The fear built up for 81 minutes last Thursday in Austin and continued into this week for the U.S. men’s national team. Despite three late goals against Trinidad and Tobago, it persisted, making Monday’s trip to Port of Spain almost a formality. It stayed that way because the Americans struggled in a way they often have under Gregg Berhalter, faltering in the final third. It came to the fore again on Monday night when Sergiño Dest received an inexplicably stupid red card and Trinidad later went 2-1 ahead.
But in the end, the USMNT completed a two-game CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal with a 4-2 aggregate win – and qualified for two tournaments that will provide far more relevant tests.
First up is another round of the Nations League finals on the agenda in March. Next and most importantly is the Copa América 2024. South American giants will visit the USA in the summer. The USMNT will join them in a 16-team celebration that will, for all intents and purposes, serve as a dress rehearsal for the 2026 World Cup.
It will cause a stir.
Event management systems will be tested in host cities.
It will also bring opponents and atmospheres that the USMNT rarely sees.
It will be a clear departure from a parked bus and empty seats in Austin, from an inconsistent pitch and a sleepy second leg in Trinidad. It will neither be a boring duel with Canada nor a feel-good Ghanaian duel. There will be Brazil and Argentina, but also Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela – teams the USMNT could well face in the knockout round of the 2026 World Cup, none of which are in a 5-4-1 system would essentially forego an attack.
Scruffy CONCACAF games like those on Thursday and Monday used to be the barometer by which USMNTs were judged. Could they break through robust defensive roadblocks? Could they cope with unfamiliar elements and demonstrate mental toughness on the road? She had to qualify for world championships. This was not the case in 2017. These and related questions accompanied Berhalter through his first four-year professional cycle.
But these are no longer the relevant questions. The USMNT has qualified for 2022 and does not need to do so for 2026. It has now established itself as a CONCACAF class. Ambitions are higher – and so the barometer has changed.
A deep block may have to be broken in the 2026 group phase. But as the top seed in a group of four teams, three of which can advance, the U.S. will have a strong chance of reaching the Round of 32 even if they slip up. It will be these knockout games against the top 25 teams in the world that will determine the success or failure of this entire World Cup cycle.
And the top 25 teams are the ones Berhalter’s USMNT simply hasn’t beaten outside of CONCACAF.
It is the two-sided games against superior or at least comparable teams that determine whether the USMNT reaches a quarterfinal or semifinal. It is precision and tactical balance as well as luck and a host of other factors that will determine whether they achieve what they set out to do: “change soccer in America forever.”
What counted on Thursday and Monday were neither style points nor experiments. They were real tests.
The USMNT will meet their Copa America opponents in a draw on December 7 in Miami. The tournament begins June 20 in Atlanta. And in a few weeks in June and July, we’ll know more than ever about the USMNT’s preparation for the 2026 World Cup.