USMNT Faces El Salvador in World Cup Qualifiers

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SAN SALVADOR — As the drama continues, the news is not an alarm, but eyebrows raised, at least by recent United States World Cup qualifying standards.

Still finding his way back to fitness after a positive coronavirus test and 10 days of isolation, Christian Pulisic had not traveled to El Salvador with his US teammates on Wednesday, a day before opening the final qualifying round of 2022 football. World Cup. The team announced that Pulisic will not play in Thursday’s game and neither will goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who has recently suffered from back spasms. He, too, remained in Nashville, where the US will return this weekend to face Canada.

“We feel like we have a deep team,” said coach Gregg Berhalter. “Now it’s time to show it.”

It was a cropped confidence that became Berhalter’s signature throughout his coaching career. Losing two anthems isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity, he said calmly. Berhalter talks a lot about opportunities. This summer’s Nations League was an opportunity to prove that their best players can go head-to-head with rival Mexico and win. which did they. The Gold Cup that followed was also an opportunity for a different set of US players. Americans beat Mexico to win this too.

Berhalter and his players have found that it is much easier to talk about opportunities when collecting trophies. However, for the majority of the current United States squad, the eight-team final qualifying round, which starts with three games over the next week, is just that: an opportunity to showcase the next generation of talent – ​​the average age of the current roster. about 24 – can get away from past disappointments, trust new players, write his own story.

“When Greg first came to the national team, he put into practice a plan that I don’t think any national team coach is willing to take a risk with,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “Basically changing the way the system works, inside and out, whether it’s our tactics, the players we want to have, what positions need to be made, the qualities we need to have, and basically how we can do it. It’s going to evolve and get better until this point, our first playoff game.”

He and they know there will be stumbling blocks: bad pitches, bad weather, bad referees, even bad results. They may come right away, or they may come in a month or two, but they will probably come. In the final cycle, the United States did not win a single road qualifier. The biggest opportunity lost then was the last game, not the first.

Any assessment of team USA status at the start of this qualifying cycle should begin at the end of the last: that overwhelming loss In Trinidad and Tobago, this caused the team to miss the World Cup for the first time in a generation.

For weeks, Berhalter and his players have been asked about that night. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta’s memory is probably clearer than most – he entered the game as a second half substitute and was on the pitch when his team’s world went dark – but he learned not to repeat that too much in interviews. Midfielder Brendan Aaronson, who was only 16 years old at the time, had a hard time remembering if he had watched any of the matches live. His teammate Weston McKennie was sure he didn’t. “I don’t really watch sports,” he said.

But the fact that most of the players couldn’t remember the match pointed to something else, probably something more important to them and their coach today: They weren’t there. They were not part of it. And they were certainly not to blame.

“I don’t think the group really sees it as a burden anymore,” McKennie said of 2017’s shadow. “I think more, we will not really focus on what happened in the past. It will obviously be somewhere in the back of our head, but it will not be our main fuel, our main focus: trying to save what happened years ago.

“I think right now we are just trying to create our own legacy.”

Many of the young stars who could make their debut against El Salvador on Thursday, including Adams, McKennie, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent and Sergiño Dest, weren’t the first to make their national teams after the Trinidad defeat. Berhalter was not hired for more than a year after the loss. It was 2019 before he coached his first game.

Now, his team is humming. Summer tournament victories have given players a taste of the fierce gameplay, hot nights, and questionable calls that have marked CONCACAF rivalries and World Cup qualifiers in the region. And for the first time, the final round will start with three games in a single window, a series of games that should theoretically support a Berhalter team with more depth than El Salvador, Canada and Honduras.

They know that every game is important. For years, qualifying calculation has been a simple formula: win your home games and then collect points on the way. But the new breed isn’t really interested in how things are going.

“Our mentality is to win all the games we can,” McKennie said. “I don’t think we have a formula like ‘Let’s win the games we play at home and get a few points away’. Our goal is to prove that we are the best at CONCACAF and I think the only way to do that is to dominate it.”

Said Adams: “There is no Plan B for us. There was only one Plan A and to qualify for this World Cup.”

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