The master tactician Ben Affleck had it right.
“Act as if,” his stockbroker character tells a room full of callow recruits in the 2000 film Boiler Room. “Act as if you are the fucking president of this firm.”
Gregg Berhalter’s blossoming young squad are now entering their Affleck phase after a fitful but successful Concacaf qualifying campaign that ended with Wednesday’s 2-0 loss away to Costa Rica. With the core task accomplished, it’s time for a mentality shift.
It’s not just getting your foot in the door, it’s acting as if you belong inside, and proving it. Looking the part, and playing it. That will be the challenge for the US in Qatar against more experienced opponents, and there are hints that Berhalter’s men are evolving assertively in that direction, even as they squeezed through with a draw, a win and a loss over the past week.
Triumph in defeat was a suitably dissonant note to conclude this qualifying campaign. The deepest and most gifted generation of US men’s players ever assembled finished third in the standings, only avoiding a playoff by virtue of goal difference. The US ended below Canada, an outcome that would have seemed preposterous before the Octagonal stage began last September. They also finished beneath Mexico despite a merited superior recent head-to-head record.
In this qualifying cycle, humility and insecurity were byproducts of the shocking failure to make the 2018 tournament after seven successive appearances. No longer could Wednesday night’s headline news – the US are going to a World Cup – read like a statement of the obvious, a routine matter. Qualification has at times been couched not as the pursuit of a positive achievement but as an exercise in disaster prevention.
Even as US Soccer adopted the slogan “Only Forward”, the caution and concern were palpable. Take February’s deep-freeze diffidence, when the US decided that they were so in need of a little extra home advantage against Honduras, the Octagonal’s worst and only winless team, that they scheduled what proved to be a farcical fixture in frost-bitten Minnesota.
That’s not acting as if you’re the 13th best team in the world hosting the 78th, per Fifa’s latest ranking. Last September, when the US were 1-0 down to Honduras at half time (ultimately winning 4-1), having opened their campaign with draws against El Salvador and Canada, it was even tempting to wonder whether Berhalter might meet the same fate as Jurgen Klinsmann: ousted early in a stuttering qualifying campaign.
Despite the blemishes of defeat away to Panama and Canada, and the usual loss in Costa Rica, the performances against Mexico have been the most instructive guide to this team’s potential: energetic, ambitious and undaunted.
The 2-0 win in Cincinnati last November, their third victory over El Tri in 2021, secured with late goals from Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, was vibrant. The goalless draw in Mexico City last week was, finishing aside, a more impressive display than the 5-1 victory over Panama in Orlando last Sunday.
That point also provided what proved a vital cushion for the game in Costa Rica: it meant the US could afford to lose, even by five goals, and still avoid a playoff against New Zealand in Qatar. Though two second-half goals settled Wednesday’s match, with set-piece defending and goalkeeper Zack Steffen at fault, it was overall a bright display from an American side who must have been exhausted but were patently disappointed to lose.
Canada, the group winners, have played with greater purpose and joy in comparison. A less intricate tactical approach based on rapid counter-attacks is surely a factor. So too is less pressure – after all, Canada’s only other World Cup appearance came in 1986 and they did not even reach the final qualifying round in the previous cycle.
Also relevant is that the US under Berhalter have been a perpetual work in progress – a “process”, as he likes to say. In 50 games in charge the head coach has used 88 different players. Of those, 21 have made only one appearance. There’s no lack of choice, no shortage of footballers at high-level clubs. Julian Green, who scored the US’s most recent World Cup goal in the second-round loss to Belgium in 2014, has played 17 times in the Bundesliga this season and is still only 26 years old, yet has not featured under Berhalter.
No wonder it’s been hard to ascertain much of an identity beyond “young and promising” – the team has been a constant construction site. In Pulisic, Sergino Dest, McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah, the head coach has players who look capable of excelling on the biggest stage (if healthy).
There are question marks at goalkeeper and centre forward, and the centre backs must prove they can handle the step up from regional to global standard. Pre-tournament friendlies against high-level opponents, if they can be arranged, should be clarifying in that respect.
But the US squad for the 2014 World Cup had an average age of 27.3 years. The oldest of the eight listed above, Pulisic and McKennie, will be 24 when Qatar kicks off. Berhalter’s top talents are yet to peak.
The stand-out from that big win over Panama in Florida, which all but sealed qualification, was a hyper-caffeinated Pulisic, who claimed his first senior international hat-trick. It wasn’t only the goals, though. It was the attitude of a player embracing the responsibility of the captain’s armband, willing to shoulder the heft of the occasion and lead by example. It was, as Affleck’s character might have said, presidential stuff. Now let’s see how far and fast this group can go.