The US men’s national team learned a great deal about their path to the 2022 World Cup on Wednesday as Concacaf held its draw for the region’s restructured qualifying format. The USMNT now know the general timeframes for their 14 matches in the final, “octagonal” round, and the identity of four of their seven opponents in that process, which promises to be the usual gauntlet of nerve-jangling showdowns and tricky road trips to distant locales.
“Our focus is on winning games. I think 26, 27 points pretty much gets you in there, and basically it’s to get as many points as we can and get to that number and qualify,” US head coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters on a subsequent conference call.
Much still remains to be determined, though, including what might be the $10,000 question for Yanks supporters: Where will the US host the Mexico match?
A meeting of the region’s two giants and a rivalry cherished on both sides of the border, this enormous fixture has been played at Columbus Crew SC’s MAPFRE Stadium in the 21st century, thanks to the mystique built at that venue dating back to the famous “Guerra Fria” on February 28, 2001, a resounding 2-0 US win in bitterly cold conditions.
That result kicked off a streak of four consecutive WCQ victories in Columbus, all by the same “dos a cero” scoreline, until the run shuddered to a halt with a 2-1 El Tri win in November 2016, the same week of that year’s US presidential election. Some believe the Columbus mojo vanished that night, while others still consider it a hallowed tradition worth preserving.
So with the 2022 cycle’s edition set for October 2021, by which the club's new downtown stadium project is expected to be open, what does Berhalter think?
“I think we want to find an environment that is intimidating. And when I think of Columbus — I played in a couple games there against Mexico, and I know that it’s a great environment. We’ve had a lot of success there,” said the former Crew SC coach.
“But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be open to looking at other locations. Again, our focus is on providing the best possible atmosphere to win a soccer game, and to be intimidating. We’ll look at everything.”
That is one of seven hosting selections the U.S. Soccer Federation must make in the coming months, and Berhalter pointed to the many options available thanks to Major League Soccer’s ongoing stadium boom, which includes the Crew's new downtown project.
“What we know is that we want to create an atmosphere in the stadium that is very intimidating, very difficult for the opponent to play in,” he said. “We want a pro-US crowd, which is normal when you go to these. When you're in Mexico, it's a huge pro-Mexican crowd. All the times you go away, you have that environment. So that’s what we want to create in our own games.
“We have plenty of opportunities in the United States to do that. The infrastructure in MLS with the stadiums is fantastic. And we're confident that we'll pick the right venue, the right stadium to really make a great crowd.”
The USMNT will open their octagonal slate with a rare trio of games in June, first on the road against one of the semifinal qualifying round’s three survivors, a slot most pundits expect to be filled by either El Salvador or Trinidad & Tobago. They’ll then host another semifinal qualifier — most likely Canada or Haiti — before visiting Honduras, traditionally a daunting experience in the cauldron of San Pedro Sula.
It gets tougher still in the latter stages of their slate, when they’ll have to visit Mexico and Costa Rica on matchdays 12 and 14, respectively.
“All the games are challenging. There's no question,” said Berhalter. “What we're looking for is our guys to continue to develop at their clubs from now until June and then when we get into the camp, selecting the players that can deal with these conditions. It's a mindset thing, I think it's a focus thing, and understanding that there's only a certain amount we can control, and focusing on those those items that we can control to be successful.”