With the World Cup a little over a year away, nations across the globe are vying for their spot in one of the greatest spectacles in the sporting world, including the United States’ Men’s National Team. Here in the U.S., head coach Gregg Berhalter is more than ready to make up for the group’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. The infamous “Trinidad and Tobago game,” as it is now known as, marked the end of an era in American soccer on the national stage, opening up the door for boundless amounts of youth to join the roster.
That youth was on display over the past two weeks as the team participated in World Cup qualifying matches against three fellow CONCACAF nations. Berhalter’s group took on Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica, three nations that all pose a serious threat. Beginning the slate of matches with a rematch of the 2017 Gold Cup Final, the U.S. welcomed the Jamaican National Team to the Q2 Stadium in Austin.
The match featured a star-studded lineup for the American side, with youngster Ricardo Pepi earning his place in the squad only about a month after declaring his citizenship for the U.S. instead of Mexico. With Pepi, other top-level talents such as FC Barcelona’s Sergino Dest, Juventus’ Weston McKennie and the New England Revolution’s Matt Turner rounded out one of the better squads in recent USMNT history.
Under the night sky in Texas, the two nations started their battle feverishly, playing to a scoreless halftime whistle. Both teams came within inches of scoring, with Jamal Lowe having his curled effort parried away by Turner before halftime, and Weston McKennie having a free-kick from the edge of the box deflected over the bar just minutes beforehand.
The second half of the game became a completely different story, as only four minutes after the break, Pepi managed to strike. A perfect cross from Dest found Pepi’s head, completely uncovered in the six-yard-box, before the FC Dallas forward headed home the opening tally. Pepi continued his dominating run of play about 12 minutes later when a low cross from Brendan Aaronson was met by Pepi’s outstretched foot, and subsequently found the back of the net. With a 2-0 lead, the American side was able to fend off any further advances en route to a confident victory.
While the team was able to celebrate the victory, the joy was not long-lived. In their second match in the October qualifying window, the team took on Panama, who had the home-field advantage. The team featured an almost completely new starting lineup with only Turner, Paul Arriola, Yunus Musah and Walker Zimmerman having started in the Jamaica game. Facing a surprisingly stout Panamanian side, the teams remained scoreless at halftime just as they had against Jamaica.
Panama capitalized only ten minutes into the second half off the head of team captain, Anibal Godoy, scoring the goal that cemented them as the winners. The loss for the USMNT set up a nerve-wracking final game with Panama, who were now tied at eight points with the U.S.
Heading to Lower.com Field to play Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, Berhalter reverted to the lineup that he used against Jamaica with only a few minor changes. The most notable was the involvement of goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
Steffen was thrown straight into the fire early, as Costa Rica’s Keysher Fuller tapped home a cross in the first minute, leading to collective calls for offsides by the American team. Furiously searching for an equalizer, Sergino Dest set the tone with his twenty-fourth minute strike from the edge of the box finding the top corner of the net, sending the American Outlaws into a frenzy.
The second half looked to be the U.S. Men’s game for the taking. Forward Timothy Weah charged into the box and rifled a shot that ricocheted off the post and keeper Keylor Navas, before rolling into the goal and putting the American side ahead 2-1 with just under 30 minutes to play. Berhalter’s side held onto the lead and collected all three points at the end of 90 minutes, putting his squad in a great position for the next month of qualifying matchups.