National Writer: Charles Boehm

“It was an eye-opener": USMNT tackling Octagonal learning curve in Qatar 2022 chase

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The sheer volume of talent and potential pacing the US men’s national team's ongoing youth movement has never been in doubt. From their individual resumes to dazzling moments like Sergiño Dest’s left-footed screamer into the top corner of the Costa Rican net in Wednesday night’s 2-1 comeback win at Field, the quality available to head coach Gregg Berhalter is obvious.

That’s only one ingredient in the recipe required to reach the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, though. And for a side that’s already twice broken the program record for the youngest lineup fielded in a qualifier, the rigors of this region have had to be felt firsthand to be truly understood.

With the first two windows of the Concacaf Octagonal phase now behind them, 11 points taken from their first six matches amid plenty of ups and downs, the USMNT have grasped the scope of the job assigned to them.

“It was an eye-opener for us,” said Dest when asked about the lessons of the September window after Wednesday’s victory. “Because for me it was the first time, for some of the guys it was the first time. It was an eye-opener and yeah, I think this window we got one more point, so we’re making improvements, but we still have a long way to go.

“I grew up in Holland, and the Concacaf teams, they play a little bit different,” added the dual-national fullback, named U.S. Soccer’s man of the match. “The intensity is high, they work really hard, and it's just physical. But we can also do that. I think if we work as a team, we can beat every team. Because I think working together is the most important and I think we did that tonight.”

The Yanks now occupy second place, three points behind leaders Mexico, and well above the Octagonal equivalent of the playoff line that separates the three automatic qualification slots from the rest. If using the old Concacaf qualification mantra of “win at home, draw on the road” as a guide, they’re just one point off the optimal pace: The comeback win in Honduras made up for the two points dropped at home against Canada, leaving the inability to dig out a point in Panama as the main blemish.

That said, the path to this point wasn’t exactly smooth, nor has the fanbase been completely satisfied.

"What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces,” said Berhalter. “We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way, we want to play well, and we want to win games. But all of World Cup qualifying is difficult. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging.

“And sometimes I feel like people forgot that, and people think it's a cakewalk, and we're going to play the youngest team in the history of US Soccer in a game and we're just gonna breeze through these games. It's not realistic. What I will say is that the guys fight and the guys give everything and that's all you can ask.”

Wednesday’s lineup carried an average age of just over 22, and the course of the match highlighted the peaks and valleys that this entails. A slack start to the game led to a disastrous set of defensive breakdowns in the opening minute and a destabilizing early deficit.

Then the kids showed their capacity for a Ted Lasso-esque goldfish’s memory, wrestling control of the game away from their much older Tico adversaries and making them chase for the remaining 93 or so minutes, aside from a few blips that the home side managed to bail themselves out of.

“We weren’t nervous at all,” maintained Tim Weah, the creator of the game-winning own goal. “Obviously it was a bummer to take the goal pretty early in the game. But we knew what our game plan was, and it was to expose their backline. I feel like we did that. The outside backs played a huge role today, the wingers played great, everyone's played great. So us coming together and staying focused and adding that intensity and dominating the game like we did, it was great tonight and I feel like we got the job done.”

Berhalter too showed that he can quickly process the lessons of failure, responding to the shortcomings of Sunday’s 1-0 loss in Panama with an overhauled lineup and a more coherent tactical outlook against a tricky adversary.

“One of the things we looked at in the Panama game, which is our lack of movement in general,” he explained. “ ... We had three guys up top that organized their back four, we had central midfielders or attacking midfielders that organized their whole midfield line. And then we played against a 3-v-2 against their strikers and we did a really poor job with the lack of movement. Our fullbacks were way too high, it basically turned into a line of five and it was easy to defend. So we talked about, we need to have more movement, and we got it today.”

A whopping 25 players have made their World Cup qualifying debuts over these first six matches, and for every moment of naivete or ineptitude, there have been as many or more examples of adaptation and vibrance. With two matches instead of three, the upcoming November window will present a less rigorous schedule and probably less need for squad rotation, albeit with one of those games the biggest on the North American soccer landscape: A visit from Mexico at FC Cincinnati's TQL Stadium on Nov. 12.

“The main goal on the to-do list is to qualify for the World Cup, and we're not there yet,” said Berhalter. “And we can't rest ‘til we’re there. And then even when we get there, now it's about how do we perform in the World Cup. The goal is to give guys experience; when you go into this qualifying group, [you know] that a lot of guys were going to be getting their first experience in it. And it was part of the package. And for us, internally we're calm, we understand what we're doing, we understand that we needed to get the guys experience and we just go.”