It’s not just the altitude. The US men’s national team have every reason to be on a high as they decamp from Colorado to Utah in the wake of Sunday’s cinematic 3-2 extra-time win over rivals Mexico, which earned them the first-ever Concacaf Nations League trophy, for Wednesday’s friendly vs. Costa Rica at Rio Tinto Stadium (7 pm ET | ESPN2,UniMás,TUDN).
No doubt some festivities were enjoyed in Denver. But even with such an obvious dropoff in the stakes, Gregg Berhalter’s group are preaching the importance of maintaining an even keel as they conclude the dry run for 2022 World Cup qualifying that their international window’s schedule is designed to provide.
“What I'm asking the guys is, another 24 hours of focus, and then they can go on vacation,” Berhalter told reporters in a Tuesday evening media availability. “To think about ending a seven-day stretch against three of the top Concacaf teams getting three wins, is a huge, huge statement for this group. And that's what we're focused on. So our work’s not done until the game's over tomorrow, and we hope to have a good performance and bring the same level of intensity that we brought in the first two games.”
Having defeated Honduras, then Mexico in the CNL final four, even a friendly victory over Costa Rica in Sandy would indeed lay down at least some sort of marker for the USMNT, especially considering that their predecessors dropped points against all three of those established regional contenders in the 2014 cycle.
The third-round “Octagonal” slate that kicks off in September figures to be even more intense than the typical Concacaf odyssey, given that four of the five windows involved will feature three matches each instead of the usual two.
“Mentally you have to always stay in a positive space, whether you win or lose,” said midfield talisman Tyler Adams. “You're going to have quick turnarounds in qualifying and there are going to be important points on the line. So for us, we have a really good group of guys, and I think that's going to go a long way through qualifying through the World Cup and continuing to grow that bond and chemistry between the players.
“Focusing on Costa Rica now is important because for me personally, I want to win all three of these games. In qualifying, that means nine points and it puts you in a very good position.”
Los Ticos are also fresh off Nations League action, having fallen to El Tri and Los Catrachos by the narrowest of margins, losing via penalty-kick shootout in both the semifinals and third-place match. While a dour performance wouldn’t cost the USMNT much on paper, in the coaching staff’s eyes, it would in all likelihood reflect on the individuals involved.
“We were on a high on Sunday, and how do you get back to a level that you can perform on Wednesday? Because that's going to be what World Cup qualifying is,” said Berhalter. “Save for winning a trophy, it's going to be about, a result on Sunday, no matter what it is, you still have to turn it around and perform on Wednesday. So that's what we're going to be anxiously looking at.”
Yunus Musah was a prominent topic in Tuesday’s conference, with the dual-national Valencia starlet the only field player on the roster not to see playing time in either Nations League game despite the England youth international's successful recruitment being trumpeted in March.
“For us it was a tactical decision that he didn’t play. He's a big product part of what we do, he’s a young player, 18 years old, and in these particular games, we opted for something different,” said Berhalter. “I don't think it means that he's not part of the group. He's a guy that we're counting on for the future. And to bring him into these games in the right way, for him to see the speed of the game, for him to get used to what Concacaf is like, to see that from the sideline. But he's ready to go for tomorrow, and we're looking forward to him having a big game.”
The coach hinted that Musah will see significant minutes against Costa Rica, though that still would not cap-tie him to the United States in the way that an appearance in a full competition like CNL would.
“He's great, he's ready to go. He understands it’s a team,” said Berhalter of his rangy young midfielder. “He's dealt with enough at Valencia this year to understand that sometimes you don't get to play, but it's been a lot of communication from us, and he's ready to go. It's never easy for younger players not to get on the field, but he's patient, and he's bought into the team concept and he's ready to go tomorrow.”