National Writer: Charles Boehm

"We can be in a great position": USMNT reach Qatar 2022 crunch time vs. El Salvador

Gregg Berhalter and his US men’s national team players generally don’t like to say anything that might be construed as newsworthy – or useful to opponents – on the eve of a big game, and games don’t get too much bigger than Thursday’s World Cup qualifier vs. El Salvador at Field in downtown Columbus (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN).

But the USMNT boss and star attacker Christian Pulisic did drop a few tidbits as they took questions from reporters in Wednesday afternoon’s pregame press conference.

We know that the New England Revolution’s Matt Turner will be in goal for the Yanks, with Berhalter revealing that Zack Steffen still has yet to join camp due to a back injury. It also appears that DeAndre Yedlin won’t be ready to start against Los Cuscatlecos, his arrival from Turkey having been delayed by travel complications (ice storm in Istanbul). That points toward a start for Sergino Dest or Reggie Cannon at right back, with Antonee Robinson deemed “the clear starter at left back” by Berhalter.

“He's locked in and ready to go,” noted Berhalter of Turner. “You hear some transfer rumors going around, and you think that would distract the player, and Matt’s the opposite. He's able to tune that out and really focus on the task at hand of the game tomorrow. So I've been pleased with that, been pleased with his mindset. It shows how far he's come to get himself in this position.”

That last phrase could be applied to the program as a whole, too. The daunting Concacaf Octagonal journey that began in September is fast approaching its conclusion, and both this young squad and their relatively young coach – the USMNT have fielded the youngest lineup in the world in this 2022 qualifying cycle, both on average and one-off, thanks to the 22.2-year-old XI used vs. Costa Rica in October – have picked up a few hard-won lessons along the way.

The USMNT have flashed glimpses of dazzling quality and vibrance, interspersed with nervy, tightrope-walking moments of flirtation with disaster. They’re currently holding second place in the Ocho, just one point behind leaders – and Sunday’s opponents – Canada, but a spot in Qatar 2022 remains far from assured. That’s prompted a stubborn insistence on a methodical, grounded approach for a group rich in talent but short on qualifying experience.

“It's been a good qualifying process so far, I think the guys have definitely learned a lot and seen right from the start that, especially going away in Concacaf, none of these games are easy,” said Pulisic, one of the few regulars who played a significant role in the ill-fated Russia 2018 cycle.

“We've definitely been up for the challenge, I think we've really stepped up, and yeah, I think we've gotten better and better. I'm excited to see what we can accomplish this camp. And I'm really happy with the way that the team looks.”

Even Berhalter has grown gun-shy of anything that could remotely be construed as cockiness or presumption. Just a couple of weeks ago he noted the 1.9 points-per-game pace his team is currently on would prompt successful qualification, but when reminded of it on Wednesday, he was cagier.

“So if I explicitly said two points per game, I don't exactly remember that. What I'd say is we have high aspirations for our team. We want to qualify for the World Cup, that's the most important thing. I'm not getting hung up on points per game, I'm getting hung up on qualifying for the World Cup,” said the former Columbus Crew coach. “And it would be nice to try to win the group, but there's a lot that needs to happen for that to take place. And we're focused on El Salvador. That's really it.”

Perhaps the most lasting takeaway from Wednesday was Pulisic’s honest admission of the stress that he’s had to manage at Chelsea, amid the harsh spotlight and constant intrigue at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.

The unassuming kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania is the spiritual leader of his generation of US players and has walked a path that’s inspired many of his teammates as their own European careers blossom. But it’s come at a price, and it makes his time with the USMNT an escape of sorts.

“I would say there's two sides of me, you know, especially when people ask you how you are sometimes,” said Pulisic, who has found ways to contribute to the London side despite constant battles for playing time and multiple positional assignments. “There's the soccer side, and then there's the person side. So the person side is even more important for me, and I'm doing alright in that sense. But yeah, it's a lot sometimes.

“It's always when I come to the national team, it's, ‘how are things at Chelsea? What's this? What's that?’ And yeah, things are, it's tough. It's tough. It's definitely played a lot on me. And mentally, it's been difficult at times. But I'm always very excited to come back with the national team and sort of step away and get to enjoy playing with these guys, and get to just enjoying football in general.”

The Yanks refuse to look ahead to their final three Ocho games in March, but a quick glance at the schedule underlines the stakes. With trips to Mexico and Costa Rica – traditionally nightmarish trips for many generations of USMNTers – ahead, they don’t want to leave a single point on the table in the current window.

And every point is paramount, with the Octagonal’s top three teams gaining automatic qualification; fourth place goes to an inter-confederation playoff.

“We're in a good position and by the end of this window, we can be in a great position,” said Pulisic. “And that's our focus.”