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Couva to Qatar: Tracing the 1,631-day USMNT trek to the 2022 World Cup

Wednesday marked the 1,631st “morning after” the international embarrassment that was the USMNT’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago’s B-team in Couva, baffling and sloppy performance that conspired with a Panamanian ghost goal and a Honduras win to end the nation’s run as a quadrennial World Cup team.

It Is a sweet relief now that the “Qualified” banner is officially official, as Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team reclaims the men’s program’s place as a World Cup team.

[ MORE: USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule ]

So... How did we get here? It certainly wasn’t a clean run back to a top-three place in CONCACAF but it’s also going to end with a World Cup appearance and that was Mission #1. The Yanks had some embarrassments and bumps along the way in showing that they still had lessons to learn despite the audacious slap to the face in Trinidad and Tobago, but there were huge moments, too, as Berhalter made his bones as a master of rivals Mexico in multiple silverware-winning affairs.

Oct. 10, 2017 -- T&T 1, USMNT 2

The “international embarrassment” had everyone laughing at Bruce Arena and his men, who essentially treated the game like a field trip to nowhere. Our 3 things learned could’ve been 1000 things, but the line that stands out from that post is here, still, in a quote from Arena:

“If we had qualified for the World Cup, there needed to be a number of changes for the World Cup roster.”

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, you should’ve brought those players to Couva, where Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley were two of the lone players to perform, Geoff Cameron was left on the bench, and Clint Dempsey struck the post coming off of it.

Oct. 13, 2017 -- Bruce Arena quits

Bruce Arena is an American soccer legend and he’s proven it since his failure in Couva, leading New England to a stunning Supporters’ Shield, but perhaps he deserves credit for not saying any of the right things following the qualification and giving the fan base a proper outlet for its disappointment.

The man who said, “No excuses. We failed” in the minutes after the Yanks would eventually find some. Three days after the loss, Arena resigned and made sure everyone knew that he knew more than they knew when he took the job from Jurgen Klinsmann:

“When I took the job last November, I knew there was a great challenge ahead, probably more than most people could appreciate.”

The Trinidad loss was humiliating but hardly worse than getting smacked 2-0 by Costa Rica at home on Sept. 1 and drawing Honduras 1-1 a few days later. Arena’s men took five of the last 15 points available to them.

And credit to Arena for stepping down when he claimed blame. Sunil Gulati accepted blame but did not quit.

Subsequent interviews saw plenty of tea spilled by members of the team. By January, Arena had settled on blaming “the chemistry of the group” and claimed that there were “bad eggs” on the team, only going as far as to praise Michael Bradley and Tim Howard. Good eggs, those ones.

He also said everyone who questioned his decisions after the fact were “phonies” if they didn’t tell him before the game.

Oct. 24, 2017 -- Dave Sarachan handed interim role

Claudio Reyna made some waves when he discussed getting less arrogance and more humility out of the USMNT and the federation got just that when they tabbed their interim USMNT coach.

U.S. Soccer veteran Dave Sarachan took the wheel while the Yanks found a new full-time boss (which would take a while).

Nov. 7, 2017 -- First roster since Couva is young

Less than a handful of players called up for what would become a 1-1 draw with Portugal were in Couva and not too many more were in the player pool for qualifying as the USMNT fan base would get its first serious look at names like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adamas, and Josh Sargent.

When they hit the pitch a few weeks later, McKennie and Adams impressed in a big way.

Feb. 10, 2018 -- USSF gets new president after Sunil Gulati relents

After USSF president Sunil Gulati announced he would not resign, people came out of the woodwork to challenge him for the presidency (including Eric Wynalda, Hope Solo, and someone quite familiar to those who spent their Premier League Mornings with us).

Gulati would stay involved in the successful bid to land hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup, and close ally Carlos Cordeiro beat out Kathy Carter, Wynalda, and Martino in a tight race for the job. HIs reign would not be a long one.

March 27, 2018 -- Adams, Adams, Adams

The U.S. beats Paraguay 1-0 and that kid’s at it again. No, not Christian Pulisic, but Tyler Adams is looking like the realest of deals in red, white, and blue.

Look at this run:

June 6, 2018 -- Earnie Stewart becomes first USMNT GM

Outcries over the hierarchy at Soccer House led to the creation of a general manager position, and few would’ve complained at the selection of a man with USMNT lineage and plenty of leadership experience on- and off-the-pitch.

Earnie Stewart got the gig.

Sept. 11, 2018 -- Mexico rivalry renewed

The Yanks had played Brazil, England, and France since failing to make the World Cup, so how would they do against old rivals Mexico, even in a B-team scenario?

The question probably should’ve just been framed around whether that Adams kid was playing, it turns out. 1-0. Teenage dream.

Oct. 5, 2018 -- The hiring process beings

Almost a year after Couva? Yeah, it took that long and, yeah, people were ornery about that.

Stewart reportedly had Jesse Marsch, Peter Vermes, Greg Vanney, Tab Ramos, Tata Martino, and Caleb Porter has options but hilariously our report notes that there might only be one interview and that Gregg Berhalter said, “No comment” when asked if he had been interviewed.

Nov. 20, 2018 -- Sarachan manages last game

He handed 23 players their USMNT debuts and put out Starting XIs with an average age under 23. Remit, met.

Dec. 2, 2018 -- Gregg Berhalter hired as USMNT boss

What did we say as Stewart announced the hiring of former USMNT player Gregg Berhalter as the next head coach of the program? It wasn’t glowing praise nor harsh criticism but “It could’ve been worse.”

Now, with Qatar in our sights but not always smooth sailing to get there, that feels pretty right.

Fall-Winter 2018-19 -- European dreams come true

Giovanni Reyna signed with Borussia Dortmund’s academy while Christian Pulisic’s status was blowing up on the Black and Yellow’s first team.

Sergino Dest signed his pro deal with Ajax, Josh Sargent kept shining at Werder Bremen, and Weston McKennie was becoming a real part of Schalke while Zack Steffen signed for Man City.

Richard Ledezma landed with PSV. Tim Weah went on loan to Celtic.

Some guy named Pulisic announced he’d be off to Chelsea in the summer.

Dec. 20, 2018 -- Berhalter calls up first roster, MLS based

January camps are the worst, so it was welcome to really care about one as a new USMNT head coach picked 27 players who’ve caught his eye.

The ex-Columbus Crew coach had Michael Bradley come to camp. but the new faces were plenty and most of them have since washed out of the pool.

But Aaron Long entered that camp with two caps, Walker Zimmerman with four, Reggie Cannon with two, Cristian Roldan with five, and Sebastian Lleget with five. Those players now have 23, 27, 24, 31, and 33. Big list.

March 12, 2019 -- Full-strength squad

Friendlies against Ecuador and Chile would give the USMNT fan base its first look at Berhalter choosing his team from amongst a full pool.

Well, kind of. Antonee Robinson, Timothy Weah, and Josh Sargent were still figuring to get the U-23s to the Olympics and there was a U-20 World Cup squad to consider as well.

A lot of MLS guys get the call, too, as for every Pulisic or Adams there’s a Daniel Lovitz or Paul Arriola. The MLS-Europe mix is still yet to tilt toward the latter, and the Yanks are going to the World Cup. Some will tell you those are correlational.

Summer 2019 -- Gio Reyna leads U-17 World Cup qualification U-20s stun France at World Cup, but federation tumult amid CEO hiring

A five-goal U-17 World Cup qualification tournament from Claudio’s kid was just the latest sign that there’s legit hope that his career would one day leave Claudio better known as Gio’s dad.

And Sebastian Soto scored twice in a stunning win for the U.S. U-20s as they shocked France 3-2 at the U-20 World Cup.

With a Gold Cup about to arrive, there was another Berhalter in the news as Gregg’s brother Jay appeared close to becoming the new CEO in a move that would’ve gone over like an ice-cold cup of broken glass (fair or foul).

That reportedly spurred a wave of negative posts on an employment review site that revealed tumult and accusations of a ‘toxic environment’ at Soccer House.

July 7, 2019 -- Tata > Gregg for first trophy

Thanks goodness Mexico’s title-game prowess against the United States would be flipped by Berhalter, but Memo Ochoa gave his coach the first laugh in what’s become a red-hot rivalry again.

Aug. 12, 2019 -- Stewart promoted, new GM search begins

Cordeiro announces that Stewart was to become the federation’s sporting director, with Kate Markgraf hired to become the women’s general manager and a men’s search underway that would yield Brian McBride.

Oct. 15, 2019 -- Canada announces itself

The Canadians threatened to stop the USMNT from reaching the CONCACAF Nations League Final, raising questions about American squad selection, tactics, and mentality in a 2-0 loss north of the border.

The loss was joined by angst out of Atlanta after United’s Darren Eales tore into the national team for training Miles Robinson in frigid weather after an unused sub appearance.

Oct. 28, 2019 -- Dest commits for a huge Berhalter’s off-field win

Any lagging vibes were lifted when Sergino Dest’s looooooong “Will he or won’t he?” ended with a “He will.”

Dest chose the USMNT for his national team future despite heavy recruitment from the Netherlands’ Ronald Koeman, a move hailed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and a precursor to the coach -- and his players -- successful recruitment of Yunus Musah.

Nov. 2019 -- Berhalter sees job questioned but Stewart backs boss, USMNT responds with beatdown

It had been less than two years on the job without too many losses, but the Canada loss had pointed questions aimed at Stewart when it came to Berhalter.

Stewart more or less laughed them off, and then the Yanks laughed Canada out of the proverbial gym despite a distinct lack of Christian Pulisic.

Berhalter opted for Paul Arriola and Gyasi Zardes over Josh Sargent and Tyler Boyd, and it was a masterstroke as John Herdman’s team looked surprised by the industry and pressing of the Yanks in a 4-1 Florida beatdown.

March 12, 2020 -- Cordeiro resigns over ‘unacceptable’ gender comments in equal pay lawsuit

Jay Berhalter had stepped down for personal reasons as the CEO hiring process dragged on, but that was nothing compared to a bombshell report that showed the U.S. Soccer legal team used belittling legal arguments against women in their equal pay battle against the USWNT.

Cordeiro would have to eventually resign as sponsors, Major League Soccer, and even his vice president lambasted the stance.

March 2020 -- Parlow Cone elevated, Wilson hired

Cindy Parlow Cone became USSF president and she’s since been re-elected. Things have been fairly smooth despite a pandemic, which says something.

Soccer United Marketing veteran Will Wilson is hired within two weeks as the fed’s new CEO.

April 2020 -- Olympics, Nations League, Gold Cup postponed

You might’ve not heard but this virus starting to run laps around the world and there was pretty much nothing going on for a bit, as the USMNT’s World Cup preparation -- and everything else in the world -- was thrown for a loop.

June 3, 2020 -- McKennie seizes spotlight

Adams and Pulisic had long claimed the spotlight for young USMNT players, but it was Weston McKennie who was front-and-center when the Bundesliga became the first major league to return to action during the pandemic.

Yet it wasn’t all about performances on the field, where it must be said McKennie played exceptional for Schalke and was soon on the radar of Juventus. As the world was aghast by the killing of George Floyd, McKennie rallied big names from around the soccer world including Christian Pulisic and Antonio Rudiger for a video exclaiming “enough is enough” when it comes to racism and police brutality.

Aug. 13, 2020 -- Adams sends Leipzig to Champions League semi

Yup. Stud status, official.

Nov. 2020 -- USMNT returns to field

As if enough eyes weren’t on the USMNT program when it came to restoring its World Cup status, it was the first time the Yanks would take the field since the George Floyd killing. They knew their place.

Berhalter liked the team’s edge but finishing remained an issue against Wales.

March 29, 2021 -- Olympic qualifying failure (again)

Yes, it’s the U-23s and yes, it was mostly players who would be described as MLS prospects or amongst MLS’ second tier but... man.

June 4, 2021 -- Pefok’s late heroics save CNL bacon

A CONCACAF Nations League Final almost didn’t materialize due to a -- say it with us -- lack of finish, but Jordan Pefok came off the bench to deliver a 1-0 semifinal win over Honduras.

June 7, 2021 -- One of the most memorable matches in USMNT history

Here’s where it swung for so many USMNT doubters, even those who thought Berhalter could hold them back.

The Yanks proved that no one was going to hold them back, not even a Mexico team who had repeatedly had them their number for years.

Relive that incredible extra-time affair here, as Ethan Horvath and Christian Pulisic were the unexpected and expected stars of an ALL-TIMER.

Aug. 2, 2021 -- And another one (trophy and win over Mexico

They went and did it again.

Berhalter used a completely different roster -- and a 19-save tournament from Matt Turner -- to outfox Tata Martino once again in what sent hopes for World Cup qualifying into orbit.

USA 1-0 Mexico. Miles Robinson in the 117th minute.

How much would they win the group by?

Don’t get ahead of yourselves (Obviously, we did).

Sept. 2021 -- Banana skins, oil slicks, and forgetting how to score in Shock-tagonal start

Christian Pulisic wasn’t there but few would’ve seen the United States men’s national team starting its most important World Cup qualifying cycle in years by looking like it didn’t know the stakes.

Excuse makers could hang their hats on inexperience and “being away is hard” even if the scoreless draw against El Salvador came against a team that was 2W-4D-7L heading into its final qualifier.

But the 1-1 draw against Canada in Nashville? Was this team’s entitlement back despite Couva? Sitting on this for a month wouldn’t be fun If they didn’t beat Honduras.

And guess what? It wasn’t pretty. The Yanks needed a late surge and some Ricardo Pepi magic to come away with a 4-1 win and a respectable five out of nine points to start the Octagonal.

October 2021 -- Six points sandwiched around slop

Ricardo Pepi got himself on the radar with his Honduran heroics, but he was inspiring talk about the long-lost replacement for Jozy Altidore after leading the Yanks to a win over Jamaica.

It felt the USMNT had found its footing and would not look back, but if the El Salvador draw was a disappointment and head-scratcher, a 1-0 loss in Panama was the sort of performance that makes people mad.

But if the U.S. has proven anything during this uneven but successful World Cup qualifying run, It’s that it will respond to failure but probably not before making you think it might not. Costa Rica took a lead in Ohio, but Sergino Dest and Timothy Weah had other ideas.

They might clinch before March, we dreamed. Foolishly.

November 2021 -- The Man in the Mirror beats Mexico, gets beat up in Jamaica

Oh, Christian Pulisic. No one etches the words of doubters on his psyche and turns them into rocket fuel like you.

Pulisic had words (on his shirt) for Memo Ochoa and led the Yanks to a second-half surge past Mexico and the driver’s seat for the group.

That win would leave any USMNT fan prepared to be happy with a point in Jamaica, and they got just that as the Reggae Boyz were more concerned with fouling Pulisic before Michail Antonio boosted a point for the hosts.

Jan-Feb 2022 -- Salvadoran snooze still a win but prefaces Canada setback

Antonee Robinson’s emergence as the side’s easy first-choice left back was in focus after the Fulham man blasted the sleeping Yanks to a slim win over El Salvador.

That wasn’t a wake-up call, though, as the U.S. went to Canada and looked like a hibernating bear. John Herdman’s Canadians seized control of the table and wouldn’t look back, the Americans a little embarrassed in Hamilton.

They came out plenty hungry against Honduras and refused to let Groundhog Day have them at their worst “Phil... Phil Connors?” to make sure the World Cup was still a probability.

March 2022 -- Berhalter saves best for last, bossing Mexico but failing to score, clobbering Panama, avoiding calamity in Costa Rica (?)

This writer personally was thrilled to watch the USMNT be the clearly superior side at Azteca but missed chances and a frustrating final 10 minutes of subs and tactical adjustments from Berhalter means we’ll never know if that goal could’ve come... though the points was welcome.

And the goals came three days later in a tactical masterclass that saw Christian Pulisic score thrice in a 5-1 defeat of Panama. All they’d have to do is go to Costa Rica and not lose by six, something they’d avoided since 1979.

Bring on Friday’s draw.