Ricardo Pepi scores against Jamaica’s Andre Blake in WCQ. (Chuck Burton-USA TODAY Sports)
The official mantra of World Cup qualifying:
Pick up points any way you can.
Because disaster or a surprise could be waiting for you around the corner.
And that could go double for Concacaf.
The U.S. men’s national team finished the first part of its 14-game Octagonal schedule in second place in the eight-team Concacaf group with a 4-1-3 mark and 15 points, just behind an improved Canada side (4-0-4, 16) and a point ahead of third-place Mexico (4-2-2, 14) and fourth-place Panama (4-2-2). The top three finishers will reach Qatar while the No. 4 side will meet an Oceania nation, most likely New Zealand in a playoff in Qatar on June 13-14.
So, it is necessary for the U.S. to take one of the top three spots to make life easier, especially after the Americans failed to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Winning the Concacaf Nations League and Concacaf Gold Cup quickly would become a memory of unfulfilled potential down the line.
“It would be a failure if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said prior to qualifying.
The USMNT’s WCQ journey to date has been one filled with hills and valleys.
There have been some promising performances. Rising star Ricardo Pepi turned into a hope and perhaps the team’s No. 9 for the future. When healthy, Christian Pulisic continued to remind us he was the best attacking option. Tim Weah enjoyed a memorable five days in November, setting up and scoring goals. And with the squad has two strong goalkeeping options in Zack Steffen and Matt Turner. That could open the door for some controversy as Steffen hardly plays for his club team, Manchester City, while Turner was MLS goalkeeper of the year with the New England Revolution.
It hasn’t been without its drama. Pulisic and midfielder Gio Reyna have missed several games due to ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively. Midfielder Weston McKennie was sent home to Italy during the September window after violating team COVID-19 protocols. He is back in good graces.
The Americans started their journey with a pair of draws, a scoreless result in El Salvador on Sept. 2 and a 1-1 deadlock with the Canadians in Nashville, Tenn. on Sept. 5. Brenden Aaronson scored the USA’s goal in the 55th minute, but the host side could not hold the lead as Cyle Larin equalized seven minutes later.
The first window was salvaged with a 4-1 win in Honduras on Sept. 8, although the visitors waited until the second half to explode. After Antonee Robinson knotted things up in the 48th minute, Pepi’s first international score gave the U.S. the lead for good in the 75th minute as Aaronson and Sebasbian Lletget added insurance tallies.
Pepi continued to spark the USA, scoring twice within a 13-minute span in a 2-0 victory over Jamaica in Austin, Texas on Oct. 7 before the Americans went down to a 1-0 defeat at Panama three days later. The USMNT bounced back with a 2-1 win past Costa Rica, which won a vital WCQ on American soil in 2017, 2-1, in Columbus, Ohio on Oct. 13. After Keysher Fuller surprised the hosts with a goal in the opening minute, Sergino Dest knotted things up in the 25th minute a Leonel Moreira’s own goal in 62nd minute turned out to be the deciding score.
With Pulisic a second-half substitute during the November window, the USMNT accrued four out of a possible six points. Only minutes after coming on against Mexico in Cincinnati on Nov. 12, the Chelsea midfielder found the net. McKennie struck in the 85th minute, giving the Americans a familiar Ohio result – 2-0 – aka dos a cero. Counting qualifying wins over El Tri in Columbus (2001, 2005, 2009, 2013), it was the fifth time the hosts recorded such a score.
Please don’t ask us about the astronomical odds of that happening.
The USMNT closed out the 2021 campaign with a 1-1 result in Jamaica on Nov. 16. Weah tallied in the 11th minute, but the Americans, fighting the heat and humidity of The Office in Kingston, could not hold the lead as Michail Antonio tied it up 11 minutes later.
Still, the USA walked out of the venue with an important road point, while denying the Reggae Boyz two.
In many respects, that is what World Cup qualifying is all about on the road.
With the specter of a 2018 debacle still in the back of many minds of the media and fans, the Americans are not in a position to take anything for granted.
As good as 2021 was for the USA – the squad won a record 17 games – Berhalter won’t be resting on his laurels in the new year.
“It’s clearly unfinished business,” Berhalter said after the Dec. 18 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina in Carson, Calif. “We’re not there yet. We know [we have] six games [to] go. We take one game at a time. Our goal is to qualify, and we do that by a good performance and then on to the next game. That’s all we can do. It’s been a great year. I can’t thank the players enough for everything they’ve given us as a staff. But now it’s time to really get it done in 2022.”
The Americans will play three World Cup qualifiers early next year, hosting El Salvador on Jan. 27, playing Canada in Hamilton, Ontario on Jan. 30 and then welcoming Honduras on Feb. 2.
Then comes a grueling three-match confrontation in March, when the U.S. travels to Mexico on March 24, hosts Panama on March 27 and then visits Costa Rica on March 30.
This story is far from finished and will be concluded next year.
Whether it will be a happy ending or a sad one, it remains to be seen.