SAN JOSE – American soccer's harrowing memory of the loss in Trinidad 4 1/2 years ago remains omnipresent, if no longer raw.
Denied a berth in the 2018 World Cup by a 2-1 defeat to an already-eliminated opponent, U.S. players try not to think about the fact they will qualify for this year's tournament as long as they don't lose to Costa Rica by six goals or more in Wednesday night's qualifying finale.
“The guys have told us, that have been here and through this path before, that we thought we qualified last World Cup," midfielder Tyler Adams said Tuesday. “The fans thought we did, as well. But we hadn’t when we realized our game was finished and we lost.”
Just four players remain from the American roster that left tears on the field on Couva: Christian Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola.
“I know this and Christian, too, better than anyone: It’s not over until it’s over. We can’t be too complacent. We can’t be too relaxed. We’ve still got a job to do,” Yedlin said. “Obviously, we’re in a good situation and we know that. but I think going into the Trinidad game, we thought we were in a good situation, as well.”
Canada (28 points) has clinched one of the three automatic berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. (25) is second ahead of Mexico on goal difference and Costa Rica (22) is fourth. Because the Americans have a plus-13 goal difference and Costa Rica is at plus-three, the U.S. could be denied only by a defeat of at least six goals.
“The media has classified us as the golden generation and the generation that’s going to qualify for the next World Cup,” 22-year-old winger Tim Weah said. “We do carry a lot of that weight on our shoulders, and qualifying for the World Cup, it’s not only for us, it’s for the group before, it’s for the Clints (Dempsey), it’s for DeAndres, for Jozy (Altidore), all the guys that didn’t get to do it again.”
The last time the U.S. lost a competitive match by six goals was in 1957.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. "We’re coming here to be aggressive in the game and to win the soccer game. That’s our intention. We’re not going to be cautious. We’re not going to sit back. We’re not going to play for a tie.”
The U.S. has nine losses and one draw in qualifiers at San Jose, and one victory, two defeats and three draws in road qualifiers in this cycle. Using one of the youngest rosters in international soccer, the Americans began last September with a 0-0 draw at El Salvador and a 1-1 draw at home against Canada, then gained strength over the five qualifying windows.
“It was really lack of experience,” Berhalter said. "We got kicked in the teeth that first round, and that’s what it was. We were potentially overconfident, not understanding what qualifying was about, and we learned that lesson quickly.”
Pulisic has five of the Americans' 21 goals, including his first international hat trick in Sunday's 5-1 home rout of Panama.
“Him growing up as sort of that golden child in the U.S. soccer generation, people put expectations on him. And to be quite frank with you, he’s dealt with them better than anybody would really deal with that,” Adams said. “In every single situation, he’s expected to do things that people like (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo are supposed to do.”
Right back Reggie Cannon rejoined the team after recovering from COVID-19. Gio Reyna is still not 90-minute ready while he is among 30 players and staff recovering from a stomach bug that started among the group last week in Mexico. Berhalter also revealed the hamstring injury that sidelined Reyna from September until February included nerve issues that were solved.
If the U.S. qualifies, Berhalter has little time to prepare for Friday's draw, where the Americans would be in pot two. The match ends about 9 p.m. local time, and he and staff have plans to catch an 11:54 p.m. flight to New York and a connection to Doha, Qatar. Coaches and players usually try not to think ahead of a game but Berhalter was forced to.
"I got over that weeks ago, because I know that’s a necessary evil of what we’re trying to accomplish," Berhalter said. "They want us there at the draw, so it’s going to be important that if we qualify, we’re there. So we have to make these arrangements."
Twenty-seven of the 44 players on U.S. qualifying rosters are with the team. and Berhalter planned to contact those not in Costa Rica to congratulate them.
Players prepared to celebrate at National Stadium, at least in one respect. They have a new JBL Boombox 2, a waterproof portable Bluetooth speaker purchased by team administrator Sam Zapatka. Weah is the DJ.
“Since I’ve been with the national team, we’ve had this tiny little Bose speaker, and every camp we talk about we need to get a new speaker, we need to get new speakers," Yedlin said. "I don’t know why it took eight years or however long it took, but finally, we got a nice speaker that we can play, so we’re pretty excited about it.”
Notes: Costa Rica is guaranteed no worse than a June playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand, and nine Ticos carry yellow cards: Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, Joel Campbell, Francisco Calvo, Bryan Oviedo, Johan Venegas, Keysher Fuller, Jewison Bennette and Alonso Martínez. Coach Luis Fernando Suárez said Sunday he may not risk some of them getting suspended for a playoff. ... Canada's Drew Fischer will be the referee.
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