It is hard to remember in the moment, especially when that is the first moment of a qualifier like last night against Costa Rica and the USMNT is giving up yet another stupid goal before coming back for a 2-1 win and you haven’t even cracked that beer that you’re firing against the wall, that this whole qualifying window and even next year’s World Cup (hopefully) are just part of a process. Partially that’s because the word “process” has basically become a swear word in sports (not undeservedly). Partly because the U.S. missed the last World Cup so getting to the next one is seen as something of a grail. And yes, failing to get to Qatar would still be an utter failure. It has to be part of this development.
But it is development. This U.S. team is so young — no one who started last night was 25 — and is going through all this for the first time, that really what’s going on here is a blooding of a roster to introduce them to each other and to the international game. 2022 is really just a stepping stone to 2026, when the U.S. will be very much expected to make some serious noise on home soil. And given the age of this squad, most if not all of them are the ones going to be counted on to make that noise.
When you’re building something this young, with this long of a view, at this point it’s going to be highly volatile. Which means it can look as buffoonish as it did on Sunday in Panama. And then the very next game it can look as good as it did against Costa Rica. Throw out the caveats — that Costa Rica is hilariously old, or that there were still mistakes that a better team would have seized on, or had Keylor Navas still been in the Costa Rican net the second goal probably doesn’t go in — as you can do that for every match. Especially with a team at this stage in its development. The U.S. was brilliant for most of last night’s match.
They were energetic. They were dynamic. They were creative. They were ballsy. They were intricate. The headline will go to this Sergino Dest goal, as it should, and while we’re here let’s enjoy it one more time:
Obviously, that’s the kind of goal that causes one’s pants to eject out the nearest window. The real story with it is the build, which is 12 passes through pressure, from one corner of the field to the opposite. The U.S. was doing that all night in a way we haven’t seen this team do, and really no U.S. team does. They did the Liverpool thing where their fullbacks are actually wingers and their wingers are actually forwards and the forward is a midfielder and yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye. The fullbacks, Dest and Antonee Robinson, combined neatly with Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, and Brendan Aaronson into delicious patterns that kept getting the U.S. into dangerous spots.They did it through clever one-touch passing or devilish runs or patient builds and popping up between the lines when they had pulled Costa Rica from side to side to open them up. Their final ball still needs work, but could be corrected with simply better health from Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic. Tyler Adams ran the midfield. The U.S. tore through a low block, which had been an issue before, and really should have had more than the two goals they got. Given the precociousness of this team, they adapt like the Borg.
A section should be devoted to Dest, who is the most fun toy the national team has ever had. He’s hardly a fullback. He might not even be a wingback. He might be just a player who stands somewhere near those positions at kickoff and then you just let do whatever the fuck. Repeatedly last night he would pick up passes from the defense, which supposedly he was a part of, in the heart of midfield and carry the ball through to Costa Rica’s box or near it. He comes inside, he gets behind, he stays wide, he shoots, he gets lost, basically if cocaine played soccer this is what it would look like. His faults are easy to identify — sometimes he’s just not there, he can be defensively woeful, he’ll try some dumb shit at the worst time and spot on the field — but the possiblilty of anything is far too much to go without.
The U.S. might just have to accommodate him however they have to. Sometimes you just let a horse run.
So overall, it ends up being a decent enough window for the USMNT. Seven points was the goal, they got six, and it kind of makes the next match, just home to Mexico, one they need to win. Which they can, it’s just undue pressure on a match that’s already rife with it. They sit second in the octagonal, three points clear of the 4th spot. Had they just even drawn Panama, that gap would be six points, but alas.
Overall, the feeling is good. They played two teams off the park, even if the scorelines won’t show it. They threw a clunker in the middle, which is what neophyte teams are going to do. In a competition that wasn’t so pressurized and in a quieter atmosphere, it would be easier to accept these ups and downs as the natural course of growth and just be excited about the future. The World Cup process does not provide those.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to come from this window just how ruthless the depth of the roster can be. Josh Sargent started the Nations League final. It’s hard to see a path for him even into the squad now unless he goes nuclear at Norwich (leading to the question of whether Norwich as a whole will score the 5-10 goals that Sargent would need himself). Sebastien Lletget and Paul Arriola have gotten their chances. If Reyna and Pulisic are healthy come November’s slate, do they even make the squad? John Brooks was the unquestioned starter in central defense last month. How many people is he behind now? Three? Four? Kellyn Acosta...
Through six games, we’ve seen everything this team can be, which is everything on the spectrum. It’s exhilarating, frustrating, dizzying all at the same time. And it’s going to be that way for a while. They could still fuck up qualification. They could run the table. They could lay an egg in the group stages in Qatar. They could gel for two weeks and fuck around and end up in the semis. There’s no getting off the ride now. Best to just enjoy it, puke and ecstasy combined.