U.S. men’s national soccer team qualifies for 2022 World Cup despite loss to Costa Rica

Christian Pulisic and the U.S. men’s national soccer team didn’t win against Costa Rica on Wednesday, but because of goal differential they still qualified for this year’s World Cup. (Moises Castillo/AP)

The U.S. men will be back on the World Cup stage for the first time in eight years, narrowly avoiding the sort of shock and trauma suffered by American soccer fans during the 2018 qualifying cycle.

They accomplished this redemptive feat Wednesday night on goal differential, despite an ugly second half and a 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica, losing in San Jose for the 10th consecutive time. When the World Cup draw is held on Friday at Doha, Qatar, the Americans will retain an enviable seed in Pot 2 — a slot which they arguably do not quite deserve after their third-place, 7-3-4 mark in the CONCACAF qualifying standings.

After an impressive, 5-1 victory Sunday over Panama, the U.S. went into this final game with a three-point, 10-goal-differential edge over the Ticos in the Octagonal table. The Americans merely needed to lose this match by less than six goals to seal a berth, along with Canada and Mexico. The chances of such a mammoth defeat were microscopic, even tinier because Costa Rica started a B-team to avoid possible yellow-card suspensions for many of its top players.

So there was little suspense in San Jose, even after Juan Pablo Vargas headed home on a goal off a corner kick in the 51st minute and Anthony Contreras followed eight minutes later with a second score. That goal was set up by another set piece and a series of misplays by keeper Zack Steffen and the U.S. defenders in the box.

Christian Pulisic was the only U.S. starter who also played in the 2018 loss to Trinidad that ended the failed qualifying cycle. He was left sobbing on the grass field after that unexpected, devastating defeat. On Wednesday, Pulisic experienced more mixed emotions.

“It definitely feels weird,” Pulisic told CBS, after the game. “I hate to lose. We lost concentration in two set pieces, but obviously we’re proud we’re going to the World Cup. It’s been a roller coaster. It’s never easy to come down and play in these CONCACAF countries.”

The bigger picture was never in doubt, however, and the match ended with happy, weary handshakes all around. The Americans have endured far worse humiliations in Costa Rica, including a 4-0 loss in November 2016, which cost Jurgen Klinsmann his coaching job. The Ticos, meanwhile, will go on to face New Zealand in mid-June in a World Cup play-in game.

The sport’s growing popularity in the U.S. has produced a new generation of American stars who are clearly promising, yet need to mesh as a unit. The 2017-18 national team relied on aging, domestic stars like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. The U.S. lineup Wednesday included a much younger, more international cast. Six starters played their professional soccer in the highest leagues in England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Five reserves also play in those top leagues. Only a few years ago, Klinsmann was begging his American players to give it a shot in Europe, anywhere.

Of course, this overseas presence does not assure success when the Qatar World Cup rolls around in November. Unlike their female counterparts, the U.S. men have been knocked out during the first round in three of their last seven tournament appearances, and have never made it past the quarterfinals.

The World Cup draw is scheduled for Friday at noon EST. The good news for the U.S. is that, somehow, FIFA ranks the team 13th in the world, assuring the Americans they will be placed in Pot 2. The Americans could still get stuck in a tough group with, perhaps, Spain, Serbia, and Cameroon. But the team could also get lucky and find themselves grouped with host Qatar, Japan, and their traditional opponent, Ghana.

The Americans managed to survive this tricky CONCACAF qualifying run despite a slow start, a team-wide stomach virus, injuries, Covid scares, and even a disciplinary suspension for star Weston McKennie. That sort of endurance test may never happen again. The U.S. will qualify automatically as the co-host in 2026, and by then the tournament field will expand to 48 — with perhaps six slots for CONCACAF teams.

For now, the Americans can take some pride in gaining a seat at the draw on Friday. It wasn’t pretty Wednesday. But after eight years, they are back in the show.