It was the full USMNT experience, or at least as close as you can get to it and still have a happy ending.
The United States men’s national team’s 2–1, come-from-behind win over Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying Wednesday was a roller coaster of emotions that nearly matched its pattern in the qualifying tournament as a whole. The game swung U.S. fans from dread to despair to awe to relief, all overlaid on top of a constant baseline hum of worry and undercut a nagging sense that things should be going better. It was fun. Sports are fun.
As with any classic thrill ride, the biggest drop came in the first minute, when Costa Rica scored on its first possession of the game. It was a cavalcade of errors: poor clearances from goalkeeper Zack Steffen and fullback Sergiño Dest, the U.S. midfield failing to track Keysher Fuller’s run into the box, Steffen not seeing his volleyed shot until it was too late, Dest holding forward Jonathan Moya, who was standing directly in front of Steffen, onside. The team looked like it had tried to hit snooze on the kick-off. In a must-win home game, it was the worst start imaginable.
The goal clearly rattled the American players, who took 10 minutes or so to settle down and complete its passes. Once they did, the U.S. started producing danger, finding runners in behind their opponents, pinning the Costa Ricans back, and setting the stage for the U.S. equalizer in the 25th minute, when Dest hammered a top corner laser that not even Costa Rica’s esteemed shot stopper Keylor Navas had any hope of getting.
It was the type of goal the U.S. had been in want of this whole qualifying cycle, one scored from in front of the opposition, one that didn’t require executing the high-risk plays needed to get them scrambling. Dest’s performance in the game was within touching distance of the best he’s ever been for the USMNT. You would have liked to see him do better on the Costa Rican goal—it was perhaps the only footrace all night the Americans lost—but from the second minute on he was clearly engaged, running down loose balls that you might have expected him to let roll out of bounds and diligently tracking runners. He still shies away from contact when playing defense, but if he’s going to shoot like that you can live with it.
His performance papered over a lot of the American side. Antonee Robinson, who helped spark the U.S. against Honduras in September and played well against Jamaica last week, spent much of the game wasting the time and space that Costa Rica afforded him, his crossing more of a slot machine than a coin flip. Weston McKennie was omnipresent but also sloppy, turning the ball over a half-dozen times by dribbling too aggressively or hitting passes to no one. One of those errant passes actually led to the second U.S. goal. As it bounced harmlessly across a giant pocket of space that no American player was checking into, Costa Rica’s goalscorer Fuller contrived to miscontrol it directly to Dest. Dest slipped the ball to Tim Weah, whose shot bounced off Costa Rican replacement goalkeeper Leonel Moreira and in.
Navas probably would have saved it, had he not left the game injured at halftime. As with Honduras in the last cycle, with Costa Rica the U.S. was perhaps fortunate to get an aging team in the third of three games during a window in which the opposition had barely rotated its lineup. The oldest U.S. starter in this game was younger than the youngest Costa Rica starter, and it showed, in more ways than just Costa Rica’s surprising, Jake Shuttlesworth start. There were moments when the two teams were chasing the same ball, and the U.S. player looked like he was running downhill while the Costa Rican one looked like he was going uphill. Miles Robinson undid 2,500 years of Pythagorean theory when he ran down a Bryan Ruiz breakaway on the diagonal.
Having Dest on a high is a gamechanger for the U.S. The trouble is what happens on the days when he’s not playing well, like in the USMNT’s qualifying opener against El Salvador. Good Sergiño Dest is a quicksilver dribbling wisp who can finish a play like that. Bad Sergiño Dest clogs up the offense and is a sieve on defense. How do you know which one you’re going to get on any given day? Even Barcelona, his club team, can’t be sure. His worst performance of the season so far, according to player raters WhoScored, came just three days after his best performance.
It doesn’t matter how high you raise your floor if it has trap doors built into it that can snap open at any moment.
The difference between good Dest and bad Dest is greater than just about any lineup change Berhalter can make. He’s hardly the only one. Kellyn Acosta dominated the midfield against Mexico in July and looked stuck in the mud against Panama in October. John Brooks is either the best of times or the worst of times, with no in between. McKennie, usually a bright spot, has been disappointing for Juventus since getting sent home from the USMNT in September for breaking COVID protocols.
What this means in practice is that the team has a high ceiling and a low floor. It may be the best, most talented men’s team the United States has ever produced when it’s playing at or near its peak, but that’s not the case when enough of its players are caught in the valley of their inconsistency. Because the team is young and inexperienced—Wednesday’s roster was the youngest the U.S. has ever started in a World Cup qualifier—and because steadiness is not a strength even among many of its veterans, it feels these troughs more than an experienced team would. There are certainly things Berhalter might do to put some of these players in better positions to succeed, but the root of the problem is that the U.S. is a team that, collectively, still plays a lot of bad games, for club and country, sometimes at the worst possible time.
This summer, the U.S. coach seemed to have stumbled upon a core unit that could perform the slow and subtle alchemy of raising his team’s floor. The three-part defensive safety net of goalkeeper Matt Turner, defender Miles Robinson, and midfielder Tyler Adams make the U.S. significantly more difficult to score against, increasing the chances of the U.S. getting a good result on a bad night. All three have been among its most consistent players, even though, like Robinson, neither Turner nor Adams have huge sample sizes for the U.S. (It was Robinson’s own too-soft pass that Ruiz pounced on to start his breakaway, a rare big mistake by the center back, even if he immediately cleaned it up.)
But Berhalter keeps tweaking the formula, even outside of the normal bounds of squad rotation, which saw him rest Adams and Miles Robinson for Sunday’s calamitous loss in Panama. Adams—the MVP of qualifying so far for the U.S. (sorry, Ricardo Pepi)—was moved to right back against Honduras. Turner was replaced with Steffen for Wednesday’s game, an audition that Steffen may have failed in the first minute with Costa Rica’s goal. And even if all three are out there, it doesn’t matter how high you raise your floor if it has trap doors built into it that can snap open at any moment, say, when Brooks turns off and fails to track the one dangerous runner in the box.
Reaching the team’s ceiling has been harder because of the inconsistency on offense and in the midfield. The U.S. dominated Costa Rica Wednesday, but still relied on no small amount of good fortune for its goals. It still feels as though the team needs to catch everyone on the upswing to have a good game on that end.
For the U.S. to live up to its talent and reach its full potential, then Berhalter will have to find a way to smooth these dips and overcome the more-than-occasional stinker his young players are capable of producing. They may grow more consistent naturally with time and experience, but right now, when their team needs it most, they have neither.