Forgive supporters of the USMNT if they don’t share Gregg Berhalter’s calm and positivity.
The angst from the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s shocking failure to make the World Cup four years ago remains, making a winnable draw in Jamaica feel more like a loss. No matter how many times Berhalter said the team is on track, that ending this window in first or second place is what they wanted, fans will eye the Concacaf standings warily, wondering how costly those two dropped points might be.
The Americans are in second place in the Concacaf World Cup qualifying standings, with Canada in first and Mexico in third. But only the top three teams automatically advance to the World Cup in Qatar next year and, with six qualifiers left, just two points separate the top four teams.
“We’re looking at it as good result,” Berhalter insisted after the U.S. men needed a questionable disallowed goal to escape Jamaica with a 1-1 tie Tuesday night. “Anytime you can get a point away from home is a good thing in Concacaf, I want to be very clear by saying that.”
Most qualifying windows, that would be a reasonable statement to make. But all those near misses in 2017 have left their mark. Had the U.S. men only won another home game four years ago, or picked up another couple of points on the road, they would have been in Russia.
Instead, they were shut out for the first time in 32 years, kickstarting the rebuild that has produced the youngest U.S. team ever. Most talented, too.
Which helps explain the frustration with Tuesday night’s result.
The USMNT had one of its finest performances ever against Mexico on Friday night. The “Dos a Cero” scoreline might have been similar, but this victory was like none of the others. The U.S. men dictated the style and tempo of the game, forcing El Tri to adapt and react rather than the other way around as usual.
Christian Pulisic being sublime was not a surprise, but Tim Weah and Yunus Musah were revelations. Weston McKennie’s command and skill underscored why the U.S. men are a lesser team when he’s not on the field. Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson were a dynamic combination on the backline.
It was the kind of performance that grabs the attention of the rest of the world, a declaration that this is not the same old U.S. team.
And then, four days later, the USMNT was lucky to avoid a loss against Jamaica.
“It was all in our hands,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said. “The U.S. didn’t create any goal-scoring opportunities tonight. They were gifted with a goal one time. The guys kept their head, stayed in the game, managed to equalize, and I think we could have gone on and won the game. Numerous opportunities presented itself, but we didn’t capitalize on it.
“We could have easily come away with three points. But I’m grateful and we keep fighting.”
Yes, the field was patchy, to put it kindly. The conditions were brutal, with temperatures in the 80s that made humidity feel more like the 90s. The Americans also were short-handed, with McKennie (yellow-card accumulation) and Robinson (red card) out and Pulisic still on limited minutes.
But these are the kind of challenges all teams encounter. Conditions in Qatar are going to be tough, too. There will be quick turnarounds between games, particularly the deeper the tournament goes.
If the Americans want to play with the best, want to be the best, they’re going to have to find ways to rise above whatever obstacle is put in front of them.
Maybe it’s not fair to expect the young Americans to have it figured out yet. They are, as Berhalter pointed out, an Olympic-age team, with an average roster age of about 22.
“Each game we play, we grow,” said Weah, who followed his breakout performance against Mexico with the lone U.S. goal Tuesday. “The consistency will come. We’re all young.”
With 15 points after the first eight games, it’s hard to fathom the USMNT not qualifying for Qatar. But the top four teams are so close that one bad game — or two dropped points, perhaps — could make the difference between booking an automatic trip to Qatar and having to sweat out a playoff.
And the rest of the USMNT’s games won’t be easy, with trips to Canada and Mexico in the last two windows.
Not only is Canada much improved, Canada Soccer isn’t above gamesmanship. It staged Tuesday night’s game in Edmonton, where it was so cold the federation giddily dubbed Commonwealth Stadium “Estadio Iceteca.” Azteca has always been a house of horrors for the USMNT, with just one victory there in a rivalry that dates back to 1934.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Berhalter said. “The next window is going to be important.”
Especially when you’ve left points on the table.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT doesn’t have luxury of leaving points on table in qualifying