USMNT seals World Cup qualification, banishes demons of 2018 failure

The darkest days were tinged less with toxicity, more with indifference. They began in 2018, months after the World Cup qualifying failure that rocked American soccer, and droned on, and on, and on. Mediocre players came and went. An interim coach overstayed his mandate. And disillusioned fans lost interest.

They had, in the aftermath of the U.S. men’s national team’s worst night ever, developed an overpowering thirst for change — for a reckoning, an overhaul, an instant teardown and rebuild. It didn’t happen four years ago, or three. Hope seemed futile during a 14-month coaching search that landed on Gregg Berhalter, and shaky during his uninspiring first year on the job. Some longtime supporters refer to those endless initial months as “purgatory.” Exasperation became defeatism and despair.

But slowly, quietly, beneath the radars of talking heads who fomented negativity, Berhalter built something. Slowly, at European clubs and MLS academies, players blossomed. Together, at training camps and in group chats, they reformed a culture. They revamped a roster that had gone stale. On-field habits changed. Mentalities strengthened.

They built toward Sunday’s cathartic trouncing of Panama, and toward Wednesday night, when they officially clinched World Cup qualification in Costa Rica. Only a 6-0 loss or worse could have delayed their plans for Qatar. A 2-0 loss brought mixed emotions, but was comfortably sufficient.

Once and for all, they banished the specter of Oct. 10, 2017; of the loss in Trinidad and Tobago that led to turmoil; of the debacle that has loomed ever since but that, now, finally, need not loom any longer.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - MARCH 27: The United States Mens National Team hold a 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualified banner after defeating Panama 5-1 at Exploria Stadium on March 27, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
The United States men's national team unveiled a "QUALIFIED" banner after beating Panama — even though it hadn't yet clinched. On Wednesday, it finished the job, and is headed to the 2022 World Cup. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Years of USMNT purgatory

There was no single rock bottom, no single day when hope seemed lost. There were, instead, several.

The qualifying failure took down two head coaches and longtime U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. The most heated presidential election in the federation’s century-long history offered an initial opportunity for top-down reform. But Carlos Cordeiro, the standing vice president and ultimate insider, won it. The USMNT, meanwhile, was playing dull friendlies in mostly-empty stadiums under an assistant coach leftover from the ousted regime. The program, it seemed, was directionless. Its social media team couldn’t even tweet “happy birthday” to a player without receiving keyboard vitriol.

This was the “purgatory,” and it lasted more than a year. Some players grew frustrated. They got battered by England in London 13 months into this interim period, and dipped further into irrelevance.

But it was also the start of the rebuild. The election led to the hiring of the USMNT’s first-ever general manager, Earnie Stewart, who led the process that landed on Berhalter. The former Columbus Crew boss, armed with time, patience and a notoriously meticulous work ethic, set out to install systems and tactics that would define the USMNT for years to come.

That summer, though, a frightening reality reappeared: His players, in a player-driven sport, still weren’t good enough. A B-minus USMNT managed just one shot on goal in a loss to Jamaica. An A-minus team got ripped apart by Venezuela. The 2019 Gold Cup brought a few promising performances, but a 1-0 loss to Mexico in the final highlighted limitations.

Berhalter, who’d spent his entire coaching career at clubs, working with players daily for much of the year, struggled to implement a new style at full tilt. He turned a friendly vs. Mexico into a glorified training session, and his players got stomped, 3-0. A month later, they fell to Canada for the first time in 34 years, and fans fumed. The consensus was clear: The USMNT was still stuck in crisis.

The USMNT’s evolution

It was around that time, though, that two major developments began bearing fruit. A years-long, nationwide effort to reform youth academies helped produce players like Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson. A vibrant team culture, night and day compared to last cycle, helped woo dual nationals like Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi. They joined Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, who’d already broken into global soccer’s upper stratosphere, and suddenly, the USMNT had fully moved on from the personnel responsible for the 2018 World Cup failure.

They grew as individuals and as a collective, riding out the pandemic and then bursting to life last summer. They beat Mexico in a manic Nations League final, then again at the Gold Cup two months later. They did so as the youngest team in program history, and the youngest national team in the world. They entered World Cup qualifying largely uninitiated — of the 26 players on Berhalter’s initial and final rosters, only four were leftover from October 2017 — and stumbled out of the gate. But their quality ultimately took CONCACAF by storm.

They all but clinched qualification with a gutsy draw in Mexico followed by the undressing of Panama last week. Wednesday night was merely an anti-climactic coronation. The USMNT will be in Qatar. The question, now, is what it can do while there.

The answer is plenty, because the team's growth phase is still ongoing. Pulisic, Adams and McKennie are still only 23. Tim Weah is 22. Dest and Aaronson are 21. Reyna, Pepi and Musah are 19. There are teenagers, such as Joe Scally and Gianluca Busio, who could soon develop into mainstays. There are no contributors over age 30.

And now there are eight months to prepare, for individuals to improve, for the group to jell. This USMNT is not, currently, on March 30, a true World Cup contender, but the tournament begins in November. The possibilities are endless.

Berhalter, ever since taking the job, has said that his mission is to "change the way the world views American soccer."

He and the USMNT haven’t yet done that, but on Wednesday, they confirmed that later this year, they’ll get their chance.

Read More: Everything you need to know about the 2022 World Cup