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The U.S. men’s national soccer team qualifies for World Cup in Qatar

Christian Pulisic and the United States exorcised the demons that have haunted the program since it failed to qualify for soccer's greatest spectacle four years ago. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
5 min

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — At the end of an uncertain seven-month journey, on a breezy Wednesday night in another trembling stadium far from home, the U.S. men’s national soccer team fulfilled its quest for a World Cup berth with one last 90-minute ramble.

With safeguards in place, it felt more like a countdown than a competition: 90 minutes to finish what started so tamely last fall in San Salvador and to exorcise demons that had haunted the program since a Caribbean fiasco 4½ years ago ended a string of seven straight tournament appearances.

It did not go smoothly in the second half, but the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica fell well within the margin of error for the young Americans to advance to the greatest sports spectacle on the planet.

“Looking at the big picture, we’re so proud to represent our country in a World Cup,” star forward Christian Pulisic said. “We’re thrilled about that. In a couple of days, I don’t think we’ll be thinking about this game too much.”

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With a 7-3-4 record, they will join Canada (8-2-4) and Mexico (8-2-4) from the Concacaf region at the World Cup, which will run from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18 in Qatar.

Costa Rica pulled even with the United States on points but lost the first tiebreaker (goal differential) and settled for a playoff against Oceania champion New Zealand in June.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, will conduct the World Cup group draw Friday.

“At first it was a little bit awkward because it’s weird celebrating after a loss,” defender DeAndre Yedlin said, “but it’s about the journey and we achieved our goal.”

On Sunday, the United States eased the stress in the final stretch by routing Panama, 5-1 — a result that forced Costa Rica into a situation in which it had to win by six goals Wednesday to earn an automatic berth.

U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter did not take any chances, naming a strong starting lineup headlined by Pulisic and Tyler Adams. He was motivated to protect his team’s place in the race and to win a qualifier in Costa Rica for the first time. The team has now lost 10 straight here.

With Costa Rica guaranteed of finishing no worse than fourth and facing long odds of climbing into third, Coach Luis Suarez’s priority was keeping players eligible for the playoff. With nine at risk of receiving a second yellow card (and suspension), five were on the bench, three weren’t in uniform, and one started.

After a scoreless first half controlled by the visitors, Juan Pablo Vargas and Anthony Contreras scored eight minutes apart early in the second half.

The crowd chanted, “¡Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) — but the Americans regained their footing.

“It’s a proud moment for the team, a proud moment for U.S. soccer,” Berhalter said, “and we’re looking forward to competing in the World Cup.”

U.S. success in the qualifying stage was fueled by the most promising class of young players in U.S. history, a “golden generation” headlined by Pulisic, plying their trade for big clubs in major European leagues.

At the start of the 14-game odyssey, which was condensed by the pandemic, there were questions about whether they were up to the challenge of high-stakes matches in chaotic Concacaf environments and willing to coalesce around Berhalter, a former U.S. defender in his first qualifying cycle as a coach.

“The buildup from the youth stage was always for this day to come,” said Tim Weah, a 22-year-old forward. “We were always talking about the day we would be able to qualify and be there with the top dogs.”

Playing together on youth squads, said Adams, a 23-year-old midfielder, “really prepared ourselves for this opportunity. We want to rewrite how these American fans view us, not just through our style of play but our intensity, our commitment, our belief that we want to take U.S. soccer to the next level.”

The Americans began qualifying with a draw in El Salvador and a draw against Canada in Nashville before overcoming a deficit in Honduras to win, 4-1.

“It was lack of experience,” Berhalter said. “We really got kicked in the teeth that first round. We were potentially overconfident, not understanding what qualifying was about, and we learned that lesson quickly.”

In starts and stops, they found their way, winning their last six home qualifiers by a 15-2 margin. Valuable away points came in Jamaica and Mexico before they closed the calendar in disappointing fashion at Costa Rica’s gorgeous national stadium.

The scene was more joyous than intense. Home fans were under no illusions about their team’s chances of swiping the automatic World Cup bid; they just wanted to send their team off on a high note and continue to vex the visitors.

Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas (Paris Saint-Germain) spoiled Miles Robinson’s volley, then reached back to prevent the ball from rolling across the goal line. He also stopped Ricardo Pepi’s angled blast. The Americans drew seven corner kicks before halftime.

Pulisic took a beating, which could not have sat well with Chelsea, which resumes English Premier League play this weekend and the Champions League next week. Nonetheless, he was back at it in the second half.

So was Navas, who made a soaring save on Robinson’s header.

In the 51st minute, Vargas shattered the deadlock by beating Walker Zimmerman to Brandon Aguilera’s corner kick and powering a seven-yard header past Zack Steffen. In the 59th, after U.S. failures to clear, Contreras tucked in Jewison Bennette’s cross.

By the 75th minute, the match had slowed. Navas left to a rousing ovation, Pulisic to whistles. Thoughts began turning to bigger things — for Costa Rica this summer and the United States late this year.

Because his team lost, Berhalter said, “there was a little lack of celebration on the field, but in the locker room, we’re partying, we’re going nuts.”