Keep calm and qualify.
That, in essence, is the US men’s national team’s mindset as they enter the final sprint of Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifying this week, with difficult visits to Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30) on either side of a pivotal home clash with Panama on Sunday (March 27).
“We're a group that's very confident in ourselves, in our own ability, and the way that everything that is the national team right now, we feel very confident that we will qualify,” FC Dallas winger Paul Arriola told reporters in a Monday afternoon media availability from the USMNT’s training base in Houston.
“But for us it's not even just about qualifying, it's about winning games, changing the way people see the US, and at the same time, I think this game coming up against Mexico is a great opportunity for us to go out there and show that we're continuously growing collectively and getting better as a nation. And I don't sense any fear within the group.”
The Yanks enter this window tied with El Tri in second place, on course for one of the three automatic qualification slots for Qatar 2022.
A great deal can go pear-shaped in the run-in, however, as the USMNT and their supporters learned in excruciatingly painful fashion five years ago, when a shock loss at Trinidad & Tobago combined with a perfect storm of results elsewhere added up to heartbreaking failure on the last matchday of the 2018 cycle.
“Having seen that, we know the responsibility that we have as players, representing way more than ourselves, representing this country. And I think for the most part everyone has gotten behind that,” said Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman.
“We accept that responsibility. We know that it's our job to qualify and that's our expectation. And so guys are prepared. It's been a really good environment as guys have rolled in the past day or two. So now we're just looking forward to one game at a time and that's what's going to get us there.”
Arriola was in the starting XI that fateful night in Couva, and also started in the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Mexico at Azteca a few months earlier, one of the few bright spots in the US men’s program’s all-time qualifying record of 0W-13L-3D at the iconic venue in Mexico City. On Monday, he emphasized how different the composition and outlook of the current squad is compared to 2017.
“If I'm not wrong, I think we ended up playing a 5-2-3 [formation] to start the game. And it was a heavy atmosphere, it was very, very tough. I remember seeing the small amount of US fans that were all the way at the very, very top,” recalled Arriola, who also visited Azteca frequently during his Liga MX career with Club Tijuana.
“I remember the mentality was, ‘let's try and get whatever we can from this game.’ In comparison to that, I think now we're going down there to win. And that's a different mentality. And that's something that I think we truly believe that we can do, is to harm this Mexico side and put ourselves at the best position possible to win the following games.”
The trauma of the failure to reach Russia 2018 – the first World Cup the USMNT missed out on since 1986 – cast a long, deep shadow over everyone around the program, not least the fanbase, large swathes of which are understandably jittery as the current team remains short of clinching with three tricky matchdays left.
Losing key regulars Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Matt Turner and now Brenden Aaronson – who was officially ruled out of this window by a knee issue on Monday afternoon – to injury has only amplified those nerves. Yet the players themselves, and the sturdy collective they’ve crafted over the past year or so, are wired differently, according to Arriola and Zimmerman.
“I don't think it's nervousness. I think it's excitement, said Zimmerman. “At this level you want to play in big games, you want to have that responsibility and recognize the importance of it and embrace it. And so I think we have that kind of DNA amongst a lot of our players. So just excitement and ready to get going.
“A big part of the potential success that we have is our ability to mentally stay calm, stay disciplined, stay organized, handle all … the different factors and elements, whether it's the altitude, whether it's them throwing everything at us. It's handling that in a good way, staying levelheaded, and I think we have a group that's proven that we can do that.”