'Almost qualified' isn't good enough for U.S. men's soccer team bearing burden of past failure
Coach Gregg Berhalter does not plan on putting out a weakened team for the final game of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Wednesday.
The atmosphere was exuberant Sunday when the United States men's national team beat Panama 5-1 in the penultimate game of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
USA chants filled Exploria Stadium. Smiles spread across the sold-out crowd.
After players exchanged postgame pleasantries with Panama, they turned to celebrate with the USMNT faithful, carrying two banners given to them by someone on the sideline.
One said, "Thank you fans," the other "Qualified 2022 FIFA World Cup."
And just like that, a sinking feeling hit for fans who vividly remember what happened four years ago.
Like stepping on a crack, breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder, the sign felt like a bad omen to fans experiencing the trauma left over from missing the World Cup in 2018.
The U.S. technically hasn't yet qualified. And the similarities between the 2018 cycle and Sunday were a little too on the nose.
USMNT star Christian Pulisic quickly pulled the banner away from his teammates after realizing what it said.
“The guys didn't know at all what it said. It was just handed to them,” Pulisic told multiple reporters after the game. “So once we realized, it's just, there's no need to show that off because we still have a job to do. And we know that.”
The job is to not lose by six or more goals against Costa Rica at 9:05 p.m. Wednesday. Accomplish that, and the U.S. automatically qualifies — they own the goal differential tie breaker with +13 goals over Costa Rica's +3.
The United States is in second place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with 25 points. Canada secured a bid with 28 points and sits in first place. Mexico also has 25 points in third, followed by Costa Rica in fourth with 22 points.
The top three finishers automatically get a bid to play in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher goes to an intercontinental playoff in June against a team from the Oceania region — likely New Zealand.
Still, players don't consider it a done deal.
Four years ago, Pulisic was a budding teen playing amongst men. He remembers firsthand the feeling of losing to Trinidad and Tobago, which eliminated the U.S. from World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1986.
That's why the 23-year-old winger wore the honorable captain's band Sunday in the most important game of this qualifying tournament.
"He was on the field when we didn't qualify," coach Gregg Berhalter said. "This was us saying to him, 'This is a new group. This is a new team, and you are a leader.'"
With experience and talent comes responsibility. Pulisic scored his first international hat trick Sunday and played with a vengeful prowess.
After scoring two penalty kick goals and a goal from open play that started with one of the best first touches of his career, Pulisic exited the field to a standing ovation in the 71st minute.
"Christian has always felt that responsibility — him growing up as sort of that golden child of a U.S. soccer generation," midfielder Tyler Adams said. "He's expected to do things people like Messi and Ronaldo do. He's supposed to bring us to the World Cup."
In 2017, Pulisic, then 19, also played a key role in the USMNT's 4-0 win over Panama in Orlando. The team flew to Trinidad and Tobago feeling good. The USMNT social media accounts posted jovial players giving each other piggy back rides across water, which became a stark contrast to the tears of the team 24-hours later.
Playing the same team, in the same stadium, at the same stage of qualifying triggered the same feelings that have surrounded this USMNT group since that October 2017 night in Couva. The banner felt like a grim foreshadowing, but this isn't the same team, and the stakes are different.
Even if disastrous lightning struck twice and the U.S. overwhelmingly lost to Costa Rica, they would still have a chance to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
"I'll be honest with you, I'm not celebrating anything," winger Paul Arriola said Sunday. "I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, four years ago."
Most of the current players were not on the team during the last infamous qualifying cycle. There are only four holdovers — Arriola, Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, and Kellyn Acosta — but criticism, expectation and negativity bias linger.
"To an extent, it is personal," Arriola said. "I think the mentality of this group is completely different from the past. I have full confidence in this team to be able to go down and get a result."
Rebuilding a national team program from the ground up is a heavy lift, but the USMNT showed the last seven months it's a weight they carry together.
A large pool of players stationed around the world helped the team get to this point. The word "brotherhood" gets used often when players describe the team. So far, 38 different players featured in the 13 qualifying games.
FIFA designates a forfeit as a 3-0 loss. So technically, the US could not show up Wednesday and secure the last automatic qualifying spot. But that's not how this team operates. The US is going to try to win a World Cup qualifier in the capital of Costa Rica for the first time.
"It is a challenge. This group has never won in San José," Berhalter said. "The guys are hungry for that. We will put a line-up on the field that is going to go for a win."
The team refused to accept words on a banner sealing their fate — even if the odds are in their favor. The USMNT are well aware the unthinkable can happen and are determined to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"We thought we qualified last World Cup as well," Adams said. "We are going into this game with a mentality to win. Whatever player steps on that field will be ready to play."