It all will begin Thursday in the Central American city of San Salvador, in a country that has not been this close to reaching the World Cup in well more than a decade. The United States men’s national team will commence its quest to undo the damage that lingers from missing out on Russia 2018 and set itself up for the 2026 tournament in America and reinvigorate the sport – the men’s brand, anyway — here at home and, ultimately, change the worldwide perception of American soccer.
That’s a lot to throw onto the toes of these 26 young men — very young men — as the final round CONCACAF World Cup qualifying commences. Fair or not, that’s where we are. Some of this is the residue of others’ failures, some the result of their own coach’s promises and proclamations, and some the product of their own estimable performances while wearing the U.S. crest or those of various professional clubs.
That confluence of circumstances has created a crucible for this team led by Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie (below) and Tyler Adams — not one of them yet 23 — that contains the most pressurized World Cup qualifying campaign of any U.S. team, ever.
Yes, that’s right: the most pressure, ever.
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MORE: CONCACAF World Cup qualifying schedule & standings
“In ‘06, was there pressure? There was a level of expectation. There was definitely some of that then,” ESPN lead analyst Taylor Twellman, who scored the final U.S. goal in that cycle, told Sporting News. “But not to the point you’re talking about, no.
“I’d say it’s pressure, expectation and excitement that’s at an all-time high. Some of it’s the disappointment of 2017 and that game against Trinidad, but also it’s the fact you’ve got a generation of players competing at places that we’ve never seen. What does that look like when they put on the United States men’s national team jerseys?”
Before the Americans were eliminated with a stunning 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago on the final night of CONCACAF qualifying in October 2017 (below), they had competed in every World Cup dating back to 1990. Those who’ve followed the sport here for decades remember the goal known inside the sport as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” scored by Paul Caliguiri to qualify the U.S. for Italia ‘90.
Given the meager audience for the sport at the time, and the fact no American team had reached the World Cup for 40 years at that point, one safely could say all the pressure to earn that 1-0 victory was internal.
The U.S. then was granted automatic entry to the 1994 World Cup as host country. In five subsequent efforts, from 1998 through 2014, their qualification was assured ahead of the final match day each time. The players who earned those berths confronted and conquered significant challenges,