The United States men’s national team, according to just about every mathematical model and rational analyst, will very likely qualify for the 2022 World Cup at some point over the next seven days. And yet here were Paul Arriola and Tyler Adams, in Houston ahead of three decisive matches, addressing questions about fear.
It hadn’t penetrated the USMNT camp, they insisted.
“There’s no fear at all,” Adams said.
But as he spoke, it pervaded a fan base scarred by Couva. By Oct. 10, 2017. That sleepy Trinidadian city and infamous date have since loomed as reminders to American soccer that men’s World Cup participation is not guaranteed.
And they’re the source of the nightmares coursing through USMNT diehards this week. The scenarios where a wounded American team falls in Mexico, then struggles with Panama, then collapses in Costa Rica and misses the World Cup.
They are, statistically, somewhat far-fetched. One model gives the U.S. a 98% chance to qualify. It has a four-point lead on fourth-place Panama, and a five-point lead on fifth-place Costa Rica with just three matches to go. If the Yanks win the second of their three games, against Panama on Sunday in Orlando, they’d essentially need just one draw at either Mexico or Costa Rica, or a Costa Rica loss or draw against either Canada or El Salvador, to book their place in Qatar.
At worst, they’d go to an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand, which they’d likely win.
In other words, just beat Panama — which they did, 4-0, at this exact same stage and stadium last cycle — and they’re in.
But here’s where the existential dread begins to bubble. “Whatever we’re predicting is going to happen in this window, throw it out,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said last week. “Because something else will happen, trust me.”
Oh, we know, Gregg, the fan base responded in unison. We know.
So much could go wrong. So much already has. Star midfielder Weston McKennie broke his foot and is out for the season. Goalkeeper Matt Turner and center back Chris Richards are also sidelined. Just this past week, fullback Sergiño Dest pulled up with a hamstring injury, and Brendan Aaronson injured his knee. All have been ruled out for the qualifiers. Others are out of form or riding European benches. The roster is semi-depleted.
It should be able to handle Panama at home, so what’s all the fuss, you might ask. But ah, the answer is simple: Mexico City. Seventy hours before the Panama match, the U.S. will play 90 grueling minutes at altitude, at a stadium at which, in World Cup qualifying, an American team has never won. Mexico is a -115 favorite with BetMGM, while the USMNT is just +333 to win.
There are anxious and pragmatic factions of the fan base that want Berhalter to send out a B-team vs. Mexico, to preserve stars and prioritize the Panama match. Berhalter saw those arguments over the past month. He took the idea to his staff and asked: “Does it have merit?”
They debated it. Berhalter wouldn’t reveal what decision they came to. He and players, though, have said they are there to win, and that’s precisely when the anxiety among fans kicks in: What if they lose? And what if players arrive in Orlando weary? What if a few more get injured? What if Adams, the midfield general, picks up another yellow card and therefore a one-game suspension?
“Same mentality as always,” Adams said Tuesday. “I’m still tackling.”
Shudders ran down fans’ spines.
They are nervous because, despite the many paths that lead to Qatar, the path that doesn’t is frighteningly believable. It begins, of course, with a loss to Mexico on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, Univision/CBS Sports Network). It continues with Panama, to whom the U.S. lost in October. It concludes in Costa Rica, where the USMNT has never won.
It’s compounded by results elsewhere. The U.S. could, in theory, qualify without winning a game, but help seems unlikely. Panama and Costa Rica both host Canada, which has all but clinched qualification. Their other remaining matches are against lowly Honduras and El Salvador, respectively.
The math is favorable but external panic is tangible, and that’s why reporters asked players about it this week.
“I mean, I think every time you go into important games that have such value, you always feel the nerves,” Adams admitted. “But when the whistle blows, everything becomes normal again. It’s another football match at the end of the day. You have to go, and you have to rely [on] and trust your instincts.”
Adams was 18 and sitting on a couch when the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament. He watched those gut-wrenching scenes on TV. Most of his U.S. teammates did too. Only four of the 26 players in Mexico City were also in Couva. Most, if not all, bear zero responsibility for that failure.
And yet it has hung over them. They know it’s there. Berhalter addressed those wounds at team meetings during the 2019 Gold Cup, ahead of the USMNT’s first rematch with Trinidad and Tobago. “And that was a big moment for that group,” Berhalter said months ago. “We had to address our fears.”
But they never threatened to derail this group, whose youth is unprecedented. There is no fear, Arriola confirmed. Only a sense of duty, of responsibility.
“We have to qualify,” Adams said. “There’s just no other option.”