World Cup qualifying is an odyssey not a day trip. And the 14-game CONCACAF tournament hasn’t even reached the halfway point yet.
But it’s not too early to draw some conclusions about the U.S. team, which battled back from an early deficit to beat Costa Rica 2-1 Wednesday in a game decided by a shot that caromed across the goal line off a backup keeper.
At 3-1-2 and with 11 points, good for second place after the first two qualifying windows, the U.S. is comfortably on track to win a spot in next year’s World Cup in Qatar. But as with most odysseys, there are challenges ahead:
• Coach Gregg Berhalter’s reliance on young, talented but inexperienced players will undoubtedly pay off in the future, but in the present it has proved a liability against savvy, veteran teams such as Panama and Costa Rica. Up next is Mexico, the savviest, most experienced team in CONCACAF.
• Finishing remains a problem without the injured Christian Pulisic. The U.S. has had little trouble getting the ball into the attacking third but has lacked the final pass to turn those chances into goals.
• Berhalter’s decision to build depth by giving 25 players their qualifying debuts in the first six games will make a difference next year, when the U.S. finishes the tournament with road games seven days apart in Costa Rica and Mexico, two places where it has never won a qualifier.
In the meantime, the U.S. remains a team in progress, one still far from where it needs to be.
“The main goal is to qualify for the World Cup and we’re not there yet,” Berhalter said. “We can’t rest until we’re there, and then even when we get there, it’s about how can we win the World Cup.
“We knew going into this that a lot of guys were going to be getting their first experience in it. And it was it was part of the package and for us. We understand what we’re doing.”
The U.S. started its youngest lineup ever in a qualifier Wednesday, one that averaged under 23 years of age. The average age of Costa Rica’s 11 starters was more than eight years older; seven of them were on the 2018 World Cup team.
That made the game a matchup of men against boys, and Costa Rica needed just 65 seconds to put the young Americans on their heels, with Keysher Fuller redirecting a long cross from Rónald Matarrita through traffic and past goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a surprise starter in place of Matt Turner.
Sergiño Dest quickly pulled that back, capping the best sustained period of play by the U.S. this month with a goal in the 25th minute. After taking a short pass from Yunus Musah at the right edge of the 18-yard box, Dest dribbled to his left to create space, then blasted a left-footed shot into the top left corner.
The goal, which Dest scored with his boot untied, was the first in the opening half in nine games for the U.S.
If the Americans’ youthfulness was a liability in the first half, it was a strength in the second, when the aging Costa Ricans got sloppy as they tired. But perhaps the biggest change at halftime was the departure of Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Keylor Navas because of a groin injury.
Both factors — Costa Rica’s sloppiness and Navas’ absence — would contribute to the deciding goal, which was credited to Leonel Moreira, Navas’ replacement, who stopped the first shot he saw but not the second, with Tim Weah’s try at the near post trickling across the front of the goal and in at the far side.
Weah, a late addition to the starting lineup after Paul Arriola was injured in warmups, got his opportunity after a poor first touch from Fuller turned the ball over deep in the Costa Rica end. Moreira then completely misplayed Weah’s right-footed shot, which struck him in the side, bounced off the post and rolled in for an own goal.
It wasn’t pretty but it was effective, which was good enough for Berhalter.
“World Cup qualifying is difficult,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like people forgot that. People thinks it’s a cakewalk. We’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer and we’re just going to breeze through these games.
“It’s not realistic. What I will say is that the guys fight, and the guys give everything. That’s all you can ask.”