Seal of his return to the US World Cup

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – It wasn’t quite a spring break, but the U.S. men’s soccer team traveled to Costa Rica this week carrying all the stress and emotional burden of second-semester college seniors.

The hardest work, after all, is over. What the players needed in the final of the World Cup qualifiers was minimal: by avoiding a six-goal defeat in their game in Costa Rica on Wednesday – a deficit that they did not register in a competitive match. 65 years – they will claim World Cup tickets in Qatar later this year.

Long-shot catastrophe, however, is not an abstract danger for American men. Five years ago, they traveled to Trinidad under similar sunny conditions and, after a combination of unlikely events, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That fragility has pushed the team every day since then.

On Wednesday night, then, some redemption came. In the 14th and final game of their qualifying campaign, in front of a lively sellout crowd in San Jose, the United States lost 2-0 to Costa Rica which was enough to win a berth in the 2022 World Cup.

The comfort and satisfaction of the Americans was evident in the final whistle, as the players and coaches hugged the field and made high-fives. After all, they did not need to win, only to avoid a one-sided defeat.

Coach Greg Barhalter said: “The team is thrilled, really excited to qualify for the World Cup.” “Qualification is a crush, and we did it.”

The United States has started the day in second place in the region for North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica is three points behind in fourth place. The Americans could have lost then, but as long as they maintained their huge lead over Goal Differential, the first tiebreaker, the Costa Ricans, they were still one of the surest qualifying places.

Canada and Mexico will join the Americans in Qatar, claiming two other automatic places from the region, but Costa Rica still has a chance to go through the play-offs against New Zealand in June. The team recognized the long-standing disadvantage of finishing third in the standings on Wednesday and planned accordingly: it rested several regulars who had received yellow cards before the tournament, ensuring that they would not pick another team on Wednesday and would be suspended for them. Summer playoffs.

But fans don’t think the national stadium fills up to bounce and sing in a festive atmosphere. When Juan Pablo Vargas scored in the 51st minute, they screamed in excitement, as if in a trophy line. When Anthony Conteras doubled Costa Rica’s lead at 59, they climbed to their feet and shouted “C se puede!” Gives the slogan. (“Yes we can!”)

The American team will soon learn more about what and who is waiting for its next meaningful matches: Barhalter was preparing to fly to Doha after Friday’s World Cup draw, which will determine the competitive grouping for the tournament starting in November.

For one day, though, he and his team can enjoy the simple joy of being invited again.

The feeling was even sweeter because they were deprived of it five years ago. That huge failure – the team’s first absence from the World Cup since 1986 – made the team and its fans feel fresh during this qualifying cycle. But the intervening time has been long.

“It was one of the hardest days of my life, and I will never forget it,” said Christian Pulisic, one of the few holdovers in the 2017 group. “We are all very proud to be able to qualify for the World Cup in this position now.”

He paused.

“This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and the emotions are a little crazy at the moment.”

The team he played for was effectively disbanded after the Trinidad defeat – its coaches were fired, many of its players were expelled from future camps – and reunited in a carefully measured move.

The new generation of players was made easy in the team but was protected from media scrutiny. Current chiefs like Tyler Adams and Weston McKinney got their first crucial minutes.

The US Soccer Federation elected a new president in early 2018. That summer, it hired Ernie Stewart as general manager of the men’s team, a newly created position. Then, in December, after more than a year with the interim coach, the team hired Barhalter to revive the program.

On Wednesday night, Barhalter fielded an essentially full-strength lineup, backing his pregame announcement that the United States was playing to win. Americans have never seemed so close. With every second the clock ticked off, they felt safe.

The team initially hesitated to celebrate in the locker room, still frustrated by his loss. Eventually, feelings of pure joy filter through the space and begin to spray champagne and beer.

“It’s a moment to reflect and be truly proud,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who came out of the locker room with goggles on his head. “From here it sprints to the World Cup.”

Back in September, when the coronavirus-related campaign finally began in 2022 after months of delays, a younger generation was tasked with expelling the monsters of its predecessors. That effort began to stutter, with players boasting a scoreless tie in Pregam El Salvador and another quick home win against Canada in another draw at home. Barhalter admitted this week that his players had “kicked in the teeth” in their first few games.

“We were potentially overconfident, didn’t understand what qualifications were, and we quickly learned that lesson,” he said. The maturity of his young players will become the main plotline of the competition. And the lessons, in that regard, keep coming.

Players have been dealt with a penalized concentrated regional qualifying schedule that, in four events, requires them to play three games a week in three cities. They have endured injuries and suspensions at various junctures of their best players.

They suffered a combined gastrointestinal upset near the finish line, with 30 members of the team and staff falling ill from a devastating stomach bug after their game last week in Mexico City.

Trials, in short, were easier to accept in the end because their purpose was achieved.

“As a team, we’ve built bonds and chemistry that, to be honest with you, are very, very different from the many teams I’ve played in,” Adams said, referring to the team’s young team as the reason for the closeness. That being said, when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup, we really want to rewrite how these American fans view us, not just with our style of play, but with our intensity, our commitment, our belief that we want to take on US soccer. At the next level. “

What comes now? What does that next level look like?

When the real game of the World Cup hints at the horizon, the extraordinary work of qualifying is forgotten. Fear can be cut off. Can build expectations.

The team is full of young players – in many cases playing roles for prominent clubs in Europe – whose individual upward trajectories should, theoretically, be good for the group.

“I think we can do some damage, man,” the policeman said. “I think the country will be behind us and we will give what we get.”

Barhalter also noted that the coming months provide plenty of time for players who are currently on the edge of the team, or for those who are not involved at all, to join the group in Qatar.

But in the coming months, they will all be resolved. For now, after a stress-free trip to Costa Rica, they are there – and that’s enough reason to celebrate.

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