The U.S. men’s national team will never forget the sting of defeat from its 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10, 2017, that kept the Americans from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Still, that feeling felt a lot further away Sunday night.
The Americans are heading into their next attempt at World Cup qualifying this fall with a lot more optimism and momentum after their 1-0 extra time victory over Mexico in the Gold Cup final at Allegiant Stadium. They have won eight straight — including two in a row against their toughest regional rival — and appear to have discovered some extra grit, depth and resolve that will help them through their difficult schedule.
“Qualifying is everything right now,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s our focus. This tournament is in the past, and now we shift toward qualifying. We know it’s going to be grueling, but we think the player pool has matured and it’s been battle-tested.”
The U.S. has undergone a major reset since that night against Trinidad and Tobago.
Only two players from that match — forward Paul Arriola and midfielder Kellyn Acosta — were on the Gold Cup roster. Berhalter has welcomed fresh faces and given them opportunities to prove themselves before the most challenging test of his tenure.
That continued into the Gold Cup.
The U.S. decided not to bring many of its European-based players to the tournament so they could rest for a busy 2021-22 schedule with their club and national teams. That meant lots of usual starters — such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Juventus’ Weston McKennie, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, Barcelona’s Sergino Dest and Manchester City’s Zack Steffen — were unavailable.
Instead, the U.S. relied on players almost exclusively from Major League Soccer. It gave Berhalter the opportunity to try some young, unproven guys in key roles and see how they held up.
They did pretty well. The Americans conceded only one goal during the Gold Cup and none during the run of play. They started their second-youngest lineup ever against Mexico and still won.
Their youngest-ever lineup came June 6 in Denver against Mexico in the Nations League final, another extra-time victory for the U.S.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are willing to fight for each other and fight for this country and prove that the United States is a country that has to be taken seriously,” center back Miles Robinson said. “I’m really excited for this group.”
The key for Berhalter’s squad is to carry over the momentum into its first World Cup qualifying match Sept. 2 at El Salvador. It will play 14 games against seven regional foes and need to finish in the top three to guarantee a spot for Qatar 2022.
The Gold Cup showed that Berhalter will have plenty of options when building his lineups. He will need them, because the U.S. plays three matches in the span of a week four times.
Acosta was excellent and showed he deserves to be included as a squad player. Robinson, who scored the winning goal Sunday, made his case for a starting spot.
The Americans also stood tall knowing they weren’t favored and that most of the announced crowd of 61,514 was cheering for Mexico. They scratched and clawed to keep the game close and were rewarded with a goal in the 117th minute.
If they show the same fight this fall, they have a good chance of flipping the page from one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history.
“Really proud of the group,” Berhalter said. “When you look at the game today, we did not stop. It was relentless from us. And that was a mark of a good team.”
U.S. World Cup qualifying schedule
Sept. 2: U.S. at El Salvador
Sept. 5: U.S. vs. Canada
Sept. 8: U.S. at Honduras
Oct. 7: U.S. vs. Jamaica
Oct. 10: U.S. at Panama
Oct. 13: U.S. vs. Costa Rica
TBD Nov.: U.S. vs. Mexico
TBD Nov.: U.S. at Jamaica
Jan. 27: U.S. vs. El Salvador
Jan. 30: U.S. at Canada
Feb. 2: U.S. vs. Honduras
March 24: U.S. at Mexico
March 27: U.S. vs. Panama
March 30: U.S. at Costa Rica