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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Enter the Octagon: Costa Rica, Canada, USA start World Cup qualifiers

A youthful United States men’s squad will be looking to exorcise the ghost of the team’s ill-fated bid to reach the 2018 World Cup on Thursday as the CONCACAF region’s final qualifiers for Qatar 2022 get under way.

Four years ago, US soccer was plunged into the darkest moment of its modern history when Bruce Arena’s team suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago to miss out on a place at the finals in Russia.

That shattering loss marked the first time since the 1986 World Cup that the US had failed to qualify for the international showpiece, a startling fall from grace for a team that reached the last 16 of the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

The road to redemption — and a place at next year’s finals in Qatar — begins for the United States in San Salvador on Thursday, when US coach Gregg Berhalter’s team take on El Salvador in the opening round of final qualifying for teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF).

Berhalter’s side is chasing one of the three automatic qualifying places on offer for the eight teams competing in the CONCACAF “Octagonal” round robin league, which also includes Mexico, Canada, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica. The team finishing fourth faces a playoff against a team from another region next year.

Berhalter, who was appointed in late 2018, has gradually overseen a renaissance in US fortunes after an uncertain start to his reign, developing a squad spearheaded by a new generation of talented Europe-based players while building greater depth.

Embracing challenge

The US head into Thursday’s opener against El Salvador brimming with confidence after a summer which included a memorable 3-2 victory over arch rivals Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Nations League, which was followed by another defeat of Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup — a tournament victory achieved with most of the European contingent missing.

Berhalter reiterated however that the USA’s summer of success would count for little if the team botched its World Cup qualification campaign.

“It’s nice to win a trophy in the Nations League, it’s nice to win a Gold Cup trophy, it’s nice to be ranked 10th in the world,” Berhalter said on a recent video conference with reporters. 

“But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t qualify for the World Cup. Our mission is not even close to being completed. It would be a failure if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and all the work would be undone if we didn’t qualify.

“It’s really simple — our challenge is understanding that every single thing we’ve done until now is only a foundation. Now it’s about going out and competing in a World Cup qualifier, with the hope of eventually qualifying for the World Cup, and then making an impact at the World Cup.”

The 26-strong training group Berhalter has assembled in Nashville this week boasts an average age of 24 years and 43 days, including teenaged talent such as Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and FC Dallas’s Ricardo Pepi, both only 18.

‘Guys are ready’

It means one of the youngest US national team rosters in history will embark on a challenging CONCACAF qualifying campaign infamous for hostile environments, variable conditions and erratic officiating. Former US international Berhalter says he wants his young squad to embrace those challenges.

“We can’t wait for that,” Berhalter said. “That’s what this is all about. In my days you’d go to the stadium and stuff would be getting thrown at the bus. You walk on the pitch and they’re throwing stuff at you. They play loud music outside the hotel.

“This is why we play this game. We’ve been developing this group to be resilient, to face challenges head on, to embrace challenges and setbacks.

“When I think about the level of competition our team has been playing at — Champions League, national team, or club teams — the guys are ready.

“We know it’s going to be a road faced with unexpected twists and turns and we’re going to welcome that.”

In other opening fixtures on Thursday, Canada host Honduras, while Panama face Costa Rica.

Mexico, who have played at every World Cup since 1990, will face Jamaica at an empty Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The game is being played behind closed doors after Mexico were sanctioned for their fans’ use of an anti-gay chant.

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