Fans of international soccer still haven’t forgotten when the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It was the first time in decades the men wouldn’t be on the world stage, and it perpetuated the narrative that the women’s team was far and away the better soccer side.
But that might be changing after the USMNT’s run in the CONCACAF Nations League. On Sunday, the team pulled off a dramatic comeback win over Mexico, enduring a crowd that threw garbage from the stands and getting an earth-shattering penalty save from reserve goalkeeper Ethan Horvath to secure the 3-2 win.
The USMNT now has a friendly against Costa Rica on Wednesday at Rio Tinto Stadium (5 p.m., ESPN2) — the last stop in a slate of games meant to mimic the cadence of a World Cup schedule, which often features three games in seven days. The team traveled to Salt Lake City shortly after beating Mexico on Sunday in Denver, and it trained Tuesday morning.
“To think about ending a seven-day stretch against three of the top CONCACAF teams getting three wins is a huge statement for this group, and that’s what we’re focused on,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Our work is not done until the game is over tomorrow.”
The current iteration of the national team is the youngest in history, with more than a dozen players aged 23 or younger. That includes Christian Pulisic, who scored the game-winning penalty in extra time against Mexico.
USMNT VS. COSTA RICA
At Rio Tinto Stadium
When • Wednesday, 5 p.m.
TV • ESPN2, UniMás and TUDN
Tickets • $27-$500, available via AXS.
COVID Protocols • Rio Tinto Stadium will be at near-full capacity. Adequate spacing between player benches, tunnels, and warmup areas has been arranged. U.S. Soccer will follow official local health guidelines for this event. Face coverings will be encouraged for all fans while on stadium premises, but not required. Fans are encouraged to not bring in bags of any kind. All tickets will be mobile-only. Reserved seating only, general admission will not be allowed. All concession stands will be cashless, to reduce points of contact.
Pulisic and several other key players went the full 120 minutes Sunday, so if they play, it could be in limited minutes. But with Berhalter’s message of wanting his players to fight for just one more day, it’s difficult to imagine him resting guys too much.
A U.S. Soccer spokesperson said at least 17,000 tickets have been sold for Wednesday’s match. It gives fans in Utah a chance not only to see some of the best soccer players from around the world, but also young phenoms they see regularly with Major League Soccer teams.
Four players on the USMNT currently play for MLS teams: David Ochoa of Real Salt Lake, Sebastian Lletget of the L.A. Galaxy, Kellyn Acosta of the Colorado Rapids and Jackson Yueill of the San Jose Earthquakes. In addition, Walker Zimmerman of Nashville SC will travel to Salt Lake City as a replacement for Matt Miazga, who left the team to get married.
Five other players on the team are former MLS players.
Berhalter said he applauds the league and its owners for constantly investing in youth development and that his team is seeing the rewards of that right now.
“A lot of these players we’re working with — whether they’re abroad or whether they’re based in MLS — have come from MLS academies,” Berhalter said. “That’s a sign of a strong developmental system and we need that to continue.
“For us it’s ideal when we have young players playing in MLS that are given he opportunity and they’re put in first-class environments with their clubs and then they’re able to progress and there’s a pathway forward. So I can’t say enough about the investment of the owners in Major League Soccer and how they’ve helped create what we have now.”
The USMNT’s youth movement is also giving the team the chance to redeem itself for the ghost of 2018. Defender Reggie Cannon, a former FC Dallas player, said on 700 AM that making up for that failure is on the team’s mind as it prepares to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“Obviously everyone has that heat because we didn’t quality last time,” Cannon said. “Now that we have the opportunity to ultimately make this generation what it is, I think guys are really going to show out and be excited and ready for the opportunity.”
Midfielder Tyler Adams, who returned from injury to play against Mexico, said playing for a trophy in a hostile environment was “exactly what we needed.”
“For a young group to go out there and not worry too much about playing the pretty football or scoring the beautiful goals — just going out there, digging in, relying on the guy next to you to get it done — that shows what we’re about,” Adams said. “That shows what the U.S. has always been about. And that’s what it’s going to require in order to qualify for the World Cup.”
The USMNT will have a break after playing Costa Rica to rest and recharge before the Gold Cup group stage. And if the young team can continue its recent play, things might be looking up for a change.
“We have a lot of talent, but we’re also a tightly knit group. We’re not going to let anybody mess with us,” Cannon said. “That’s exactly how we’re going to take the next step. … I think this generation can go really far.”