Graphic by David Jakacky

After an eight-year hiatus from the biggest spectacle in sports, the U.S. men’s national team has qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar this upcoming winter. Following their 2-0 loss to Costa Rica last Wednesday, the U.S. was able to qualify thanks to a hefty advantage in terms of goal differential. With one of the youngest groups in recent memory headlined by Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic, Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie and FC Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest, the talent to qualify was there.

Wins against El Salvador and Honduras helped the U.S. establish a solid standing in the points. Their 0-0 stalemate against Mexico proved to be a pivotal result heading into the final week of World Cup Qualifying matches. Last Sunday, Berhalter’s side welcomed the Panama national team to Exploria Stadium in Orlando. While both sides showed up to take the kick-off, it was clear the U.S. was the only team that actually showed up to play. 

Panama’s Anibal Godoy foolishly pushed over USMNT defender Walker Zimmerman on a corner kick just over ten minutes into the match, and after a VAR review confirmed that the foul was worthy of a penalty, Pulisic prepared to take the chance. Calmly and cooly, Pulisic rifled the shot into the back of the net to put his side up 1-0 only 17 minutes into the game. Panama caused trouble for keeper Zack Steffen and the U.S. defense, but frantic defensive work transitioned into a great counter-attack. Though Pulisic was fouled on the edge of the area he was able to get the ball to teammate Antonee Robinson, who swiftly sent in a cross that was met by the head of striker Paul Arriola, doubling the American’s lead just five minutes after the opening tally. 

The hits just kept coming for Panama, when four minutes later Arriola directed the ball into the area where forward Jesus Ferreira was waiting to slot home the third goal of the contest at point-blank range. Godoy again was called for committing a foul in the area in extra time of the first half, sending U.S. defender Miles Robinson to the ground and earning a yellow card in the process. Pulisic’s penalty was less of a given, with Panama keeper Luis Mejia guessing the correct direction, but Pulisic’s strike powered through Mejia’s outstretched hand and put the U.S. up 4-0 at the half. 

The second half started off brilliantly for the U.S., inevitably resulting in a fifth and final goal on the night for the dominant side. Great link-up work from Luca De La Torre and Robinson lead to Pulisic receiving the ball in space in the area, taking a Dennis Bergkamp-esque touch, and confidently pushing the ball past Mejia to score his first professional hat trick for the national team. While Godoy scored a late consolation goal, the 5-1 victory meant all Berhalter’s team had to do was not concede six goals to Costa Rica and they’d be in the World Cup. 

Heading into the final match of qualifying in Costa Rica, the team knew what a 6-0 loss would spell and fielded a practically first-choice lineup with the exceptions of the injured Dest, Weston McKennie and Matt Turner. The Costa Rican side, led by veteran goalkeeper Keylor Navas, knew they could somehow qualify, especially considering the U.S.’s recent history of qualifying where they lost to Trinidad and Tobago for the 2018 World Cup. The away side came out swinging, after Miles Robinson’s near goal off of a volley in the area that Navas slowed before it was cleared off the line. 

Both teams played to a 0-0 draw at halftime, but Costa Rica got their chance to strike early in the second half. A corner was met by the head of Juan Pablo Vargas to give his side a 1-0 lead with 40 minutes left to play. Only eight minutes later, the Costa Ricans struck again by way of Anthony Contreras but were unable to score any further goals, winning the game 2-0. The result sent the U.S. to the World Cup and Costa Rica to a one-game playoff in June against New Zealand for one of the final three spots in the tournament.