Tim Weah was supposed to spend most of his Wednesday evening in Columbus sitting on a bench.
He wasn't supposed to start the U.S. men's national team's pivotal World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. Until "literally five minutes" before it, he didn't know he would. When he did, as an injury replacement, he was supposed to exit after an hour of taxing labor. Reinforcements had been prepared. Weah saw them. And according to keen observers on site, he looked "cooked."
But then, with the USMNT struggling to break a 1-1 tie, and with opportunity waning, Weah burst into the penalty box. He barely even glanced at goal. And he fired the U.S. to the top of North and Central America's qualifying table with a textbook finish.
TIM WEAH GETS THE BOUNCE TO PUT THE USMNT UP 2-1 🙌 pic.twitter.com/9rzF6zztok
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 14, 2021
Technically, it will go down as an own goal. And on paper, Weah's whirlwind of a Wednesday night will look relatively mundane. He played 72 minutes. He didn't score. He exited to polite applause, one of many contributors to a crucial 2-1 U.S. win. Sergiño Dest was the original star. Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were vital. Weah's performance was strong but unspectacular.
Under these circumstances, though, it was remarkable.
Tim Weah's whirlwind night
Weah didn't even know when he'd get on the field until he and his teammates returned to the locker room after warmups. Paul Arriola, penciled in as the right winger, had pulled up with a groin injury. Head coach Gregg Berhalter thrust Weah into the starting 11. Weah hurriedly readied himself. "Everything was kind of a rush," he said.
Mentally, he felt prepared. The day before, he'd met with Berhalter for a one-on-one film session.
But he was, perhaps, unprepared for a 90-minute battle. Early in the second half, he seemed to slow. He looked toward the sideline. He saw backup winger Matthew Hoppe reviewing tactics with an assistant coach. "I kinda had the idea that I was gonna get subbed out," Weah admitted.
And if his night had ended there, around the 65th minute, it would have mirrored his young career, full of promise, but also twists and turns, injuries, roadblocks. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, he hadn't yet scored a meaningful USMNT goal.
But then, in the 66th minute, he pounced on Dest's clever pass. He kept his head down, his eyes drilling into the ball, the back of the net in his peripheral vision. He found it, via a post and a goalkeeper's back, and completed the USMNT's second crucial comeback in as many months.
The USMNT recovers from an early blow
The evening began ominously. Smoke from pregame fireworks hadn't even cleared. A towering tifo lingered. "The future is now," it read, and at 7 o'clock, ever so briefly, optimism was fresh. World Cup qualifying was still young. So was this talented American squad, its oldest outfield player 24 years old, its brightest stars at Juventus and Barcelona, its average age younger than ever before.
But 59 seconds into the match, Costa Rica struck. Columbus fell silent. Bryan Ruiz, the longtime Ticos wizard, unlocked the U.S. right side with an inventive back-heel. Ronald Matarrita beat Dest down the line. Matarrita's cross found its way to an unmarked Keysher Fuller at the back post.
COSTA RICA LEAD IN THE FIRST MINUTE!
USMNT DOWN 😱 pic.twitter.com/cgYSoIgU1n
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 13, 2021
Fuller's volley was tame. But goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a mildly controversial choice to start over Matt Turner, seemed to be put off by Costa Rican striker Jonathan Moya, who was right in his lap.
And Moya wasn't offside, because back where the cross came from, having tried to prevent it, Dest was all the way off the pitch, keeping every Costa Rican player onside.
Dest, though, would soon redeem himself. At the end of a 13-pass move, he danced inside onto his non-dominant left foot and sent a thunderbolt into the top corner to level the score at one.
SERGINO DEST WHAT A GOAL 🔥
The USMNT equalize! pic.twitter.com/eVNh8R8Lym
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 13, 2021
And not only did he do it with his left foot, but also with an untied left shoe.
"I think my shoelaces were loosened," Dest said with a smile after the game. He'd just watched the goal back in the locker room, likely marveling at it like the rest of us. "And [the shoe] was not tied.”
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) October 13, 2021
How the USMNT built momentum and broke Costa Rican resistance
The first half ended even. As the game wore on, though, it tilted toward the hosts. Costa Rica bunkered, often with nine or 10 of its 11 players behind the ball. Against Canada last month, and at times against Jamaica last week, the U.S. had failed to penetrate bunkers. But Wednesday, it did, consistently. Its positional play stretched Los Ticos at the seams. The ball zipped around the attacking half, and into dangerous areas, at attackers' feet.
What finally broke Costa Rican resistance, though, was an onslaught. It was volume. Momentum. The visitors, when they won possession, couldn't get out of their bunker and ceded the ball right back to the U.S.
"They had no outlets," Berhalter said. "And we did a good job, with our midfielders, pinning them in. Our center backs cleaned everything up that was coming out. And it really helps you gain momentum in the game. I mean, there was a time when we'd lose the ball, get it right back; lose the ball, get it right back. It helps you sustain attacks."
One of those periods of sustained control began in the 65th minute. The U.S. entered Costa Rica's half, and for a full 60 seconds, the ball stayed there. The Americans lost it twice. But they shut down all counterattacking avenues. They won it right back. They recycled possession.
Shortly after the second recovery, a Costa Rican mistake allowed Dest to play in Weah, who finally broke the deadlock, and secured a result that the USMNT, with a 1.4-0.2 Expected Goal advantage, thoroughly deserved.
"We dominated the first half, dominated the second half," Weah said. "And we got the reward for it."