Less than an hour after the U.S. lost to Costa Rica on Wednesday, coach Gregg Berhalter left his team at San Jose’s Estadio Nacional and headed for the airport.
The first part of his World Cup journey had ended with a physical 2-0 loss on a cool, breezy night in Costa Rica, a result that dropped the U.S. to third in the CONCACAF tournament but still qualified it for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar. The second part of that journey would begin with an American Airlines flight to New York, the first leg of a 21-hour trip that will take him to Doha for Friday’s World Cup draw.
It was a fittingly fatiguing reward for guiding the national team through the most exhausting World Cup qualifying campaign in history, a seven-month, 14-game slog that crossed eight countries. Berhalter’s team played in high humidity and sub-freezing temperatures, in packed NFL stadiums and in stadiums where COVID-19 limited attendance to mostly empty seats. It played near the shores of the Caribbean in Jamaica and at 7,200 feet above sea level in Mexico.
And it did all that with the youngest roster the U.S. has ever used in qualifying, one that averaged less than 24 years of age. It was a team that bent but rarely broke, and despite the fact its qualifying campaign ended Wednesday with a loss, the Americans are back in the World Cup, a tournament it missed four years ago.
Entering the final game all the U.S. had to do to punch its ticket to Qatar was avoiding losing by six or more goals, something it hadn’t done since 1979. It did that easily.
As a result the U.S. (7-3-4) grabbed CONCACAF’s third and final World Cup invitation, finishing behind Canada (8-2-4), which qualified Sunday for its first World Cup in 36 years, and Mexico (8-2-4), which moved past the U.S. and into second by beating El Salvador 2-0 in its final game.
Costa Rica (7-3-4) went undefeated in its last seven games to grab fourth, finishing behind the U.S. on goal differential. It can join the other three CONCACAF teams in Qatar if it wins an inter-confederation playoff with New Zealand in June. The Ticos have missed the World Cup just once this century.
But the U.S. wanted more than to just qualify Wednesday. It wanted a victory in Costa Rica, a place where it has never won. So the Americans came out aggressive, forcing Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas into three saves in the first eight minutes of a scoreless first half, the best chance coming on a right-footed shot from Miles Robinson following one of seven first-half corners by the U.S.
Navas batted that shot down with both hands at the near post, only to have the ball drop at his feet and nearly roll over the line.
Meanwhile Costa Rica, the team that needed to run up the score to qualify, didn’t put its first shot on target until the 35th minute – and that one, by Brandon Aguilera, came from well outside the box.
The U.S. started even better in the second half, testing Navas immediately with a Robinson header the keeper pushed wide. But that save, Navas’ sixth and final one of the night, turned the tide because Costa Rica immediately went down to the other end and scored, with Juan Pablo Vargas going high to nod in a Aguilera corner from the center of the box in the 51st minute.
Anthony Contreras doubled the lead eight minutes later, beating American keeper Zack Steffen after the U.S. failed to clear the ball from in front of its net.
It was a poor finish to a tournament in which the U.S. had seemed to get better with every game. The Americans started slowly last summer, taking just two points from their first two games, the second a draw at home with Canada. They didn’t drop another point at home after that, outscoring their final six opponents 15-2.
The road was a different story, with the U.S. going 1-3-3, culminating in just the second game of the tournament in which the Americans gave up multiple goals.
“We’ve learned a lot as a group throughout this journey,” midfielder Tyler Adams said before the game. “One of the big takeaways is the maturity that we’ve gained in game management and how we kind of manage each and every game.”
That journey will continue this fall in Doha, where Berhalter will learn early Friday who his team will be playing in the World Cup’s opening round.