USMNT's workmanlike reaction to win is understandable after 2018 World Cup disappointment | Opinion

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ORLANDO — When the final whistle sounded, the sold-out crowd at Exploria Stadium let out a roar, unleashing four years’ worth of frustration and angst.

The U.S. men's national soccer team was far more subdued, the extent of their celebrations the high fives and hugs they exchange after every win. The fans aren’t the only ones who’ve been carrying the scars of missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“I’m not celebrating anything,” Paul Arriola, one of the few holdovers from the last qualifying cycle, said after the 5-1 win over Panama on Sunday night. “I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, four years ago. We know how that qualifying ended.

“It’s just maintaining focus and understanding we still have work to do,” said Arriola, who scored a goal and set up another. “The mentality of this group is, and has to be, to go down and get a good result in Costa Rica.”

The skittishness is understandable. The 2018 World Cup was the first the U.S. missed since 1986, and ushered in a near-total overhaul of the USMNT.

That said, this isn’t four years ago. Even if it’s not yet official, the USMNT effectively clinched a spot at the World Cup in Qatar with the win over Panama.

Yes, they still have a game Wednesday in Costa Rica, where they’ve never won a World Cup qualifier and where their best result in any game is a draw. But the Ticos would have to beat the USMNT by six or more goals in order to move the Americans out of one of Concacaf’s automatic three spots.

Costa Rica has never scored more than four goals against the USMNT. The U.S. men haven’t lost a game by six or more goals since 1979, which doesn’t even count as the modern era in American soccer.

“(The USMNT) has never won a qualifier in San Jose,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Guys are hungry for that. We’re going to put a lineup on the field that’s going to go for the win. I don’t think the guys would want any less. I know the coaches wouldn’t want any less.”

Costa Rica’s game was over before the U.S. kicked off against Panama, so the Americans knew they couldn’t officially clinch Sunday night. But it is as much about making statements for this group as it is the result.

This is a group that wants to be seen as one of the world’s top teams, with some of the world’s very best players. It doesn’t accomplish that by backing into, or down, from anything. Or anyone. So Berhalter told his players to be aggressive, to come out flying and keep their foot on the gas no matter the score.

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Paul Arriola celebrates his goal against Panama.
Paul Arriola celebrates his goal against Panama.

It was fitting then, that the first goal came courtesy of Christian Pulisic and Walker Zimmerman, bookends in the talent and swagger that epitomize this young generation of Americans.

On a corner kick in the 13th minute, Anibal Godoy put his hands around Zimmerman’s neck and threw him to the ground in the penalty area. Play continued until Zimmerman’s protests drew the attention of the ref, who called for a video review.

The Americans were awarded a penalty after the review, and Pulisic buried it to give the Americans the only goal they’d need for the win. He converted another penalty kick just before halftime, and finished the hat trick in the 65th on a goal that showcased his nifty footwork and agility.

Pulisic is, of course, the phenom. He has represented the promise of the United States as a fully formed soccer nation, a mainstay in Europe who is playing at the very highest level of international soccer. Before this qualifying window, he had scored for Chelsea in both legs of their Round of 16 Champions League matchup.

Zimmerman embodies the grit and grind that makes U.S. players so unique and even more mesmerizing. He was on the U.S. roster for the first qualifying window but didn’t play. He was then dropped from the initial roster for the October games, brought in only after Tim Ream withdrew.

But Zimmerman has become so essential to the USMNT that he wears the captain’s armband on occasion, including for the last 20 minutes Sunday night.

The USMNT isn’t on the verge of the World Cup without players like Pulisic and Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna. But they’re not here without players like Zimmerman and Arriola, either.

“We came out with a lot of intensity. We obviously capitalized on some early opportunities and that set the tone for the match,” Zimmerman said. “Every single goal counts and we’re in a really good spot heading to Costa Rica.”

A good spot, yes. But good is no longer enough, not for this new generation of Americans. The failure in 2018 left a mark on them, too.

“The goal, obviously, has always been to qualify for the World Cup,” said Tyler Adams, who made his debut with the USMNT the month after they failed to qualify. “This is just another step in the right direction.”

A direction that takes them to Qatar and beyond.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT on brink of 2022 World Cup qualification after win vs. Panama