July 1, 2014 was the last time anybody saw the United States men's national team at a FIFA World Cup. It was a 2-1 defeat to Belgium in extra time in the round of 16 -- you know the one. Almost eight years later the Chris Wondolowski miss and those 14 Tim Howard saves are still fresh. That defeat still stings. now the biggest stage in all of sports will once again include the red, white and blue, and with it will come the highest expectations this team has ever seen.
Wednesday night in San Jose, Costa Rica saw this young USMNT book their ticket to Qatar, though it came following a poor 2-0 loss where the team was inconsistent and struggled with the physicality of their opponent. It was more anticlimactic than it was electrifying, it will raise silly questions due to the poor taste left in the mouths of players and fans, but let's remember -- kids make mistakes. Young teams, at times, simply do not execute, especially on the road. They might not have followed instructions to a T, they at times were a step slow, but there were some encouraging moments early on. And as always, on the road in Concacaf is like nothing else in the sport.
The moment of qualification came after what's been a wild qualifying cycle for the U.S., one where depth was tested big time due to a COVID-impacted schedule that was more congested than it was kind, and it is one that manager Gregg Berhalter has handled well. From Weston McKennie being sent home early for off-the-field issues to trying to figure out how to deal with all of the injuries, it's been far from perfect. But, on the contrary, it has shown that the USMNT, in large part, is back.
Across 14 matches, only two players, Antonee Robinson and Tyler Adams played more than 1000 minutes. Only two more, the center back duo of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman played more than 800. So accomplishing this task was a true team effort, it took a next man up mentality and a player pool committed to stepping up and meeting the moment,
"It's definitely been a roller coaster," Christian Pulisic told CBS Sports after the match. "It's never easy to come down and play in these Concacaf countries. We know that. We battled through most of it, and at the end of the day we are in the top three and we are going to the World Cup. We should be proud."
Through the ups and downs, through the good results and bad, this team has once again found its footing under Berhalter and accomplished what they set out to do. Really qualification in 2022 is a continuation of a 2021 year which was really the time when this generation of players came into their own. That summer they won not only the Nations League but also the Gold Cup. And now 2022 is their chance to show the world that America's boys can play, too. They've earned that right, through 14 grueling matches and 1260 minutes when qualification wasn't assured, when play wasn't always pretty, but where there was a heart and determination that inspired fans who were offended by what they saw not too long ago.
Don't let this match fool you -- this team has been more good than bad, and they've been much better than what we saw during the 2018 cycle. Never has the USMNT had this much talent, and never has a team this young worn these colors and pulled off what they did. They won half of their matches, they conceded just 10 goals in 14 games, and they averaged 1.7 points per game after getting just 1.2 in the 2018 cycle. And, maybe most importantly, this was the youngest USMNT in qualifying history -- 23 years, 302 days old on average, and they did what the squad last cycle could not.
The fan base has been scarred by what took place back in 2017. On this night, the healing starts with a future that hasn't been brighter.