COLUMBUS, Ohio – By any means necessary, right?
Ws are the bottom line during World Cup qualifying, and while the US men’s national team took the long cut to get there at Lower.com Field – longer than the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers’ meandering paths past this lovely new venue, I reckon – they did indeed reach their goal, digging out a 2-1 comeback win over Costa Rica to put their Concacaf Octagonal campaign back on course.
Here are three observations from a massive, stomach-churning but ultimately quite encouraging victory.
Gregg Berhalter made nine changes from the XI that stumbled so badly in Panama last Sunday, most of which were understandable. But the one in goal was perhaps a bit more of a head-turner, so to speak: handing Zack Steffen his first World Cup qualifying cap and dropping Matt Turner after 11 consecutive starts across Gold Cup and qualifying action.
It’s not that Steffen hasn’t accrued both caps and credibility with this team, it was more a question of his sharpness – having played just two matches for Manchester City so far this season – and whether a change at this particular moment was necessary, from both a team and individual standpoint.
It looked like even more of a talking point when Steffen showed some hesitancy as Los Ticos surged forward and slipped a scruffy goal past him a mere 60 seconds after the opening whistle, a brutal punch to the gut on a night where an inspiring start had been a clear priority for the USMNT.
“My initial thought was, ‘Here we go, we got to respond,’” said Berhalter postgame. “We challenged the guys to respond after a poor performance in Panama, and this was going to be another element that we needed to respond to.”
And indeed they did, pushing through some obvious jitters and gradually connecting passes to build a rhythm. While they probably didn’t expect to see such a proactive early approach from Costa Rica, the energy, movement and bite of that rangy Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah midfield trio steadily tilted the field in the Yanks’ favor.
Marauding fullbacks are a core element in Berhalter’s ideal way of playing and Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson filled the role to a T here, crafting crisp passing triangles along the channels and stretching the Ticos with their constant availability on big, booming switches. And then Dest calmed just about every US nerve in the building with this weaker-foot thunderbolt of an equalizer:
“It was early enough in the game, if we stayed calm and stuck to the game plan, I thought we'd be OK,” said Berhalter of the early setback. “It briefly flashed in my mind, Costa Rica just going into a really really low block. Thankfully they didn’t do that. So credit to the guys for staying calm, hanging in there and playing our game.”
With an average age of 22 years and 229 days old, the USMNT starting XI was the youngest World Cup qualifying lineup in program history, breaking the record set just a month ago in the Honduras win. There’s reason to fear the downsides of that inexperience against a bunch of savvy vets like these Ticos – yet there are also major advantages, too.
The young Yanks finally asserted control over the balance of a match, bossing the possession battle by a 64-36 ratio and forcing their much older adversaries to chase, shift and scrap. The visitors tired visibly down the stretch and while it was to their credit that they hung around until the very end, they looked a beaten, broken bunch as they limped off the pitch.
Meanwhile, there was some entertainment on offer for the home faithful in addition to the vital three points. The US are playing this freakishly young lineup because they’re damn good, and with Dest, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson & Co., there’s skill and daring aplenty. The run of play was downright vibrant at times.
Dest even made a point of thrilling the crowd not only with his golazo, flicks and backheels but also by being an impromptu cheerleader after exiting the match, which can only further endear him to the supporters:
“The crowd is amazing," Dest said. "I love the fans, I was trying to get them hyped up, also for the other players. We can feel that the fans have our backs, so hopefully they continue like that.”
A third, clinching goal seemed close at hand, but when it didn’t materialize, the USMNT had to keep their focus and salt away the result – and it spoke volumes when Gianluca Busio, a 19-year-old WCQ debutant, was called upon to help do so, successfully.
“That's basically unheard of in international football,” said Berhalter of his fresh-faced side. “If you go and look at the Germanys, Frances, the Brazils, they're basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams.
“So for us to be navigating through this Concacaf qualifying, which is a bear, a monster, with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal and then the second half being up a goal, managing the game really well – Gianluca Busio comes on and he was playing like he's 30 years old. So I'm proud of the effort, the guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing, they’re growing as a team.”
As mentioned above, the concept of control has been a recurring thread in this USMNT’s journey to date – the ability to put a thumb on a match’s metronome to slow it down it or goose it up as needed.
That trait was woefully lacking in Panama, and it burned them. Something similar can be said of the disappointing draw against Canada last month, and for significant stretches, the away tie in El Salvador as well.
On Wednesday the group put it all together, getting stuck in, knitting together passing combinations, coordinating their movements and turning the screw minute by minute. Costa Rica did tug open a few seams here and there and it took a jaw-dropping display of Miles Robinson's recovery speed to shut down a sudden Bryan Ruiz breakaway in the second half.
But on the whole, the Yanks remained protagonists, undergirded by the engine-room steel and athleticism of “MMA”: Adams – who remains irreplaceable – McKennie (an influencer who needed to step up here) and Musah.
If those three can stay healthy, build their chemistry and keep a focus on both the short-term work and the long-term rewards ahead, they have a real prospect of growing into a force to be reckoned with down the Octagonal stretch, and eventually in Qatar 2022.
“We know his talent,” said Berhalter of the excellent Musah. “The talent is off the charts, and I know it's easy to talk really highly about a guy after he plays well in a win and everyone's happy. But I'm telling you, the kid is a player.
“Regarding Weston, he’s another one that his physicality, his desire alone can carry him, and just can push the team. He plays with a lot of momentum, he plays with a lot of energy, in transition moments he's explosive, he sees passes. For me, he's really a quality player.”