The USMNT returns to World Cup qualifying as a team evolved from colossal failure

·6 min read

One week from Thursday, the United States men's national team will play its first World Cup qualifier since the worst night in program history, and that, in many ways, is about as misleading as narratives get.

It isn't false.

The USMNT really did fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

It really did lose to a lowly Trinidad and Tobago B-team in a sleepy coastal town on a cow pasture of a pitch, leaving Christian Pulisic and a few dozen traveling fans in tears.

And sure, you might remember what happened that night, because the U.S. men haven't played a qualifier since.

You also might not, because it was 1,416 days ago, and because nothing about the current national team hearkens back to it. The coach, Gregg Berhalter, is new. The vibe is energetic. The regional trophies are accumulating. And the roster is fresh. Of the 26-man squad announced Thursday, only four players were in Couva nearly four years ago.

Those 26 will travel to El Salvador next week for the first of 14 decisive qualifiers over seven months. They'll enter the rebranded "Octagonal," the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, and try to finish in the top three of eight North and Central American and Caribbean nations to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. And they'll do so unburdened by the past.

They'll do so with an average age of 24.

They'll do so coming off two wins over Mexico in regional finals, first in the CONCACAF Nations League in June, then in the Gold Cup earlier this month. Those two U.S. rosters, which featured little overlap, were both younger than those of any other nation that competed at the Euros or Copa America this summer.

And the USMNT's starting lineup in that Nations League title bout was its youngest in a competitive final ever. Its starting 11 for the Gold Cup final was the second-youngest.

Tyler Adams (left), Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic embody the promise of this new-look USMNT. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tyler Adams (left), Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic embody the promise of this new-look USMNT. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The changing of the guard came slower than some hoped, especially as U.S. Soccer sputtered through a confounding, drawn-out coaching search. The USMNT seemed directionless under interim coach Dave Sarachan for over a year after the qualifying failure. The federation searched, aimlessly at times, for stability as it underwent all sorts of leadership changes above and behind its prized national team.

But from the very beginning, ever since the first stateside training camp of the post-Couva era, the players have operated with the freedom and innocence of youth. They weren't in Trinidad. They didn't feel the embarrassment that struck that night and lingered long after. If toxicity existed within the USMNT camp throughout that 2018 qualifying campaign, the youngsters didn't know it.

Berhalter arrived in late 2018, and set out to implement systems, tactics, mindsets, an identity, all of which would accelerate the transition. It took time. It took an ever-rotating cast of players, some of whom couldn't hang at international level, some of whom stuck around, and matured, and developed in MLS or Europe. Berhalter's first competitive roster, for the 2019 Gold Cup, wasn't any better than the one that had failed Bruce Arena in 2017.

And at that time, Couva wounds were still somewhat raw. Berhalter addressed them in team meetings that June, ahead of a rematch with Trinidad. "And that was a big moment for that group," Berhalter said. "We had to address our fears."

But this group, the one that will take aim at Qatar, is different. It's better. It's laden with diversity and talent. With bonafide international stars like Pulisic and Weston McKennie. With up-and-comers like Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna. With rock-solid, multi-faceted starters like Tyler Adams and John Brooks. Even with a young dual national, Ricardo Pepi, the 18-year-old FC Dallas star who's eligible to play for either the U.S. or Mexico. Next month, and likely forever, he'll represent the U.S.

"I made this decision because I felt the USA trusts me and I think that’s due to Gregg Berhalter and how he emphasized this to me," Pepi said. "I had good talks with Gregg and I feel I can make an impact with the USA and help this national team really do something special now and in the future.”

There are still holes, flaws. There's no untouchable goalkeeper. There's no consistent striker. And of course, there's inexperience. Twenty of the 26 have never played a World Cup qualifier before.

But that's for the better. This team isn't out for revenge. It doesn't have anything to prove because of failures four years ago. Those failures weren't Berhalter's, or McKennie's, or Pulisic's. This team is its own entity, and it will very likely qualify for Qatar 2022, and a long, sometimes painful evolution will be complete.

"We've built this team to be resilient, to be competitive," Berhalter said. "And now it's about looking forward. It's not about looking backwards."

USMNT World Cup qualifying roster

GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

DEFENDERS (10): George Bello (Atlanta United), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (New York City FC), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

MIDFIELDERS (5): Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

FORWARDS (8): Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg), Konrad de la Fuente (Olympique Marseille), Jordan Pefok (BSC Young Boys), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), Tim Weah (Lille)

USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule

Berhalter will select 23 of those 26 players for gameday rosters over the coming two weeks. The U.S. schedule for this first international break is as follows:

Thursday, Sept. 2 — at El Salvador (10 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Universo)
Sunday, Sept. 5 — vs. Canada in Nashville (8 p.m. ET, FS1, UniMás, TUDN)
Wednesday, Sept. 8 — at Honduras (10 p.m. ET, Paramount+, Universo)

The September window is the first of five. The USMNT will reconvene in October, again in November, again in January, and finally in March, at which point they should qualify for the World Cup, which begins in Qatar next November.

Here's the rest of the qualifying schedule:

Oct. 7 — vs. Jamaica
Oct. 10 — at Panama
Oct. 13 — vs. Costa Rica

Nov. 12 — vs. Mexico
Nov. 16 — at Jamaica

Jan. 27 — vs. El Salvador
Jan. 30 — at Canada
Feb. 2 — vs. Honduras

March 24 — at Mexico
March 27 — vs. Panama — March 27
March 30 — at Costa Rica

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