The United States men’s national team could’ve wilted when their Sunday malaise in Panama made sure to stick around in the form of a first-minute concession Wednesday versus Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio.
But as much as coach Gregg Berhalter and his young group have manufactured their own obstacles during an uneven start to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, they’ve yet to hang their heads in despair.
[ MORE: USMNT player ratings vs Costa Rica ]
Given how the last round of qualifying ended and the expectations of a nation, that really is saying something good about Berhalter’s bunch.
“We faced a lot of adversity so far in qualifying,” said captain Tyler Adams. “We struggled against Panama but the team stuck together, dug in, and came together after that early goal.”
Sergino Dest said it a different way.
Dest, who scored the equalizer and set-up Timothy Weah’s shot that led to the match-deciding own goal, said “The mentality is still right” within the team despite bad halves and games along the way.
And he said the goal is continued growth, as September’s three qualifiers taught them plenty about CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and October’s saw one more point gained than the previous window.
“We can win even more games and we should,” Dest said. “We all want to compete in 2022. It was an eye-opener [in September]. This window we got one more points so we’re making improvements but we still have a long way to go.”
“We have a really young team, up-and-coming talents. Overall it’s just a team. We all work together and that’s the most important thing. We all get more experience. These games are tough. We’re not used to playing against these opponents. Working together is the most important.”
“We were always there,” said the Lille forward. “Even after they took their goal. We knew it is what it is and we had to stay focused and keep oto ur game plan. I personally feel like we dominated the first and second half and got the reward for it.”
As for Berhalter, he expressed happiness with the win but was measured in how he responded to any questions regarding this window being a success.
The USMNT head coach noticeably continues to applaud any questions that note the youth of the team (although, it must be said, that he has direct control of any lineup being older and more experienced!).
“What I try to avoid especially with the team is putting pressure on them because of external forces,” Berhalter said. “We have enough internal pressure. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging. Sometimes I think people forget that, and that we’re going to play the youngest team in World Cup qualifying.
“That’s basically unheard of in international football. If you look at Germany, France, Brazil, they are basically playing 28-, 29-year-old teams, and us, look at the poise we showed even after going down a goal. I’m proud of the effort.”
Berhalter also lavished praise on the play and potential of Dest — “The sky is the limit for him. He can be as good as he wants to be” — as well as the desire of Weston McKennie to contribute to the USMNT program righting its ship after missing out on France 2018.
“His physicality, his desire alone can carry him and push the team,” Berhalter said. “He’s explosive, he sees passes, he’s a really quality player. Something missing from him today is maybe a goal.”
And that’s exactly what Juventus coach Max Allegri has been saying about McKennie.
[ MORE: USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule ]
If the FC Dallas academy product can add finishing to his game, look out.
Speaking of finishing, Dest has that in his arsenal and is being trusted at both Barcelona and the U.S. national team to be a decent defender but more importantly a dangerous presence in the other half of the pitch.
So if he plays a role in conceding, which he certainly did in the first minute Wednesday, the tradeoff of a goal and an assist is acceptable.
ProSoccerTalk asked Dest what Berhalter tells him, especially in an explosive, creative, and young right flank with Weah and Yunus Musah.
“He wants me to go forward a lot,” Dest said. “If I go forward I can be creative and create chances for the team. With Musah, Weah, we did a pretty good job. For me, I just try to go forward, get some crosses in, try to score, because I feel like there is more of a chance from the side than from inside because it’s so crowded.”
That’s true against Costa Rica but the plot thickens in November with a visit from Mexico and a trip to improving Jamaica. Rotation won’t be as important and it will be interesting to see who starts both games when Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, and John Brooks rejoin the squad.
We’ll leave the last word to goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who may well start for Man City this weekend as Ederson arrives back late from CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.
“Our motto is ‘we respond’ no matter what happens in the game because we know there’s going to be ebbs and flows and it’s not always going to be perfect,” Steffen said.
It hasn’t been, but the Yanks are still second in the group at worst after six of 14 matches. Not amazing, but not bad, and the best seems yet to come.