On the eve of the North American CONCACAF’s last two qualifying weeks for the World Cup, the United States men’s soccer team stands on the brink of earning a ticket to Qatar this summer for the 2022 World Cup. This would be the first time the U.S. men’s team qualified for the international tournament since falling in the round of 16 in South Africa in 2014.
Can they keep feisty Costa Rica and Panama from stealing their spot? Given a very difficult draw over its three matches in six days, it’ll take everything the U.S. men have to hold off challengers to earn a qualifying pass.
During the 2018 cycle, the USMNT blew its chance to play in the World Cup in Russia when it lost at home to Costa Rica and fell on the road to already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago on the final day. That same Costa Rican team sits behind the U.S. men in the standings, four points behind and just one point behind Panama in fourth place. The national squad will have to face off against both national teams over the next weeks, preceded by a very difficult tilt in Mexico on Thursday, March 24.
The team’s coach, Gregg Berhalter, is doing everything he can to stop that from happening, including allowing some of the stars to play all 270 minutes over three games.
“We expect all 27 players to play some type of role and we’re really looking forward to it,” Berhalter said in a March 17 press conference. “I wouldn’t rule out a player being able to play 90 minutes at Azteca and 90 minutes in Orlando and 90 minutes again in San Jose. When you look at some of our players, the rhythm that they’re playing is basically Saturday-Wednesday through most of the year.”
That’s a tall task given that Azteca is in Mexico City and sits 7,200 feet above sea level, a full 2,000 feet more than Denver’s 5,200 feet.
There’s also tough news on the injury front. Just as it seemed the USMNT was rounding out into full form, news broke that midfielder Brenden Aaronson, the only player to appear in all 11 qualifying matches to date, will miss two to four weeks with an MCL injury. Compound that with defender Sergiño Dest’s new hamstring injury and the USMNT’s calculus is altered by several degrees of difficulty. As of now, there is no replacement for Aaronson, leaving the U.S. with only 26 players for its upcoming matches.
The question arises: Does Berhalter push all his chips in on Thursday at Azteca, where the U.S. has never won a qualifier, or take a more measured approach to put more emphasis on potentially earning three points with a victory over Panama at home on Sunday, March 27?
To be fair, there is some semblance of balance on the injury front with the good news that midfielder Gio Reyna played his first full match since last September — a full 90 minutes for Dortmund against Bayern Munich in a German Bundesliga matchup. The USMNT coach may not be planning for a full slate for Reyna against Mexico, but he also might not have a choice with a shortened squad.
“The important thing is us qualifying for the World Cup, first of all, but secondly is Gio returning healthy to his club, and we’re mindful of his load. We’re mindful of the work that he’s done the last couple weeks, and we’re going to adjust accordingly,” Berhalter said.
Header Zimmerman ⚡️
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) March 20, 2022
Another Euro standout will be in net for the U.S. after standing tall for Man City in England’s Football Association Challenge Cup tournament. Even though he is among the U.S. players carrying a yellow card, meaning he is one more card away from a one-game suspension, he’s backed by Ethan Horvath, also a British standout, defending the pipes for Nottingham Forest.
Defender Aaron Long is also shaping into form after a return from an Achilles tear 10 months ago, netting a header on Sunday for the New York Red Bulls.
Center Walker Zimmerman, who scored on a more powerful header for Nashville SC on Saturday, will continue to play an integral role, replacing the aging John Brooks, who has been left off the squad since October.
On the offensive end, forward Tim Weah has not been logging the 90-minutes matches Berhalter cited, opening the door for Chelsea star Christian Pulicic to take perhaps the most prominent role in leading the USMNT to the World Cup.
At center forward, Jesús Ferreira enters camp on the heels of a first-half hat trick for FC Dallas, the second-youngest U.S. player in MLS history to net three goals and it only took Ferreira 10 minutes to pull off the feat.
.@Jesusfcd27 is ready for Mexico. 🤠
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 20, 2022
It will take all the men’s collective effort to secure a spot at the World Cup, but they’ve played well enough over the last eight months to give themselves an honest shot. A last chance match with a South American CONMEBOL squad to earn a ticket to the dance awaits the CONCACAF fourth-place squad, but that’s not what Berhalter (or any of the men) are aiming for.
“These are types of challenges that we need to embrace and that we need to hit head-on because they’re difficult games and we’re looking forward to them,” Berhalter said.
Mexico and the U.S. will kickoff at 10 p.m. EST on Thursday, airing on CBS Sports Network and streaming on.
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