its next meaningful matches: Berhalter was preparing to fly to Doha after the match for Friday’s World Cup draw, which will determine the competitive groupings for the tournament when it begins in November.
For a day, though, he and his team could enjoy the simple pleasure of just getting invited again.
The feeling was sweeter because they were deprived of it five years ago. That immense failure — the team’s first absence from the World Cup since 1986 — has felt fresh in the minds of the team and its fans during this qualifying cycle. But the intervening period has been long.
“That was one of the toughest days of my life, and I’ll never forget it,” said forward Christian Pulisic, one of the few holdovers from the 2017 group. “Now to be in this position qualified for a World Cup, we’re all extremely proud.”
“This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and right now the emotions are a little crazy.”
The team he had played for then was effectively dismantled after the Trinidad defeat — its coaches fired, many of its players banished from future camps — and pieced together again in carefully measured steps.
A new generation of players was eased into the team but shielded from media scrutiny. Current mainstays like Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie got their first important minutes.
The U.S. Soccer Federation elected a new president in early 2018. That summer, it hired Earnie Stewart as the men’s team’s general manager, a newly created position. Then, that December, after more than a year with an interim coach, the team hired Berhalter to revitalize the program.
On Wednesday night, Berhalter fielded an essentially full-strength lineup, backing up his pregame declaration that the U.S. was playing to win. That the Americans never particularly seemed close to doing so hardly mattered. With every second that ticked off the clock, they felt safer.
The team hesitated at first to celebrate in the locker room, still frustrated by its loss. Eventually, feelings of pure joy filtered through the space, and the Champagne and beer began to spray.
“It’s a moment to reflect and be really proud,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who emerged from the locker room with goggles on his head. “From here on out it’s a sprint to the World Cup.”
Back in September, when the 2022 qualifying campaign finally began after months of coronavirus-related delays, a younger generation was tasked with exorcising the demons of its predecessors. That effort had a stuttering start, the players’ pregame boasts about collecting some quick wins brought to earth by a scoreless tie in El Salvador and another draw at home against Canada. Berhalter admitted this week his players had been “kicked in the teeth” in their first few games.
“We were potentially overconfident, not understanding what qualifying was about, and we learned that lesson quickly,” he said. The maturation of his young players would become the predominant plotline of the competition. And the lessons, in that regard, kept coming.
The players coped with a punishingly condensed regional qualifying schedule that, on four occasions, required them to play three games in three cities in a week. They withstood injuries and suspensions at various junctures to some of their best players.
They endured, near the finish line, a collective gastrointestinal calamity, with 30 members of the team and staff ailing from a devastating stomach bug after their game last week in Mexico City.
The trials, in sum, were easier to accept in the end because achieved their objective.
“As a team, we’ve created bonds and chemistry that, to be honest with you, is very, very different from a lot of teams I’ve played in,” said Adams, citing the team’s collective youth as a reason for its closeness. “Gregg speaks on the fact that, coming into World Cup qualifying, we really want to rewrite how these American fans view us, not just through our style of play, but our intensity, our commitment, our belief that we want to take U.S. Soccer to the next level.”
What comes now? What does that next level look like?
The unglamorous toil of qualifying tends to be forgotten when actual World Cup games beckon on the horizon. The dread can dissipate. The anticipation can build.
The team is filled with young players — in many cases occupying starring roles for distinguished clubs in Europe — whose individual upward trajectories should, in theory, augur well for the group.
“I think we can do some damage, man,” Pulisic said. “I think the country will get behind us, and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”
Berhalter pointed out, too, that the coming months provided plenty of time for players currently on the fringes of the team, or ones not involved at all, to make their cases to join the group in Qatar.
But all of that will be sorted out in the months to come. For now, after a stress-free trip to Costa Rica, they are in — and that is reason enough for them to celebrate.