At Long Last
It's been three years and eleven months since the United States Men's National Team had their hearts broken in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. On that night, the USMNT infamously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and since then the team has been looking forward to one thing: Qualifying for the 2022 edition in Qatar.
Everything this team has done for three years and eleven months has been contextualized through the lens of World Cup qualifiers, which loomed closer and closer as new coach Gregg Berhalter was tasked with righting the country's ship. Even when qualifiers were delayed due to the pandemic, the team marched steadily towards their ultimate goal. No Nations League or Gold Cup trophy can make up for what is about to happen. When the USMNT finishes qualifying on March 30 in Costa Rica, the only thing on everyone's mind will be if the team will be in the World Cup that following November.
The path to March 30 will be marked with individual battles and dense three-match windows. While it is easy to look at that journey as a whole, every minute of every game matters. The USMNT needs results, now. Overlooking even one game could be the difference between relief and a reoccurring nightmare.
For now, the country has three battles to watch. Tonight, the journey starts in El Salvador. Come Sunday, the boys will be back home in Nashville hosting Canada. Finally, they will take the trip back down to Central America to face Honduras on Wednesday. This step is just one part of the overall battle, but starting on the right foot might make all the difference.
It's easy to be anxious before World Cup qualifiers, regardless of how well or unwell your country did last time. This is Concacaf, where the only rule is that there are no rules. USMNT fans need to be ready for the unexpected. But despite that uneasiness, there should be joy in the journey. This is arguably the most talented group of players in the nation's history. To hope tap into some of that enthusiasm, here are two uplifting storylines and some notes ahead of the September World Cup qualifying cycle:
The USMNT Has the Most Momentum in the Region
MLS fans understand that winning MLS Cup at the end of the year is not based on how well a team has performed throughout the season. The Supporter's Shield winner has won MLS Cup only three teams in the last seventeen years ('08 Crew, '11 Galaxy, 2017 Toronto). Instead, the victors at the end of the playoffs are the teams who come together at the right time and have the momentum to carry them through one and done matches.
The same principle can be applied to international soccer. Qualifying is based off of one and done matches, so it is wise to bet on the country with the most momentum coming in. No team in Concacaf has more momentum than the USMNT right now. A Nations League win with their "A team" and a Gold Cup win with their "B or C team" this summer shows the depth and talent Berhalter has to work with. Winning that many games in a row also strengthens the mentality of the players, an important part of Concacaf success. Given the momentum generated from this summer, the USMNT is starting from a position of strength that will hopefully correlate to strong results early on, giving them a leg up in the Octagon.
The Team's Depth Has Been Tested
There has been a lot said about playing three matches in seven days. The reason why everyone is talking about that concern is because it will play a huge role in the outcome of the Octagon. The fatigue factor is especially concerning for those players who are coming from Europe, and the USMNT has a lot of individuals in that situation. Because squad rotation is going to be a reality, players who might not normally play a role during qualifiers will during this cycle.
Having both the Nations League and Gold Cup this summer allowed managers two opportunities to work with any number of their players. Most Concacaf teams brought their "A team" to both tournaments, preferring to solidify as much chemistry as possible between their most important players. Berhalter took a different route and, as mentioned earlier, brought a different team to the Gold Cup. This means the depth pieces for the USMNT, which includes players such as Matt Turner, Walker Zimmerman, and Christian Roldan, have already been tested in intense international competition. Other countries who did not opt to test depth this summer will be forced to have their depth players learn on the fly during World Cup qualifying, which can be a dangerous game to play.
Both Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen did not make the trip to El Salvador for the team's first match. Per Berhalter, Pulisic needs more time to be match fit after recently being quarantined due to a case of COVID-19, while Steffen is dealing with back spasms. Both are hoping to play a large role in Sunday's match.
Despite missing two key players, Berhalter says his team is ready to make their mark as a group and that they are not defined by one individual player. "This is a new opportunity, we're looking at it as a fresh start. We want to make our mark as a group and it starts tomorrow," Berhalter said during his press conference the day before the game.
Tonight's match kicks off at 10:05pm eastern time on CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, and UNIVERSO. Sunday's match is at 8:00pm eastern on FS1, Unimas, and TUDN. Finally, Wednesday's festivities begin at 10:05pm eastern on Paramount+ and UNIVERSO.