ORLANDO, Fla. – For nearly five years, past, present and future have dueled around this version of the US men’s national team, a young group brimming with talent, yet light on experience and haunted by the stunning failures of 2017 that most of them had nothing to do with.
On Sunday evening at Exploria Stadium, the USMNT kids danced with those ghosts, and maybe – probably, almost, but not quite certainly – brought them to heel for good.
With a 5-1 thumping of Panama, the Yanks took a massive step towards Qatar 2022, producing perhaps the greatest performance of Gregg Berhalter’s tenure as head coach, on the back of what might also have been Christian Pulisic’s best-ever night for his national team.
Handed the captain’s armband in recognition of “his journey,” in Berhalter’s words, the teenage prodigy of the doomed 2018 cycle clinically dispatched two first-half penalty kicks to lead a devastating display of first-half dominance, vaulting the Yanks into a 4-0 halftime lead and ruthlessly crushing Panama’s World Cup dreams as the US edge closer to fulfilling their own.
“He was on the field when we didn’t qualify. And this was us saying to him, ‘This is a new group. This is a new team and you're a leader,’” said Berhalter postgame of the 23-year-old Chelsea star. “We wanted to show that and we wanted to highlight that. And I think when I look at his performance, besides the three goals and the hat trick, I think everything else was in line. Everything else was exactly what we needed him to do in terms of his work rate, his effort, his energy, his intensity, and his leadership.”
Said Pulisic: “I just really want to play in a World Cup and so does this team. And that's why tonight was so important to us, and I'm just really happy that we're able to be in a good position to go do that and finish the job off.”
The USMNT have moved to within an inch, in standings terms, of automatic qualification. Unfortunately for the loud, adoring 25,222 fans in attendance at Orlando City SC’s home, and the millions more watching on television, they are not yet officially clinched.
They must win or draw at Costa Rica on Wednesday, or simply lose by a margin of fewer than six goals, and one of Concacaf’s two remaining automatic qualifying slots are theirs. It might sound like a formality, but the team refuses to treat it as such, mindful of that perfect storm of results on the final matchday of the 2018 Hexagonal that ended the program’s decades-long World Cup participation stream.
“I'll be honest with you. I'm not celebrating anything,” said FC Dallas winger Paul Arriola, who scored on a first-half header. “I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, four years ago. And we know how that qualification ended. So for me, I think it's just maintaining focus, understanding that we still have work to do, and anything is possible. So for us … the mentality of this group is and has to be to go down there to get a good result against Costa Rica.”
Even if Los Ticos pull off a highly unlikely blowout win in San Jose, the lowest the USMNT can finish is fourth, which would advance them to an intercontinental playoff against Oceania’s champion in June. The simple existence of that asterisk, however, led Pulisic and his teammates to stop themselves from hoisting a “qualified” banner handed to them in the postgame euphoria when they realized what it said.
“The guys didn't know at all what it said. It was just handed to them,” explained Pulisic via phone postgame. “So once we realized, it's just, there's no need to show that off because we still have a job to do. And we know that.”
That’s a pretty apt metaphor for a program and fanbase still traumatized by the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup – even as the current squad illustrates how toweringly high their ceiling has grown over the past year – and the latest of many heads-up plays by a fiercely driven Pulisic on the night.
“I think Christian is always in the zone, to be honest with you,” said Arriola. “I saw a lot of focus out of everyone. But there's something special about Christian, and him as our captain tonight, to be able to step up a couple times to finish PKs, and then his great run and finish that he had for his third goal was great.
“He's a great kid, a great leader, obviously, unbelievable; even better person. I’m super happy for him. And I know that not just him but the rest of us are under the understanding that we have to go down to Costa Rica to still get a result.”
Berhalter pointed out that his group is hungry not just for a World Cup spot, but unprecedented achievements, which is why they threw everything they had, even at the risk of being sapped for Sunday, into Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
Now, they aim to do the same in Costa Rica.
“I think the other side of it is that it's the challenge. This group has never won a qualifier in San Jose, we've never won in Azteca, and the guys are hungry for that,” said the coach. “So we'll put a lineup on the field that is going to go for the win. And I don't think the guys would want any less. I know the coaching staff doesn't want any less.
“So we'll evaluate the health of guys, the guys that have major minutes, we'll be monitoring them and monitoring their regen and how they're coming out of that. But we want to put a team on the field that's going to compete.”