SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Once the players were done dousing each other with beer and champagne, once Tim Weah carried the boombox out of Estadio Nacional’s locker room while tunes were still pumping, the U.S. men’s national soccer team was on the move.
European-based players, still wearing ski goggles to protect their eyes from sprayed alcohol, prepared for a charter to London to rejoin clubs resuming league seasons this weekend. Another bunch was headed stateside for MLS matches.
There were hugs, high-fives and howls — expression of both joy and relief as a World Cup qualifying campaign spanning seven months and 14 games culminated with a place in the 32-team finals in November.
The Americans will gather again in June for four matches and in September for two, but the next time they find themselves in the spotlight will be in Qatar.
“Now we have to test ourselves against the best players in the world, the best teams in the world,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “This was only the first stage in our development, and we have come out of that on top.”
The United States did not finish first or second in the Concacaf competition, but after the team missed the 2018 World Cup in horrific fashion and started from scratch with a new coach and fresh generation of players, all that matters is making it.
Like in the last cycle, the United States lost its last qualifier, 2-0, to Costa Rica on Wednesday. But this time it had done enough through the first 13 games to withstand a setback by anything other than a six-goal margin.
“We’re allowed to be proud of what we’ve accomplished,” star forward Christian Pulisic said. “We’re going to a World Cup. Frustrated about the result [against Costa Rica], but we did what we needed to do.”
Defender DeAndre Yedlin and others said celebrating after a defeat was awkward at first. But, defender Walker Zimmerman added: “You envision that moment — to pop champagne, to pop beers — and really just appreciate all the hard work and sacrifice you put in. The easy part is over, and now it’s focusing on Qatar.”
The Americans will arrive with perhaps the youngest roster in the 32-team tournament. More than half the team probably will be 25 or younger.
“I don’t think it’s about age,” said Pulisic, who will turn 24 in the fall. “We have a hungry team, a hungry bunch of guys who are playing at top level clubs across the world. We can go in with confidence, no matter our age.”
And what could they accomplish at the World Cup?
“We can do a lot of damage, man,” Pulisic said. “We’re a confident bunch of guys. The country will get behind us, and we will give everything we’ve got. I think we can be a force in the World Cup.”
The U.S. team wasn’t exactly a force in Concacaf, finishing behind Canada and Mexico and level with Costa Rica, which settled for fourth with a goal differential that was far inferior to that of the Americans.
The lone U.S. away victory came against winless Honduras in September, and the team didn’t score in any of its last three road games. It doesn’t have a clear-cut starting striker.
Still, the program is moving in the right direction. In the past 10 months, it won both the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup and qualified for the World Cup.
Locked into Concacaf competitions and limited by the pandemic, the Americans have not faced much world-class competition in years. To prepare for the World Cup, the USSF said it’s looking to arrange friendlies against higher-caliber teams or ones that play similar styles to teams in the U.S. group.
In June, aside from two Concacaf Nations League matches, there will be opportunities to schedule two friendlies. The September window is also available for two friendlies and, depending on the date of its World Cup opener, the U.S. team could play at least one tuneup in Europe before arriving in Qatar.
The USSF already has locked into a base camp and training center in Doha. Berhalter now will embrace the task of preparing — and picking — his team.
He used almost 40 players in qualifying. World Cup rosters typically have 23 but might expand this year. While many regulars are sure to make the final list, Berhalter said he will continue monitoring the broader player pool.
“There are some players who may even make a step up that we don’t even really know about yet or are just on the fringes,” he said.
Berhalter also will hope to have everyone healthy for the World Cup. In qualifying, Pulisic, Sergiño Dest, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Zack Steffen missed considerable time. Five regulars were unavailable for the last three-game window.
What Berhalter can count on is chemistry and camaraderie.
“It’s just fun,” Yedlin said. “With this group, there are no egos. Everyone respects each other. It’s fun to play with these guys. It’s competitive. You feel like you’re becoming a better player every time you come to camp.”
The draw will set the eight groups. Based on the FIFA rankings, the Americans will be in Pot 2 with Mexico and Germany, among others. Their Pot 1 opponent will be Qatar, Belgium, Brazil, Argentina, France, England, Spain or Portugal. Two from each group will advance to the round of 16.
“When you are working with a young team, you don’t always see the progress that quickly,” Berhalter said. “We certainly saw a ton of progress in this last year, in terms of the guys really understanding what it means to win at the international level. We’ll be ready for the World Cup.”