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USMNT, so close to the World Cup, still knows ‘anything can happen’

Goalkeeper Zack Steffen and midfielder Tyler Adams are expected to start against Costa Rica in the last of the U.S. team's 14 World Cup qualifiers. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Officially, the U.S. men’s national soccer team has yet to qualify for the World Cup. Officially, Costa Rica has not confirmed its place in an intercontinental playoff for a berth in Qatar in November.

Yet when the teams arrive at Estadio Nacional on Wednesday night, their futures will have for all intents and purposes already been settled. Barring a six-goal defeat, the young U.S. squad will make amends for missing soccer’s greatest spectacle four years ago by successfully navigating Concacaf’s regional competition.

On Tuesday, no one in the U.S. delegation was speaking as though the team had qualified — even after a “QUALIFIED” banner inadvertently was handed to the players to parade around the stadium Sunday night after a 5-1 rout of Panama in Orlando.

“Until we are officially qualified,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said, “you are not there, and anything can happen.”

“Obviously we are in a good situation,” said defender DeAndre Yedlin, one of four holdovers from the squad that missed the 2018 World Cup on the final day of qualifying with a defeat at last-place Trinidad and Tobago. “But going into the Trinidad game we thought we were in a good situation as well.”

Though his team doesn’t need to win or even draw, Berhalter said the mentality will not change.

“We’re coming here to be aggressive, to win the soccer game,” he said. “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. We’re going to play for a win. It would be strange now after 13 rounds to differ in your last game.”

With almost no hope of breaking into Concacaf’s top three for an automatic berth, Costa Rica is poised for a one-game showdown in June against the Oceania champion, New Zealand or Solomon Islands.

Canada clinched the first Concacaf berth Sunday, ending a 36-year drought. Mexico will claim a spot by beating or tying El Salvador on Wednesday at Estadio Azteca. Panama, El Salvador, Jamaica and Honduras have been eliminated.

With a home victory, Costa Rica (6-3-4, 22 points) would pull level with the United States (7-2-4, 25). But the first tiebreaker is goal differential over the entire competition, so the Ticos would need to run up a six-goal victory to surpass the Americans. They’ve scored five goals combined in their previous five qualifiers. They also could catch Mexico (7-2-4, 25) on points but face another large goal-differential gap.

The Americans have never enjoyed qualifiers here: nine consecutive defeats by a 23-6 margin, including a 4-0 wipeout in 2016 that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his coaching job.

In 2000, as a player, Berhalter was at the center of a controversial penalty kick that led to Costa Rica’s winning goal. Claudio Reyna, father of current U.S. standout Gio Reyna, tossed his captain’s armband at referee Peter Prendergast. He and Coach Bruce Arena were suspended.

This is Concacaf, where oddities abound.

“Of course. Always,” Yedlin said, smiling. “I think everybody knows what that entails.”

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Given the situation, Costa Rica will need to keep one eye on the summer playoff, its best gateway to a fifth World Cup berth in the past six cycles. Nine players are carrying a yellow card, and if one of those players gets another Wednesday, he would be ineligible for the playoff.

The Americans are motivated to not just complete their mission but win a qualifier here for the first time.

“We have an opportunity at hand to do something special — that is what is exciting,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “We’re not thinking too far ahead. We still need to take care of business before we look forward to the World Cup.”

Notes: Defender Reggie Cannon rejoined the team after recovering from the coronavirus. ... Yedlin and forward Tim Weah will be back in uniform after serving yellow-card suspensions.