OK, so it was a foregone conclusion that the U.S. men’s national soccer team would advance to the FIFA World Cup Finals Wednesday.
They were playing Costa Rica at the National Stadium in San Jose and as long as the Americans didn’t lose by six goals, they would be one of the 32 teams playing for the World Cup in Qatar this fall.
And now they are.
And no, it wasn’t pretty. But if you’re a U.S. soccer fan and you can remember what it felt like when the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualification match to fall out of contention for the 2018 World Cup, this feels a whole lot better.
The U.S. players may well have gone into this game thinking “let’s not screw this up.” There’s a rallying cry for you, “Don’t screw up!…don’t screw up!.” But they didn’t.
In the end, a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica got the job done, based on goal differential. Costa Rica won by doing a better job on set pieces that resulted in two goals and by absolutely mugging America’s star attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic.
Pulisic, from Hershey, led the U.S. to the brink of clinching by scoring three goals in a 5-1 victory versus Panama in a Sunday qualifier.
He obviously didn’t score Wednesday but all Costa Rica won was a game. The U.S. won the prize. And Pulisic, a bonafide international superstar who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, will live to fight another day on a bigger stage.
Sure, the U.S. only clinches third place in its qualifying group where Canada and Mexico finished first and second, respectively. But it is significant in so many ways, not the least of which is making up for the debacle of 2018.
Prior to that, the U.S. had not failed to qualify for a World Cup since 1986, toward the end of an interminable 40-year drought that lasted from 1950-90. But during those years, as the popularity of soccer grew in the U.S., so did the pipeline of talent that fed the U.S. national team.
The victory that finally ended the drought came, oddly enough, at Trinidad and Tobago in the final game of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. won 1-0 on a twisting, sinking left footed shot by defensive midfielder Paul Caligiuri. It was dubbed the “shot heard round the world” but it was more like the miracle on grass.
Though the World Cups for the U.S. throughout the 90s were not always competitive, the team made strides. By 2002, led by coach Bruce Arena, the U.S. made it to the quarterfinals by defeating arch rival Mexico, 2-0. It was the Americans’ first win in the knockout round of a World Cup. Though the U.S. lost a close one to Germany, 1-0, that eliminated them from the tournament, U.S. men’s soccer had earned new found world-wide respect.
They built on that respect until the disastrous 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the final 2018 qualifier, a game they were expected to win and should have won. When it was over, Arena, arguably the best coach in U.S. soccer history — who stepped in when Jurgen Klinsmann was fired — resigned. The Americans’ failure made news around the world and when ESPN commentators appeared on a post-game show that night, they went on a marathon rant criticizing the team.
Some wondered if U.S. soccer would ever recover.
This year’s triumph, after a 14-game octagonal qualifying round in which the U.S. went 7-4-3, is creating new excitement about soccer in the U.S. and will surely grow the game.
Now a new generation of Americans kids will get to see the U.S. play in a World Cup, be inspired by it and possibly help the U.S. actually win a World Cup in the not too distant future.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].