Don't like how the USMNT got back to the World Cup?  Then don't follow.  But you're missing something The - The Athletic

Don’t like how the USMNT got back to the World Cup? Then don’t follow. But you’re missing something The – The Athletic

Somewhere between the USMNT qualifying for this year’s World Cup and the sound of tens of thousands of Costa Ricans celebrating their 2-0 victory over the US last Wednesday, the stench of discontent rose up from several ranks of US fans. Certain in their displeasure. Pure in their righteous annoyance.

“We should beat Costa Rica,” they groaned. “Gregg Berhalter is a tragedy. We set the bar so low for ourselves. What are we celebrating ?!

To which I say: you do not have to like this team. Seriously. You can just move on with your life. Take up cooking Tik Tok or something.

You don’t have to like that an incredibly young and inexperienced US team qualified for the World Cup (that one of the oldest guys who started the game against Costa Rica, DeAndre Yedlin, was 28 years old, and he isn’t even the presumed starter for the team in his position – that player, Sergiño Dest, is only 21). That half of the lineup that started the game against Costa Rica probably aren’t even starters for a fully-healthy USMNT, and some of them aren’t even the second stringers, either.

You don’t have to like that the team got a point in Mexico instead of three because of some shoddy finishing, and then sealed their qualification against a Panama side fighting for their own World Cup lives a few days later. That same team then lost one of its most important and consistent players at halftime thanks to yet another injury, and still went out and did the job required of them. That this team walked into the strangest game that any of them will ever play, down half a team in Costa Rica and knowing all that was needed was to not lose 6-0 or worse, and walked out with a ticket to Qatar. You don’t have to like any of that. And you do not have to like this team.

This is not about criticism, or fans not being able to criticize the team, the coaching staff or the federation. If anything, I would love to see more of that, where it is warranted.

On a macro level, Gregg Berhalter getting the USMNT manager position while his brother was chief commercial officer of the United States Soccer Federation, and was a lead candidate for CEO, presented a conflict of interest roughly the size of Qatar. The USSF is only just emerging from a years-long legal battle with the wildly successful USWNT over equal pay between their national teams. In fact, it’s much more difficult to praise the overarching organization of US Soccer and how it relates to its national teams than it is to criticize it.

And on a more micro level, as it specifically pertains to Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT over the past two years or so: the squad often looks uninspired. There are flashes of brilliance, yes. Second halves against Costa Rica and Mexico at home come to mind, when a spluttering attacking engine doesn’t just click, it roars, and the opponent seems hopelessly lost when trying to get through the US back line. But there are also turns against Canada, Panama, and El Salvador, moments where it doesn’t look like anything is being built, tactically. Players look lost, confused at points, and there are the dreaded moments where this happens to the entire team, all at once. And if everyone looks bad, that can only mean one thing, right?

US Soccer and Gregg Berhalter are not above your criticism, and you have the right to be critical. The opposite side of that coin, however, is admitting when he oversees good things.

The simple fact is that the US is going back to the World Cup. And the way they’ve gotten back there is impressive, in spite of the noise.

Let’s talk about the player pool, because, my god, this player pool. It is talented, possibly more talented than ever before, and it is young. In fact, the US trotted out one of the youngest national teams in the world routinely throughout qualifying, and they will, in all probability, have the youngest squad playing at the World Cup this winter. That’s amazing, even more so considering the sheer amount of turnover that the player pool has undergone since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The degree of difficulty in essentially dumping out almost the entire group of players from the last cycle and replacing them with brand new ones, the vast majority of whom made their international debuts in this cycle, is mind-boggling. This is very rare. This is not a normal thing that happens almost anywhere in the world.

And, for all the hand-wringing about Gregg Berhalter and if he was getting the best out of his team, the US did a pretty great job of qualifying, all things considered.

Expected goals aren’t everything, but over 14 games in which injuries, illness, and other suspensions meant there was not a single point in time when Berhalter could field Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams at the same time? That’s pretty damn good. In fact, it’s really damn good. Those are the type of numbers you want to have going into any tournament. It didn’t always look pretty, yes. And every striker available to Berhalter proves unreliable. But if there is something to be built – especially if and when our players are healthy at the same time – that is not a terrible place to be building from at all.

However, there will still be a loud section of the people who claim to support the US saying there is nothing to celebrate here. The fact that the team is celebrating, that the supporters are celebrating, is actually hurting the US program. That this is a team that should dominate every CONCACAF opponent and would be a contender to win the World Cup if it wasn’t held back by the coach / federation / soft American soccer culture that isn’t threatening the players with bodily harm when they don’t do well. And only the exalted few on Twitter-dot-com, who are very publicly grumpy about all of this, can truly help what’s going on with the USMNT.

This is the type of self-congratulatory, sophomoric grandstanding that convinces me a lot of these people would be much happier not liking this team at all.

Not a single person in that visitors locker room in San Jose was happy about losing 2-0. And no one with any sense looks at the accomplishments of the USMNT over the course of qualifying and thinks to themselves “we have arrived.” We haven’t. There’s work to be done. There are harder competitions waiting. And we will judge Gregg Berhalter and his player pool on their ability to elevate their level when that time comes, because it does need to be elevated. But no one in that locker room is going to be told they can’t celebrate getting back to the World Cup after missing out four years ago. Those players know the games, they know the stakes, far more than anyone with an anonymous Twitter profile, and they know there’s more to come. But for now, they celebrate.

This is what experts in these fields call “perspective.” The most important people in all of this – the players – have it.

“It’s a bit of a weird feeling right now because I hate to lose so much. But I’m really proud and I can’t wait to go to the World Cup, ”Christian Pulisic told CBS just after the match, demonstrating that humans are capable of nuanced emotions that weigh all sides of a given situation.

The match against Costa Rica was not a zero sum game, despite how many fans seemed to think it was. They achieved an incremental goal. Not the ultimate goal. But a goal they needed to achieve in order to continue building to the ultimate goal. That’s worthy of celebration amidst the contemplation of what went wrong on the night.

And for now, the fans celebrate, as well. Not because we think the USMNT has reached the pinnacle of the sport, or even the pinnacle of what they’re capable of. But because most of us remember watching that game in Couva in 2017. We know exactly what it feels like to see a team underperform to a point of no return. And we know that we are not in that spot all these years later. With any luck, in another four years time, we will be an even greater force to reckon with, thanks to this team and this player pool’s growing experience and familiarity with each other. A bunch of kids popping champagne for one night isn’t setting the program back another four years, and neither will my happiness.

Because that’s what being a fan comes down to in the end, right? Happiness and sadness. Sharing in the emotions of a team and the emotions that they bring you. And if you’re determined to only feel anger until this team is the best in the world? Well, you do not have to like this team.

You do not have to watch them play any more games. You do not have to ball up your fists real tight when Paul Arriola scores a goal against someone you think we should never lose to, because they represent a smaller country or they have a bunch of MLS and USL players, or whatever keeps the little narrative hamster wheel turning in your mind. You will most likely be far happier doing something else, or cheering for some other team.

It will only get worse at the World Cup itself, where you will seemingly be miserable and angry no matter what the USMNT accomplishes, unless USSF headquarters is stormed and Berhalter is forcibly replaced by Pep Guardiola, who immediately institutes some standard of heretofore unseen perfection of play that makes all other nations bow to its awesome and terrible beauty. If you won’t be happy until that happens, go follow a different team.

But for me? This team is starting to get it. This team can fight. This team can win. This team got back to the World Cup. And this is the team I’ll follow.

You can follow the USMNT with The Athletic here.

(Photo: Brad Smith / ISI Photos / Getty Images)

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