U.S. men's soccer team eager to forge new path on cusp of World Cup berth

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MEXICO CITY - MARCH 24: Mexico defender Jorge Sanchez (3) and United States forward Christian Pulisic.
Mexico defender Jorge Sanchez, left, and U.S. forward Christian Pulisic battle for the ball during a 0-0 draw in World Cup qualifying Thursday. The U.S. could clinch a World Cup berth Sunday with a win over Panama combined with a tie or loss by Costa Rica at El Salvador. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In the last World Cup qualifying cycle five years ago, the U.S. went into its penultimate game, in Orlando, Fla., needing a win over Panama to all but ensure a spot in the tournament.

The Americans won that game, but four days later they lost in Trinidad and Tobago, setting off a chain of bizarre events that ended with the U.S. missing the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.

Gregg Berhalter remembers viewing that last game helplessly from his living room in Columbus, Ohio.

“I was on my couch watching it with a group of people,” he said Saturday. “And obviously we were disappointed with it.”

He’ll have a better view Sunday when, as coach of the national team, he’ll be on the sidelines as the U.S. again plays Panama in its penultimate qualifier of this cycle with a chance to get back to the World Cup.

But history, he said, won’t be on his mind or the minds of his players.

“I know there are similarities to last time,” he said “but we're looking forward. I don't think this is a group that looks back. We acknowledge what happened in the past; it's part of who we are as the U.S. men's national team.

“We have to forge your own path. And tomorrow's a good time to do it.”

They can do that Sunday because a victory over Panama, combined with a tie or loss by Costa Rica at El Salvador, would guarantee the U.S. a top-three spot in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament and a berth in this fall’s World Cup in Qatar.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter instructs his players and raises his arm and points.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter instructs his players during the first half of a World Cup qualifying match Thursday against Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Even a draw would be enough if fourth-place Costa Rica loses. And those are just the simple scenarios because, given the Americans’ seven-score advantage over Costa Rica in goal differential, even a loss to Panama wouldn’t keep the U.S. from advancing provided it wins its last qualifier Wednesday in Costa Rica.

That’s a situation Berhalter greatly wants to avoid, however, since the U.S. is 0-9-2 in Costa Rica.

Well, because of that and the memories of what happened five years ago in Trinidad, when coach Bruce Arena’s team let things go down to the final match.

“I preach to the team about just one game at a time, sticking to the process, doing the small things, doing the process-orientated things,” Berhalter said. “It's really important not to get ahead of ourselves. We can only control what we can control.”

Defender Antonee Robinson said the players have embraced their coach’s philosophy. But the closer they get to a World Cup berth, the harder it becomes not to look ahead.

“The team's done a really good job knowing the prize that's at the end of it if we're successful. But also keeping our heads and keeping that one-game-at-a-time attitude,” he said. “We know that we can qualify tomorrow. So it's obviously huge.

“Going into it I don't think much is going to change mind-set-wise.”

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen agreed.

“Our focus is on getting three points tomorrow. It's mandatory at home,” he said.

But, he added “the situation we're in, potentially could qualify for the World Cup tomorrow night on our home turf, that's pretty special.”

If Berhalter has had some success shaping his players’ psyche, he’s had only partial control over who gets on the field. And that’s becoming a problem.

Four starters Berhalter wanted to call in for this qualifying window are absent because of injury. Two others — defender DeAndre Yedlin and forward Tim Weah — are suspended for Sunday after picking up yellow cards Thursday in Mexico. And outside back Reggie Cannon is unavailable after testing positive for the coronavirus.

That leaves Shaq Moore, who wasn’t even on the original roster for these qualifiers, as Berhalter’s best option at right back. And some of the seven field players who played 80 or more minutes in the altitude of Mexico City two days ago may be limited Sunday.

“You’re never going to have your best team. You're always going to be missing players,” Berhalter said. “We're much more intentional about the next-man-up mentality because that's literally what it is.”

Finally, there’s another quirky bit of history hovering over the U.S. that could come into play against Panama as well. In the four previous qualifying windows in this World Cup cycle, the U.S. has failed to win the second game each time, losing twice — once to Panama — and drawing twice.

Sunday’s game is the second in this window.

“This is a great challenge for us,” Berhalter said. “Let's win this game. This is the last window, last opportunity to do that.”

If the U.S. does that, it may not be the only history that gets revised. By qualifying for the World Cup, the team could also erase the disappointment Berhalter felt sitting on his living room sofa five years ago.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.