Only a handful of the current US men’s national team’s squad were involved in the program’s traumatic end to the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign on a soggy pitch in Couva, Trinidad, four years ago.
So much has changed since then. Still, there was no escaping that fateful moment as Gregg Berhalter’s dramatically overhauled USMNT kicked off camp in Nashville on Monday ahead of their first three qualifiers of the 2022 cycle, which begin with a visit to El Salvador on Thursday evening (10:05 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Paramount+).
“A a group, I mean, we haven't really mentioned it. I think right now we have a totally different core of guys,” Kellyn Acosta, a second-half substitute in the 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10, 2017 which ended a quarter-century-long streak of successful US qualifications, told reporters on Monday. “We're just looking forward to the task at hand.
“It was a tough, tough road that we had to face and we had to travel, and I think we never want to go down that road again,” added the Colorado Rapids midfielder. “We don't want to have that same feeling that we did back in 2017, and you use that as you go into these games as motivation to do whatever you have to do to win.”
If the proceedings of the Berhalter era didn’t already make it clear, everyone involved is eager to turn the page. U.S. Soccer announced as much in all caps with their recently-released promotional campaign, titled “Only Forward/Solo Pa'lante,” with atmospheric voiceovers from past stars Clint Dempsey and Pablo Mastroeni.
The current group is younger, deeper and in most eyes more talented than many of their predecessors — and you can point to this summer’s Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup championships for proof of concept. Now they must jump into the qualifying maelstrom with both feet with two Central American away days sandwiching a tricky home meeting with resurgent Canada coming on Sunday (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN).
“Having seen that, having guys who have been involved, we're ready,” said Walker Zimmerman, the Nashville SC defender who’s on home turf this weekend. “We're a resilient group, we've shown that. I think this summer was a great stepping block for us to compete in tournaments, to win tournaments and to show all the talent that we have that's really coming through in a lot of different ways. Whether it’s younger guys, older guys, MLS players, European players, you're seeing an entire player pool that is committed to winning and doing whatever they can help the team win.
“It's been a couple of years now that we've been waiting for this moment, this week, in particular,” he added. “These dates were circled because this is what we've been preparing for, for the past few years.”
Even with “Octagonal” replacing the old “Hexagonal” — eight teams qualifying for Concacaf’s final round of qualifying instead of the previous six — it’s a relatively short and perilous path to Qatar 2022, one compressed into a significantly smaller timeframe than usual thanks to pandemic-imposed delays.
Both Acosta and Zimmerman noted the importance of maintaining urgency and resiliency along the road ahead.
“When you get to the qualifiers, and then hopefully the World Cup, these are the games that you dream about. And so these are the games that all of us are ready for,” said Zimmerman. “It's not like you’ve got a long time to go through slumps and peaks. You're going all out, you're going all out for 14 games to accomplish your goal.”
One of the player pool’s vibrant youngsters at the start of the 2018 cycle, Acosta suffered a precipitous dip in form toward its conclusion and went nearly two years without a national-team call-up, which he described on Monday as one of the toughest experiences of his career. After a long, difficult climb back to earn a central role in Berhalter’s plans, he aims to put all that hard learning to use over the next 15 months or so.
“It's the mental aspect of the game. I mean, regardless of the conditions, the weather, the field, we’ve got to be up to it,” said Acosta.
“Sometimes you can play beautiful football, but sometimes you’ve got to get pretty gritty, roll up the sleeves and grind out a result. So whatever kind of way we have to do it, as long as we get the result, that's the most important.”