SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Normally, interrupting the head coach’s remarks is a cardinal sin for any player.
But this time, Erik Palmer-Brown probably gets credit for it, because it started the party in the visiting locker room at Estadio Nacional.
The Sporting Kansas City academy product didn’t quite nail the timing with his champagne bottle, popping the cork before Gregg Berhalter had completely finished his postgame speech to the US men’s national team after the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica that officially clinched the Yanks’ place at the 2022 World Cup.
“Yeah, it was a little premature, but he's young,” deadpanned Inter Miami CF fullback DeAndre Yedlin after emerging from the celebrations en route to the team bus. “So we'll give him a pass on that.”
For a group still smarting in the wake of that setback, which extends Los Ticos’ decades-long string of qualifying dominance over their estadounidense counterparts, that cork provided the cue to shift gears and focus on the big picture – returning to the world’s biggest stage after the failures of the 2018 cycle – instead of the night’s result.
“We realized our goal: it was to qualify, and we did that. And so everyone kind of forgot about tonight,” said Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman in the postgame media mixed zone. “I'm not happy about losing, but at the same time, the goal the whole time is to qualify.
“There were a couple early champagnes that popped open. I think that kind of jump-started the whole celebration and we just kind of went from there,” he continued with a grin, later noting that the squad ran out of beer and champagne to spray, and (presumably) consume at least a bit of. “Really excited to celebrate with this group, really proud of everyone who was involved in this whole process. The guys who are here, the guys who aren't here, every single person who has been on a roster has played a role.”
For a talented group that has embraced the idea of raising the program’s ceiling to unprecedented levels, it was a night for recognizing older traditions both good and bad.
On the one hand, the USMNT remain winless all-time (0W-10L-1D) in qualifying visits to this tropical gem nestled in the Central American mountains. On the other, the United States men are back in the World Cup, for the seventh time in the last eight editions. They placed third in the Octagonal standings, behind Canada and Mexico.
“When you're in this business, man, it's about winning. And when you don't win, even though you get the reward of qualifying, there is a brief moment of disappointment,” said Berhalter postgame. “For us, it's about keeping things in perspective. And the perspective is we're the youngest US team to ever qualify for the World Cup, and we'll be the youngest team at the World Cup. That's an accomplishment for these guys. It really is.
“We're competitors and that's why there was a little bit of a lack of celebration on the field. In the locker room, we're partying, we’re going nuts.”
The Yanks are within their rights to feel they might’ve taken more from this night. Defying a large, loud sellout crowd cloaked in Tico red, they probed and stretched the Costa Ricans in the first half and saw several well-crafted efforts denied by impeccable goalkeeping from Paris Saint-Germain’s Keylor Navas.
“The atmosphere gave these guys wings from Costa Rica. Really incredible fans, I think some of the best fans in Concacaf, for sure,” said Berhalter. “We came up short; I don't think it's for lack of trying, I think it's for some execution issues on set pieces and some great goalkeeping. Think about the saves that Navas made in this game.”
Slackening intensity levels in the second half allowed Juan Pablo Vargas and Anthony Contreras to strike, briefly rocking the USMNT’s composure and sparking fears among their fans of the six-goal blowout nightmare scenario that was the only way the Ticos could pass them for an automatic qualification slot. That improbable collapse would’ve prompted a June playoff match vs. New Zealand (Oceania’s representative), a game Costa Rica now heads to with hopes of booking their own Qatar ticket.
“We did a lot in this game really well. Unfortunately, there are two set-piece situations that we didn't handle well at all. And we got punished for it,” said Berhalter, who immediately set off for the airport to catch a flight to New York, and eventually on to Qatar for Friday’s World Cup draw.
“It's a learning experience, the way we handle everything is to reflect on it and to improve on it. And that will certainly be the case with that. But we're completely looking forward. We're excited for the draw, excited for who we have. And this group can do some damage, I'm confident of that.”
Zimmerman saw relief on the faces of the four players who were part of the failed 2018 campaign, none more so than star and talisman Christian Pulisic.
“I mean, It was one of the toughest days of my life when we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. We’re all extremely proud and – I don’t know, this is where I’ve always wanted to be and right now, just the emotions are a bit crazy,” said Pulisic.
“I think we’re allowed to be happy and proud that we’re qualified for a World Cup, because this process is not easy.”