World Cup Qualifying is hard everywhere. World Cup Qualifying in Concacaf is a nightmare. A young and inexperienced USMNT is baptized by fire for two weeks, setting out to right the wrongs of the 2018 cycle.

River To Russia Qatar

Nashville, United States of America

US Soccer chooses Nashville to host the first home match. As such, the team meet and train in the city before traveling to El Salvador for the first qualifier. In a bizarre twist of fate, the remnants of Hurricane Ida move right over the city, bringing large amounts of rain and painful memories.

Couva, Trinidad and Tobago

10th of October, 2017

The World Cup is on the line. One point, only one point. Just do not lose and the US is going to Russia.

Heavy rain, high humidity, flooded pitch. “River to Russia.” Just a draw, that is all. Just draw. Only 1,500 fans. They only have three points. Just draw.

Kickoff. 17th minute an embarrassing own goal. One goal down. There is plenty of time. Just one goal. Just one.

37th minute a chip from midfield. Two goals down. This can not be happening. Tired legs. Poor play. No energy. Halftime.

Dempsey on to start the second half. Christian Pulisic, the US Wunderkind, 47th minute puts it away. There is hope. Just one more.

77th minute, Dempsey off the post. So close, yet so far.  

Elsewhere, Panama scores a ghost goal. The only way is to win. Just one more.

One more would not come.

Full time. A loss. Heartbreak. Tears. Unimaginable pain. The United States has failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The River to Russia claims its victim.

Rain, flooding, humidity and memories hang over Nashville at the start of qualifying. As the rain comes down, the images mirror those of Couva. A new cycle and a new squad, but the same ever-present fear. The River to Russia is now the River to Qatar.

While fans have one eye on the past and one on the future, a young team with very little experience sets out to change hearts and minds. A grueling journey that tests the limits of even the most veteran of squads. With the pain of Couva and weight of expectations on their shoulders, the squad boards a plane to El Salvador.

1,423 Days

San Salvador, El Salvador

2nd of September, 2021

Concacaf World Cup Qualifying is back. The USMNT takes the pitch for the first time in Qualifiers since Couva. A total of 1,423 days. Very few players remain from that night. The current USMNT is filled with young players from the best leagues. A squad bursting with talent, but lacking in experience.

No amount of talk can prepare for Concacaf away. Poor pitch conditions, projectiles, riot police, humidity and an extremely hostile crowd can not be prepared for. It is something this group learns walking out alongside the riot police. Gio Reyna jumps during the national anthem as a firework is set off. An action that reminds everyone how inexperienced this squad really is.

Without captains Christian Pulisic (COVID recovery) and Zack Steffen (back spasms), the USMNT kicks off World Cup Qualifying. Defender Miles Robinson has a chance early, but misplaces his header. Later, midfielder Weston McKennie does the same. The nerves are obvious in the poor touches, misplaced passes and poor shots. Defensively, it is nervous but solid. El Salvador never gets a clear chance.

In true Concacaf away fashion, Gio Reyna is protected by Riot Police as projectiles are thrown at him from the stands

It ends 0-0. A point on the road is usually an acceptable result. It is not this time. The chances to win are there, but they are not taken. Chances must be taken. Two points are dropped even though they should not have been. At the end of the day, every point matters. Letting two points slip away is not good enough.

Despite the chances to win and El Salvador’s lack of true goal-scoring chances, the performance is bad. The team is disjointed and overwhelmed. Fans, media and former players all criticize Gregg Berhalter.

However, there is not time to dwell on the result. With three matches in six days, focus quickly shifts to Canada in Nashville.

Concacaf Qualifying 101: Win At Home

Nashville, United States of America

5th of September, 2021

The first rule of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying: Win at Home. Winning every home match will almost guarantee World Cup qualification.

USMNT fans pack into Nissan Stadium. The American Outlaws have three sections reserved behind the goal. They are ready to go with their drums, banners, voices and tifos. 43,028 fans fill Nissan Stadium, most expecting a win and all three points.

The American Outlaw drummers get chants started during player warmups

The first half is end-to-end. Canada have chances and so do the USMNT. Pulisic, back from Covid recovery, hits the post. The USMNT struggles in transition, containing Alphonso Davies and in possession. As the half comes to an end, US right-back Sergiño Dest goes down with an ankle injury. His injury forces Berhalter to make a first half change.

Brenden Aaronson scores for the US in the second half. The fans in the stadium are jumping. Not even 10 minutes later, Canada equalizes. The energy in the stadium shifts and the fan energy dies.

Clinging to a draw, USMNT substitutes are finally introduced in the 83rd minute. They are too little too late. The match ends 1-1. A lucky result for the USMNT. The players solute The American Outlaws to boos and half-hearted sarcastic applause.

There is no way around it, a draw at home is not good enough. It is unacceptable.

Gregg Berhalter is the target of fan anger. Calls for his removal re-start. For the fans, the only acceptable result is an away win at Honduras. A seemingly impossible task.

Poor Choices

Nashville, United States of America

Controversy and drama are stables of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying. Every team will have something happen. That is how it is in Concacaf.

For the USMNT, drama hits in the form of a team captain, Weston McKennie, violating team and Covid policy. As a result, McKennie is suspended for the Canada and Honduras matches.

Weston McKennie apologizes shortly before kickoff of USA vs CAN

The aftermath of the Canada draw, pulls attention to McKennie’s suspension. Details are hard to come by. Sources give out information skeptically. US Soccer and Gregg Berhalter refuse to release the details of the violation.

USMNT journalists eventually confirm McKennie brought an unauthorized individual into the team hotel and left the team bubble.

A Tale of Two Halves

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

8th of September, 2021

Forcing the drama of the past few days out of minds, the USMNT walks onto the pitch for the third time in six days knowing only a win will suffice.

The first few minutes are end-to-end. Then Honduras scores. It triggers a USMNT collapse. The rest of the first half is almost unbearable. The USMNT struggle to complete anything. Attack, defense and transition is a mess. By sheer luck the US is only 1-0 down at halftime.

The first half is one of the worst USMNT performances in years. Changes are needed. In the broadcast studio, USMNT legend Clint Dempsey says he can go 15-20 minutes. On Twitter, fans call for him to get on the next flight.

Tactical and personnel changes are made to start the second half, both for Honduras and the USMNT. The changes work in the USMNT’s favor. Within minutes the US equalizes. The battle resumes with end-to-end play once again.

The flood gates open with 15 minutes to go. The US pulls ahead. Then scores another. Then adds a fourth in stoppage time. Each goal moves the USMNT further up the table and stitches the wounds of the first five halves of World Cup Qualifying. Each of the four goals helps make things right.

Ricardo Pepi celebrates his first USMNT goal, the winning goal

A comeback story for the ages is written. In the process the USMNT finds their fight. The fight that brought home two trophies in one summer. The fight that will carry the team to Qatar, the fight that was absent that night in Couva.

The first qualifying window is complete. Three matches and nine points are off the calendar. Despite nervous and downright bad performances, five out of nine available points are collected. The USMNT is on track to Qatar 2022.

In 4 weeks, it happens all over again. There will be a different set of players and three new matches. They will have nine more points available for the taking.