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For four years, the U.S. men carried the sting and the shame of missing the World Cup in Russia.
It didn't matter that only a handful of players were left from that team, or that the failure prompted a reboot that has resulted in what is perhaps the greatest collection of talent the USMNT has had. Missing a World Cup for the first time in 32 years defined the current group as much as it did the previous one.
Despite an uninspiring performance and a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, the U.S. men officially qualified for the World Cup on Wednesday night. The loss to the Ticos dropped the USMNT a spot, to third, in the standings, but it was still enough to get one of Concacaf's three automatic spots.
Canada and Mexico also qualified, while Costa Rica will go to a one-game playoff in June against a team from Oceania.
"I’m extremely proud, extremely proud of this group," said Christian Pulisic, who sobbed on the field after the USMNT were knocked out four years ago. "It's a bit of a weird feeling now because I hate to lose so much. But I’m really proud."
As he and the rest of the USMNT should be.
Much will be made of the lackluster showing against Costa Rica, which didn't even play some of its key players for fear they'd pick up a second yellow card and miss the playoff. The Americans created few chances and couldn't do anything with the ones they did, even after standout Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas left with about 10 minutes left.
After Juan Pablo Vargas headed in a corner kick in the 51st to give Costa Rica its first goal, the USMNT looked completely disjointed. Eight minutes later, goalkeeper Zack Steffen botched the clearance of another corner kick and got out of position, allowing Anthony Contreras an easy shot on the near side that put the Ticos up 2-0.
But qualifying for the World Cup is never an easy, or sure, thing. Just ask Italy. The four-time winner, and reigning European champion, will miss its second consecutive World Cup after being knocked out last week by North Macedonia.
Whether the Americans won this game or lost it by five goals, the ultimate result was the same. Thanks to its draw at Mexico last week and a 5-1 win over Panama on Sunday, the USMNT simply needed not to lose to Costa Rica by six or more goals and it was on its way to Qatar.
Which it now is.
"Obviously it's not the way we wanted to end the night," DeAndre Yedlin said. "A little slip-up in the journey, but at the end of the day, we achieved what we wanted to achieve and that’s qualify for the World Cup."
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Now the Americans wait for Friday’s draw to see who they’ll play and when, and what awaits them should they make it out of the group stage. The World Cup begins Nov. 21 and will be played over four weeks at eight stadiums across Qatar.
The final is Dec. 18 in Doha.
"Being at the World Cup as a player is one of most special things you can do," said coach Gregg Berhalter, who was on the U.S. squad for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. "You think of the world stage and the games and the impact the games have, and how the nation’s behind you, it’s really a beautiful thing."
And as Berhalter knows after 2002, when the Americans made a surprise run to the quarterfinals, anything can happen once the World Cup begins.
Yes, this group is inexperienced and still trying to figure things out. But its talent and grit is undeniable. And even with some impressive wins during qualifying, we haven't even seen the best team the United States can field. Consider that Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest never played in the same game together.
Get all of them healthy, give them seven-plus more months to prepare, and who knows what the USMNT will do? The one certainty is that they wouldn't do anything if they hadn't qualified for Qatar.
"Obviously after the last World Cup, it was tough for some guys," Reyna said. "Everyone is just so happy. We've had our eyes on this for a long time."
After four years of looking back, the USMNT's eyes are now firmly fixed forward.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT qualifies for 2022 World Cup in Qatar