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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US men’s soccer team clinches World Cup berth

United States’ players pose for a team photo prior to a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 against Costa Rica Wednesday. Despite the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, the US qualified for the 2022 World Cup.

By Andrew Keh

It was not quite spring break, but the United States men’s soccer team traveled to Costa Rica this week carrying all the stress and psychological burden of second-semester college seniors.

The hardest work, after all, was over. All that was required of the players in the final match of the World Cup qualification competition was the bare minimum: By merely avoiding a six-goal loss in their game Wednesday at Costa Rica — a deficit they had not registered in a competitive match in 65 years — they would claim a ticket to the World Cup later this year in Qatar.

Long-shot disasters, though, are no abstract peril for the American men. Five years ago, they traveled to Trinidad in similarly sunny circumstances and, after a confluence of improbable events, failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. That fiasco has dogged the team ever since.

On Wednesday night, then, came some redemption. In the 14th game of their qualifying campaign, in front of a lively sellout crowd in San José, the United States strolled to a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica that was more than sufficient to clinch a berth at the 2022 World Cup.

The Americans’ relief and satisfaction was clear at the final whistle, as the players and coaches hugged and high-fived on the field.

“The team’s ecstatic, really excited to be qualified for the World Cup,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Qualifying is a grind, and we did it, so the team’s very happy.”

The U.S. started the day in second place in the regional standings for North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica was three points behind, in fourth. The Americans, then, could lose, but as long as they maintained their massive lead over the Costa Ricans in goal differential, which is the first tiebreaker, they were still assured one of the automatic qualification spots.

Costa Rica still has a chance to get into the tournament through a play-in game in June against New Zealand. The team had seemed to recognize the long odds of moving up to third in the standings. It rested several regulars who had earned yellow cards earlier in the tournament, ensuring they would not pick up another Wednesday and be automatically suspended for the play-in game.

But the fans barely seemed to mind, filling up the national stadium to bounce and sing in the festive atmosphere. When Juan Pablo Vargas scored in the 51st minute, they let out booming, collective shouts, as if a trophy had been on the line. When Anthony Contreras doubled Costa Rica’s lead in the 59th, they popped to their feet and chanted “Si se puede!” (“Yes, we can.”)

By the end of the night, Canada had clinched first place in the standings. Mexico finished in second. The U.S. took third — and the last automatic qualification spot.

The American team will soon learn more about what and who awaits in its next meaningful matches: Berhalter was preparing to fly to Doha, Qatar, after the match for Friday’s World Cup draw, which will determine the competitive groupings for the tournament that begins in November.

For a day, though, he and his team could enjoy the simple pleasure of just getting invited again.

The feeling was sweeter because they were deprived of it five years ago. That immense failure — the team’s first absence from the World Cup since 1986 — has felt fresh in the minds of the team and its fans during this qualifying cycle. But the intervening period has been long.

“That was one of the toughest days of my life, and I’ll never forget it,” said forward Christian Pulisic, one of the few holdovers from the 2017 group. “Now to be in this position qualified for a World Cup, we’re all extremely proud.”

He paused.

“This is where I’ve always wanted to be, and right now the emotions are a little crazy.”

The team was effectively dismantled after the Trinidad defeat — its coaches fired, many of its players effectively banished — and pieced together again in carefully measured steps. The U.S. Soccer Federation elected a new president in early 2018. That summer, it hired Earnie Stewart as the men’s team’s general manager, a newly created position. Then, that December, after more than a year with an interim coach, the team hired Berhalter to revitalize the program.

On Wednesday night, Berhalter fielded an essentially full-strength lineup, backing up his pregame declaration that the U.S. was playing to win.

That the Americans never particularly seemed close to doing so hardly mattered. Every second that ticked, they felt safer.

The team hesitated at first to celebrate in the locker room, still frustrated by the loss. Eventually, feelings of pure joy filtered through the space, and the Champagne and beer began to spray.

“It’s a moment to reflect and be really proud,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who emerged from the locker room with goggles on his head. “From here on out it’s a sprint to the World Cup.”

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