After a haunting performance during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the US men’s national team faced an uphill battle to secure their spot in this year’s edition of the international tournament.
Players anticipated the innate challenges of Concacaf, but unexpected injuries and Covid-19 positive results made for a difficult journey. USMNT striker Paul Arriola detailed the road to the World Cup, labeling the experience as “difficult” before getting into the emotional aspects.
“I think there were so many challenges throughout the cycle, and as there always is, right? It's never going to be smooth. It's never an easy ride. There's never an easy game. I would say probably the beginning of the cycle was difficult for us. I wasn't a part of the first camp due to injury, but qualifying starts,” explained Arriola on the most recent episode of 90min’s Football Americana.
“It's not as easy. And because the last cycle was a bit of an older roster, a lot of these players, it's their first time playing in any type of qualifying game. It's their first time ever playing in El Salvador, Honduras, and getting to understand what Concacaf truly is. It's not just the Gold Cup or friendlies. These are hostile environments, they make it difficult for you to play there.I think that was a real challenge.
“I would even say this last window of qualifying for us was very difficult. We had a lot of challenges. And I remember specifically Gregg Berhalter talking to us, I think it was the second day camp started, and he said, 'There's going to be things that happen that we can't control, or that we do not expect. And the only way we're going to be able to get through it is to be ready for anything. To accept whatever's going to happen to us and to keep going, no matter what. To not forget what our end goal is,' which was to qualify for the World Cup."
The United States remained in the top three of the Concacaf table throughout the qualifying campaign, along with Mexico and Canada, but the numbers were tight. The team was forced to walk away with at least a point in each game to maintain the momentum.
“We go down to Mexico and Reggie Cannon gets COVID, and guys are self isolating. And post-Mexico we come back to the States in the must win game against Panama, and a bunch of us end up getting some type of stomach bug, and we're sick and we feel awful. And we're a day before a game. And then we're the day of the game and we're feeling awful. And we're thinking like, This is a must win for us,” explained Arriola.
“And I think the group just has always been really resilient. Regardless of what people say, or what people might think they see, when I look at our group as a national team, we've been so resilient. We've been able to overcome so many things and go through so many different challenges that maybe the outsider might not know.”
The United States is headed to Qatar in November, but the hard part has only just begun. The American side drew in Group B, with England, Iran and either Wales, Scotland or Ukraine.