For some of you, the above headline is obvious – perhaps bleedingly so. But bear with me a moment.
This morning the US men’s national team took to the pitch at Lipscomb University in Nashville’s leafy Green Hills neighborhood, marking their first official training session of their first 2022 World Cup qualifying camp. It's in preparation for Thursday night’s Concacaf Octagonal curtain-raiser vs. El Salvador at Estadio Cuscatlan on the south side of the Central American nation’s capital city (10:05 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Paramount+).
The road to Qatar is finally, officially underway. So I’m dropping this text brick at the starting line like a pedantic but well-intentioned pin on your mobile navigation app of choice, mostly in the quite likely event that things get messy down the line and some quarters of the discourse engage in the kind of historical revisionism that clouded the last cycle.
Aside from a select few global elites – and not even always for them – qualifying campaigns tend to be tumultuous, nerve-jangling odysseys. The destinations are far-flung and generally inhospitable, the turnarounds jarringly rapid and usually exhausting. Refereeing standards may (and do) vary. Emotions run high. Lots of people on all sides care very deeply about what happens, and they can interpret the same events in strikingly different ways.
Things can get weird in the blink of a smoke bomb-stung eye, and with the risks and delays of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re looking at unprecedented changes to the timing, rhythm and format of this process (hello three-match windows).
Then consider that Gregg Berhalter’s edition of the USMNT is starting this journey with a group of players that is, from where I’m standing at least, simultaneously the most talented and least experienced in the program’s modern history, probably ever. More of them have taken part in UEFA Champions League than Concacaf qualifying, and as encouraging as the first part of that sentence is, it’s harder than you think to correlate its effect on the second.
But we should make no mistake: As chaotic as our world has become, as much uncertainty is baked into the Concacaf gauntlet, everything has lined up rather serendipitously for the United States to go punch their tickets to next year’s big tournament, and to safely do so via an automatic slot as one of the top three finishers in the Octagonal.
So in the interest of clear, blunt, unmistakable level-setting, this is the bedrock – the USMNT should qualify. They must qualify. And they know it, even after winning Gold Cup and Nations League titles this summer.
“It would be a failure if we didn't qualify for the World Cup,” Berhalter acknowledged to reporters last week. “All the work would be undone if we didn't qualify for the World Cup … Everything we've done until now is only a foundation, and what it's done is it's given us the ability to be confident that if we can stick to who we are as a group, that we’ll be successful. So the foundation is there. Now it's about going out and competing in World Cup qualifying in the hope to eventually qualify for the World Cup, and then make an impact at the World Cup.”
I say all this as someone who’s watched and/or covered every Concacaf WCQ since 1998’s and is highly aware of the devilishly difficult nature of this road, the sidetracks and ambushes that can befall even the most talented teams. Just look at this continent’s so-called giants, Mexico and the US, both of whom stumbled badly in the past decade despite long strings of successful qualification beforehand.
Each step has to be navigated mindfully; no skipping or looking ahead. Unknown unknowns will pop up to add to the known ones. Key contributors in qualifying will miss out on the big event, and vice versa. But the USMNT had knit together a quarter-century-long run of World Cup trips based on certain hefty advantages, and those have now been magnified after missing Russia 2018.
With its compacted schedule, intensely congested windows and ever-evolving threats of quarantines and red lists, the Octagonal will reward the strong lungs and limber legs of youth. It will also incentivize squad depth and diversity. With large, mostly young player pools based across both MLS and a range of overseas leagues, the USMNT have all of that.
What they lack in WCQ experience should be balanced by the résumé of their coach. Berhalter contributed to multiple successful qualification cycles as a USMNT player, plus has played and coached both domestically and abroad. Even after pandemic-inflected belt-tightening, he can rely on substantial organizational resources from U.S. Soccer, including a big staff, charter flights, cutting-edge performance science technology and know-how, a wide array of modern training facilities stateside and – pending any lockdowns to come – solid home-field advantage in the home matches.
He says he and his group are ready.
“I remember in my days, going into the stadium, stuff’s being thrown at the bus, you walk on the pitch, they’re throwing things on you on the pitch, the music outside the hotels. This is why we play this game,” said Berhalter. “We've been developing this group to be resilient, to face challenges head-on, to embrace challenges, embrace setbacks. All these things are right in line with what we've been talking about.
“When I think about the level of competition our team has been playing at, they've been playing in very difficult games, whether that's Champions League, whether that's for the national team, whether that's with their club teams outside of Champions League games. The guys are ready for this challenge and this is the natural evolution of this group.”
Let’s take him at his word, and hold him to it. We’d be naive to expect smooth sailing on this voyage, but there are no valid excuses for not completing it with colors flying and hull intact.