USMNT, with another surging second half, takes another step toward 2022 World Cup

COLUMBUS, OH - JANUARY 27: Antonee Robinson #5 of United States celebrates with his teammates after scoring his team's first goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers match between United States and El Salvador at Field on January 27, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
U.S. fullback Antonee Robinson celebrates his second critical goal of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle, a winner against El Salvador on Thursday in Columbus. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) (Omar Vega via Getty Images)

If soccer games lasted only 45 minutes, the U.S. men's national team would be on the brink of missing another World Cup. And no, that isn't an exaggeration. Not after Thursday night, after another frustrating first half, another 45-minute stalemate against a country one-fiftieth the United States' size.

It was Game 9 of a 14-round qualifying gauntlet. It was also the ninth time the USMNT trudged into a locker room at halftime without a lead. And it was the ninth time that, within a panic-prone fan base, there was something between horror and unease.

Then, as there so often has been since the cycle began in September, there was a response. A second-half surge. And a significant step toward the 2022 World Cup.

Antonee Robinson lashed home a 51st-minute winner. The U.S. beat El Salvador, 1-0. It momentarily jumped to the top of North and Central America's qualifying table. The Americans likely won't end the night there — Canada will reclaim pole position if it hangs on to beat Honduras — but they are well on their way to Qatar.

In reality, they have been for months. But sluggish first halves have made the campaign more tense and trying than a simple list of results would make it seem. The U.S. has scored just twice before halftime. If games ended there, its record would be 0-8-1.

But four months ago, there was the comeback in Honduras. In the months that followed, there were second-half breakthroughs against Jamaica, Costa Rica and Mexico. On Thursday, there was another one, courtesy of the man, Robinson, who initiated the turnaround way back in San Pedro Sula.

Now there are just five games remaining, and perhaps as few as two more victories necessary, and very little doubt the U.S. will get them.

There was, though, at halftime in Columbus, some doubt about Thursday's result. By the end of Thursday's 90 minutes, the performance looked dominant on paper, but for a while, it was anything but.

There were chances in the first half — most notably for U.S. striker Jesus Ferreira — but only chances wasted. There was an out-of-sync press, and Christian Pulisic giveaways, and simmering frustration.

But then came the goal, and American attackers streaming forward, and a breather for Pulisic, with Canada up next on Sunday and Honduras next week.

The gauntlet concludes in March, with trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, and a home date with Panama. The worst-case scenario, at this point, seems to be a fourth-place finish and an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand. The far more likely outcome is a top-three finish and a plane ticket to Qatar in November.