It’s time to exhale. The US men’s national team have qualified for the FIFA World Cup.
The road was rocky at times, but Gregg Berhalter’s young squad closed out the qualifying process by finishing third in the Octagonal standings despite a 2-0 loss at Costa Rica on Wednesday evening.
Now that the USMNT’s ticket to Qatar 2022 has officially been punched, let’s look back upon some key moments that helped get them there.
The US were dealt some adversity early in qualifying, when standout midfielder Weston McKennie was suspended during the September window for a COVID-19 protocol violation, keeping him out of the USMNT's 1-1 draw against Canada in Nashville and the subsequent road matchup in Honduras.
It was a negative early storyline, but one that generated an impressive response from the FC Dallas product. The 23-year-old embarked on the best run of form of his career at the club level for Juventus, while also making a successful return to the USMNT later in qualifying.
Before a foot injury kept him out of the March window, McKennie re-established himself as one of the team's most invaluable cogs on the field and an important vocal leader.
Qualifying got off to a nervy start with a pair of draws at El Salvador and home to Canada, and the anxiety levels were rising when the USMNT landed in San Pedro Sula. Making matters worse, Brayan Moya had given Honduras a 1-0 lead at halftime.
Ricardo Pepi made his debut at the start of the second half and the then-FC Dallas forward proceeded to have a hand in four unanswered goals, including a 75th-minute header that proved to be the winner. He became the youngest player in USMNT history to score in his senior team debut during World Cup qualifying and the Yanks picked up three massive points in the 4-1 win.
A month later, the United States opened the next round of qualification at home against Jamaica. And while it wasn’t Frisco or El Paso, Pepi feasted on the home cooking in Austin, Texas with a second-half brace in the 2-0 win over the Reggae Boyz.
The now-19-year-old wunderkind became the youngest player to score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the USMNT. It was another moment on the rise toward an eventual club-record transfer to FC Augsburg of the German Bundesliga.
The USMNT were flying high after back-to-back wins against Honduras and Jamaica, but they crashed back to earth in Panama City, a humbling 1-0 defeat in the second match of the October window. Nashville SC midfielder Anibal Godoy, who played a major role in the return match in Orlando, scored the lone goal as lineup rotation and tactical miscues put the Yanks behind the eight ball.
After Matchday 5, the United States were second in the Octagonal table, level on points with Panama with a +1 goal differential.
The later 2-0 loss at Canada was another such moment, though that January defeat wasn't as surprising given Les Rouges finished atop the standings.
The Yanks' home matchup with Costa Rica during the October window got off to about as disastrous a start as possible when Los Ticos struck for a shock opener in the first minute on a goal that was partially yielded due to a defensive lapse from right back Sergiño Dest.
The FC Barcelona man couldn't have atoned for the mistake any more emphatically, lashing home an absolute thunderbolt equalizer in the 25th minute for the USMNT's prettiest highlight-reel goal of the whole qualifying cycle.
It was a glimpse into Dest's world-class attacking talent, and it wound up delivering a pivotal three points when a 66th-minute own goal afforded the hosts a 2-1 victory.
In perhaps the program's biggest statement result of the Octagonal, the US took a 2-0 victory over arch-rival Mexico in the November window at FC Cincinnati's TQL Stadium. The result was delivered from a pair of the team's biggest stars, as Christian Pulisic found a breakthrough opener with the match still in a hard-fought, scoreless deadlock in the 74th minute – the birth of his "Man in the Mirror" troll of goalkeeper Memo Ochoa.
McKennie then delivered the decisive blow on 85 minutes to make it 2-0, which elicited "Dos a Cero" chants from the fans at TQL Stadium – a reference to many of the USMNT's other famous victories over Mexico by the same scoreline.
The site of the USMNT's matchup with Honduras during the February window was the subject of much discussion, as the contest was hosted at Allianz Field in Minnesota amid frigid, arctic-like temperatures.
Heading into the final March window, the USMNT had their toughest slate of games yet, starting with a rematch against Mexico at Estadio Azteca, notoriously one of Concacaf's most difficult venues for visitors.
Neither side broke through in an eventual 0-0 deadlock, but 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna provided one of the cycle's most eye-popping moments when he embarked on a majestic second-half run that saw him bust out an array of flicks and tricks as he tore through a parade of Mexico defenders.
Looking to solidify their top-three spot in the Octagonal table, the USMNT needed a big performance from Christian Pulisic against Panama at Exploria Stadium in Orlando. They couldn't have gotten a bigger one, as the Chelsea winger struck for a first-half brace from the penalty spot, before completing his hat trick with a spectacular individual goal in the 65th minute that saw him shed two defenders with a devastating first touch in the 5-1 win.
The result all but assured the US of a Qatar spot and gave Pulisic a signature moment in a cycle that was deeply personal for him after being part of the side that fell short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Was the 2-0 loss at Costa Rica on Octagonal Matchday 14 a good result? Certainly not on paper, but it also formally booked one of Concacaf's three automatic Qatar 2022 slots.
All the USMNT needed to do was avoid a loss by six goals or more, so it was job accomplished on that front.
The postgame mood wasn't quite celebratory, but rather a recognition of the group's growth over the last eight months. And it's indicative of how much needs to improve over the ensuing eight months before the World Cup arrives.