U.S. men’s soccer qualifies for World Cup despite 2-0 loss to Costa Rica
A little more than an hour after the U.S. lost to Costa Rica on Wednesday, coach Gregg Berhalter left his team at San Jose’s Estadio Nacional and headed for the airport.
The first part of his World Cup journey had ended with a physical 2-0 loss on a cool, breezy night, a result that dropped the U.S. to third in the CONCACAF tournament but still qualified it for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar. The second part of that journey would begin with a flight to New York, the first leg of a 21-hour trip that will take him to Doha for Friday’s World Cup draw.
It was a fittingly fatiguing reward for guiding the national team through the most exhausting World Cup qualifying campaign in its history, a seven-month, 14-game slog that crossed eight countries. Berhalter’s team played in high humidity and subfreezing temperatures, in packed NFL stadiums and in stadiums where COVID-19 limited attendance to mostly empty seats. It played near the shores of the Caribbean in Jamaica and at 7,200 feet above sea level in Mexico.
And it did all that with the youngest roster the U.S. has ever used in qualifying, one that averaged under 24 years of age. It was a team that bent but rarely broke, and despite the fact its qualifying campaign ended Wednesday with a loss, the Americans are back in the World Cup, a tournament it missed four years ago.
“Just reflecting on these last seven months and how much his team has grown together, being the youngest team in the world to qualify for the World Cup is no easy task,” Berhalter said. “What we saw was the resilience of the team, the strong mentality of the team, and absolute focus to reach our goal. I’m looking forward to competing in the World Cup again.
“We’re excited for the draw, excited to see who we have. This group can do some damage, I’m confident.”
The U.S. men’s national team has learned from past heartache and won’t celebrate until it officially clinches a World Cup bid this week.
Despite Wednesday’s loss, the U.S. (7-3-4) grabbed CONCACAF’s third and final automatic World Cup invitation, finishing behind Canada (8-2-4), which qualified Sunday for its first World Cup in 36 years, and Mexico (8-2-4), which moved past the U.S. and into second by beating El Salvador 2-0 in its final game.
And that was worth celebrating — which the U.S. did for nearly an hour in its locker room.
“We’re going to a World Cup. It’s a dream of ours,” an emotional Christian Pulisic said when he emerged.
Walker Zimmerman, who wore the captain’s armband in the clinching game, stepped out of the locker room wearing a black champagne, beer-soaked T-shirt that read “QUALIFIED and FORWARD,” reflecting both what the team has accomplished and where its focus now shifts.
“It’s really special. I’m definitely not going to forget it,” he said.
“We step back, look at all the things that you sacrificed as a youth player, all the things that you sacrificed for your family and the travel and then the hard work, dedication. It’s a moment to reflect on and be really proud.”
Costa Rica (7-3-4) went undefeated in its last seven games to grab fourth, finishing behind the U.S. on goal differential. It can join the other three CONCACAF teams in Qatar if it wins an inter-confederation playoff with New Zealand in June. The Ticos have missed the World Cup only once this century.
On Wednesday, goalkeeper Keylor Navas showed why the Ticos deserve to go back, making six saves to keep the game close. The final one might have turned the tide because immediately afterward, Costa Rica went down to the other end and scored the only goal it would need, with Juan Pablo Vargas going high to nod in a Brandon
Aguilera corner from the center of the box in the 51st minute. Anthony Contreras doubled the lead eight minutes later, beating American keeper Zack Steffen after the U.S. failed to clear the ball from in front of its net.
The United States men’s soccer team could qualify for the World Cup with a win over Panama, combined with a tie or loss by Costa Rica at El Salvador.
In the end, however, the score didn’t matter.
“The goal,” Zimmerman said “was to qualify for the World Cup.”
Pulisic was on the team that came up just short five years ago, a moment he still calls “one of the toughest days of my life.”
“I’ll never forget it,” he said, smiling but also struggling to remain composed. “Now to be in this position, qualified for the World Cup? This is where I’ve always wanted to be. Right now the emotions are crazy.”