By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 17, 2022) US Soccer Players – Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been a compressed, intense sprint more than the winding marathon we’d grown accustomed to over the previous quarter-century. The stakes are just as high as ever, though, as Concacaf’s 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle concludes over the next two weeks.
The final window of the Octagonal phase is upon us. The USMNT must visit Mexico’s imposing Estadio Azteca next Thursday, then host Panama in Orlando on March 27 before a trip to Costa Rica on the final matchday of qualification. It’s the two most difficult away fixtures in the program’s history sandwiched around a home date that’s not technically a must-win, but falls into that category for all intents and purposes.
It’s near impossible to understate the pressure of this occasion on players, coaches and officials.
These will be some of the biggest games in the careers of those who take part. These are the moments where childhood dreams live and die, reputations are made and tarnished. With the bar for World Cup entry set to drop considerably with the expanded 2026 version of the tournament, it’s also the end of an era. Canada head coach John Herdman spoke a few months ago about using the achievement of qualification to the final edition of the 32-team event as a motivator and historical milestone for his program, and other nations surely agree.
With six of the Ocho’s eight teams still mathematically eligible for a top-four finish, the scenarios are myriad. Only Canada, four points clear (25 points) ahead of joint-second-place sides USMNT and Mexico (21 points each) atop the standings, is assured of survival. Canada can’t finish lower than the 4th-place spot that grants passage to an intercontinental playoff against Oceania’s champion.
The region’s traditional power duo are on course to join Les Rouges in Qatar. Yet 4th-place Panama (17 points) have stubbornly kept within reach. Meanwhile Costa Rica surged back into contention with a seven-point winter window to regain striking distance (16 points) even though they’ve scored just eight goals in their 11 Ocho games to date.
For the United States, the mission starts with holding serve, and keeping their nerve. The old “win at home, draw on the road” mantra applies more than ever. A home victory over Panama would practically assure them of a top-four finish, more likely top three. Taking a point from either of the away games in addition to that would clear the path to Qatar.
Here’s where the history gets daunting. The Yanks have never won a qualifier in Mexico City or San Jose in decades of trying. Sitting amidst the Mexican capital’s notoriously polluted air a mile and a half above sea level, Azteca has long provided El Tri with one of the most dramatic home-field advantages in the world.
A look at the recent Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal matches in the Distrito Federal drives home the fundamentals. Cruz Azul and UNAM Pumas dominated their MLS foes from Montreal and New England, with the visitors clearly affected by the combination of thin air and their hosts’ relentless attacking. That said, the USMNT have chipped away at El Tri’s fortress in recent years. Teams led by Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena earned draws in the program’s last two qualifying visits to “the Colossus of Saint Ursula,” and the US won there for the first time ever in a 2012 friendly.
For whatever reasons, San Jose, Costa Rica has been an even bigger challenge. The US men are currently riding a nine-game WCQ losing streak in the Central American nation that stretches all the way back to 1985. The Ticos’ capital city sits at 3,845 feet above sea level, elevation roughly comparable to Salt Lake City. US players who experienced those matches are more likely to point to the ferocious noise, intimate confines, and fast artificial turf of Estadio Saprissa, which hosted the national team until Estadio Nacional opened in 2011.
The new facility sports natural grass and a much less claustrophobic design, with a running track separating fans from the pitch. That hasn’t helped the USMNT much so far, as they suffered a 3-1 loss in 2013 and a 4-0 defeat in 2017 that brought Klinsmann’s tenure to an end.
The USMNT has a more limited past in Orlando, albeit an encouraging one. Exploria Stadium was also the site of their home game vs Panama in the 2018 cycle, and also the second-to-last game of that slate just like this time. On that night, Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore spearheaded an irresistible display of high-tempo soccer that overwhelmed Los Canaleros to the tune of 4-0.
It’s surely no accident that Orlando City’s venue has gotten the nod again. Panama will aim to put up stiffer resistance this time around, and can look to their 1-0 home win over the Yanks in October for clues. Their most likely avenue to a road point in Florida centers around maximizing the rugged physicality and choppy disruptions of match rhythm that have made them arguably Concacaf’s most annoying adversary to play against.
Gregg Berhalter’s biggest challenge is managing these three distinct settings across an exhausting eight-day period. He and his staff will begin to gather the squad in Houston over the weekend, training a few days before jetting to Mexico City on a tight in-and-out schedule designed to minimize the physiological effects of the high elevation. Five years ago the USMNT prepared by kitting out players with altitude tents for their beds, designed to give their bodies the sensation of air at 10,000 feet to ease the adjustment. We’ll probably learn more about Berhalter’s use of such tactics in the coming days. What’s even more elusive is the ideal balance in squad rotation.
How best to hunt a positive result in Mexico without draining key contributors for the all-important Panama match? Keep something in reserve for Los Ticos, or try to stitch up qualification beforehand in order to sidestep the jittery final-day scenarios that proved so devastating in 2017? How best to manage the fitness and impact of the several prominent players freshly returned from injury layoffs? Six players (Tyler Adams, John Brooks, Jordan Pefok, Zack Steffen, Tim Weah and DeAndre Yedlin) are carrying yellow cards and will be suspended one game should they pick up another.
It’s a big, messy, moving jigsaw puzzle, and the potential costs of a single slip-up are enormous. That’s the risk. Now the USMNT must zone in on the reward within their grasp.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Jake Edwards on USL’s future
- Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders renew MLS’s most nuanced “rivalry”
- The next phase of the Philadelphia Union project
- Two ex-USMNT coaches cast a shadow across the Eastern Conference
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com