Ahead of what is likely the USMNT’s final qualifier before securing a trip to Qatar, head coach Gregg Berhalter hailed the growth of the team through what has been a grueling seven-month, 14-game stretch.
Even if the team’s coach and players refuse to utter the words so explicitly, the USMNT is almost certain to leave the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica in San José, Costa Rica tonight having reached their goal of earning a place in Qatar later this year.
Only a historically lopsided loss would force them to enter into the inter-confederation play-off against (almost certainly) New Zealand, however Berhalter and his young squad are instead looking create a different bit of history on Wednesday night.
“The group is looking forward to this challenge,” he spoke of the chance of the USMNT winning for the first time ever on Costa Rican soil. “We know our history here, we know that no US team has ever won in San Jose, and we’re excited about the prospect of trying to do that.”
“The the way I see this group is [that] they’ve been embracing challenges from the start of qualifying, and this is just another one.”
Admitting the obvious, he added, “I think what makes this one even more sweet is that you have the fact that you can qualify after these 90 minutes.”
While there still is 90 minutes of work to do, the high likelihood of a successful end to the 14-game qualifying schedule does give the coach time to reflect on how the players, the coaching staff, and even he have grown since they opened the round with a shocking and disheartening scoreless draw in El Salvador back in September, and a subsequent home draw against Canada.
“It was really lack of experience,” he admitted of the outcome in those first two games, continuing, “We got kicked in the teeth that first round, and that’s what it was. We were potentially overconfident, not understanding what qualifying was about, and we learned that lesson quickly.”
“And even then, it’s still about what you do today, not what you did yesterday, [and] not what you’re going to do in the future. [It’s about] just focusing on the next challenge up.”
He admits that not every aspect of qualifying went the way he wanted, even if the overall sum of the experience was what he and the team knew was coming. However, with qualifying only being a necessary step to reach the World Cup in Qatar and not the endpoint itself, the lessons and growth that the entire setup – players and coaches alike – took out of the experience are more important than any individual results.
“It’s exactly what we expected but at times you wish it would have been
different,” he reflected. “We wish we would have won every single game of this round, but it’s not realistic, and I think what it turned out to be is exactly what we expected.”
Continuing, “We expected it to be a challenge, we expected to be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of trials and tribulations, and we know we have really young group but going through this for the first time. We know how difficult CONCACAF is to qualify [from].”
“The group has been really good at being able to focus on the next task ahead of themselves, and [to] keep going from there. It’s been certainly a challenge, but I think [it was] a challenge that made the group stronger and forced the group to grow.”
“That’s what’s important.”
Without singling out any specific players – there are simply too many faces who have emerged, returned or otherwise proven themselves as special during this cycle – Berhalter can’t help but beam about what they have accomplished, and what he hopes they will still accomplish in the coming months.
It’s [been] amazing watching them grow, watching them make progress, seeing them grow here as a group and gain experience, and [seeing] what they’re doing with their clubs,” he gushed.
“Overall, it’s been a really good group of guys to work with, I can’t stress that enough.”
While carefully mincing his words to avoid already claiming success in this cycle, he does look forward to the memories that the likely experiences over the coming months will create for his young squad.
“Hopefully, after the World Cup, the guys can enjoy it, look back on their accomplishment, and be proud of what they’ve done. No team in the world is playing our age team and they’ve been doing a great job.”
The USMNT kicks off in San José, Costa Rica, at 7pm Mountain time.