The angst gathered for 81 minutes on Thursday in Austin, and has lingered throughout the US men’s national team this week. It held on despite three late goals against Trinidad and Tobago, making Monday’s trip to Port of Spain almost a formality. It took a while because the Americans worked the way they always have under Gregg Berhalter, floundering in the final third. It showed again on Monday night when Sergiño Dest picked up an inexplicably stupid red card, and Trinidad and Tobago took a 2-1 lead late on.
But in the end, with a 4-2 aggregate victory, the USMNT ended this two-legged CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinals – and qualified for two tournaments that will offer more practical tests.
First, in March, another round of the Nations League finals. Next, and above all, is the Copa América 2024. The South American giants will visit the United States in the summer. The USMNT will join them for a 16-team fiesta that will serve as a 2026 World Cup dress rehearsal in every possible way.
It creates a buzz.
It will examine the event management systems of the host cities.
It will also bring opponents and an atmosphere rarely seen in the USMNT.
It was a stark departure from a parked bus and empty seats in Austin, from a patchy pitch and sleepy second leg in Trinidad. It didn’t look like a stodgy duel in Canada, nor a good fight in Ghana. It will feature Brazil and Argentina, but also Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela – teams that the USMNT could meet in the 2026 World Cup knockout rounds, none of which will sit in the 5-4-1 and essentially refuses to attack.
CONCACAF games, like Thursday and Monday, used to be the barometer by which the USMNT was judged. Can they break through the strong obstacles in the way? Can they cope with unfamiliar elements and show mental toughness along the way? they THERE to qualify for the World Cups. They didn’t in 2017. So the questions, and the related ones, follow Berhalter in his first four-year work cycle.
But they are no longer relevant questions. The USMNT qualified for 2022, and will not be needed for 2026. It, meanwhile, has established itself as the class of CONCACAF. Its ambitions are higher – and therefore, the barometer has changed.
A lower block may need to be broken in the 2026 group stage. But as the top seed in the four-team group where three can advance, the US is more favored to reach the round of 32, even with a slip-up. These are the knockout games, against the top-25 teams in the world, that will make or break this entire World Cup cycle.
And the top-25 teams are the ones Berhalter’s USMNT has not beaten outside of CONCACAF.
It will be two-sided games against superior teams, or at least equal ones, that will determine whether the USMNT reaches the quarterfinals or semis. It is precision and tactical balance, plus luck and many other factors, that will determine whether they will do what they set out to do: “Change soccer in America forever.”
The reason for Thursday and Monday, therefore, is not style points or experiments. It books real tests.
The USMNT will learn its Copa América opponents in a draw on December 7 in Miami. The tournament begins on June 20 in Atlanta. And for a few weeks in June and July, we’ll learn more than ever about the USMNT’s readiness for the 2026 World Cup.