Gregg Berhalter’s mission is as simple as it will be difficult: take one of the youngest, least-experienced rosters in U.S. Soccer history into the most condensed final round of regional World Cup qualifying ever and come away with one of three invitations to next year’s tournament in Qatar.
Anything short of that, Berhalter said, is unacceptable.
“It would be a failure if we didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “So this is our next challenge.”
Berhalter’s team, which opened a brief two-day training camp in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, will start the eight-team, 14-game qualifying tournament Thursday in El Salvador. The U.S. will then return to Nashville to play Canada on Sunday before meeting Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Sept. 8.
In a normal qualifying campaign, two games would be played in each 10-day match window. But because COVID-19 delayed the competition, teams will play three games in a week four times during the tournament, which ends March 30 with the top three countries winning berths in Qatar. The fourth-place finisher will advance to an inter-confederation playoff where another World Cup spot will be up for grabs.
The U.S. failed to qualify for the last World Cup for the first time since 1986. But it heads to El Salvador on Wednesday ranked 10th in the world, according to FIFA, following victories over Mexico in both June’s Nations League and in the Gold Cup final earlier this month.
“It’s nice to win a trophy in Nations League. It’s nice to win a Gold Cup trophy. It’s nice to be ranked 10th in the world in FIFA rankings,” said Berhalter, whose team is 17-1-1 over the last 22 months and hasn’t lost to a CONCACAF rival since October 2019. “But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t qualify for the World Cup. Our mission is not even close to being complete.
“Everything we’ve done until now is only a foundation. Now it’s about going out and competing in the hope to eventually qualify for the World Cup and then make an impact.”
The 26 players Berhalter called to Nashville had an average age of 24 years, 43 days, making it perhaps the youngest qualifying roster in history. The team, which includes three teenagers, is younger than the one the U.S. used in both the Nations League and Gold Cup finals and, with an average of fewer than seven caps in competitive games, is among the greenest in national team history as well.
More important, however, is the fact just six players have taken the field in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier, a competition unlike any other with poor fields, humid weather, questionable officiating and all manner of gamesmanship making road wins difficult to come by.
The U.S. hasn’t won a qualifier outside the U.S. since 2013.
“The only way you can get comfortable in that environment is with experience at it,” said Landon Donovan, who played in 40 CONCACAF qualifiers. “There’s no simulation for … playing on a horrible field, 95-degree weather with 90% humidity, other than doing it and realizing and feeling the pressure involved.”
Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic has the most qualifying caps with 13. Pulisic was recently sidelined after testing positive for the coronavirus but after finishing his quarantine, he was cleared to join the team in Tennessee, He was one of 16 players who trained Monday at Lipscomb University.
Colorado Rapids’ midfielder Kellyn Acosta, one of nine MLS players on the roster, is third on the team with six qualifying caps. He said it’s up to the veterans to help the younger players navigate both the pressure and the privilege of playing in World Cup qualifiers.
“Wearing the crest, it means a lot. And I know the guys wear it with pride,” he said. “But qualifying is a different beast and you’ve got to be up for the challenge from the first minute.”
Berhalter believes they are.
“Everything we’ve been doing in the last two years have been preparing for this,” he said. “We talk about the quality of the fields, we talk about the opponents, we talk about the weather, we talk about the travel. It’s how we perceive that challenge that ultimately will lead to success or failure.
“For us, the narrative about CONCACAF away games is there. But we see it as a positive. We see it as an opportunity.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.