The venue was an empty stadium in a small Austrian city on a cold Monday night almost two years before the next World Cup begins. The stakes were low and the opponent wasn’t very good.
For a young U.S. men’s national soccer team hungry to return to soccer’s marquee competition after its elders flopped in the previous cycle, these are precisely the type of matches it must master again: against a regional foe that could stand in the way of a trip to Qatar in November 2022.
Tests against Europeans and South Americans offer greater context, but the priority over the next 18 months is regional, not global.
The Americans must first return to bully status in Concacaf, the confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean soccer, and claim an automatic berth in the World Cup, something they accomplished with at least one game to spare between 1998 and 2014.
The 6-2 victory Panama on Monday in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, was a good first step. Though Panama is not as strong as Mexico or Costa Rica and the game had no bearing, the Americans performed with authority and swagger.
For the most part, they dominated a team they should dominate, responding with a fury after falling behind in the eighth minute for a 3-1 halftime lead. And when they began to lose their way in the second half, they countered with a knockout punch.
Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto, 20-year-old forwards making their second and first appearances respectively, scored two goals apiece. Gio Reyna, 18, scored on a lovely free kick, his first goal in his second appearance. Sebastian Lletget, at 28 the team’s oldest player, joined the parade.
The Americans completed a week-long camp, their first with European-based pros in a year. Last Thursday, they looked good but were inefficient in the final 30 yards during a 0-0 away draw against Wales. On this night, aside from Gioacchini missing a second-half penalty kick, their finishing touch was sound.
“I just think it was important to be involved in a game like this, especially for some of the younger guys to play against a Concacaf opponent, to see the intensity they play at,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said.
“It was a very difficult game, a very physical game, more physical than the Wales game. We needed that. The guys needed it. Some guys were calling for fouls and stuff. These aren’t going to be fouls; you’ve got to play on.”
Still, the circumstances and setting were a far cry from the fervor and force that will greet the Americans for away qualifiers starting in September and continuing well into 2022.
A well-manicured Austrian pitch without spectators bears no resemblance to San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlan, where the rowdiest fans gather in a sideline section called “Vietnam.” Or to Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the temperature and humidity flirt with triple figures. Or to Mexico City’s historic Azteca, where the Americans have never won a qualifier since the 1949 maiden visit.
Nonetheless, the United States enjoyed a terrific 30-minute spell in the first half, despite using the second-youngest starting lineup in program history (22 years 154 days). The collaboration was intuitive and elegant, despite just four training sessions since the group gathered in Wales early last week.
“It had everything in it,” Berhalter said. “That was impressive from the guys.”
The second half offered different challenges. The match turned chippy and choppy. Challenges were ruthless and painful. Yellow cards blossomed. It was pure Concacaf.
Panama took advantage, slicing the margin to 3-2 with about 12 minutes left. The Americans then displayed a killer instinct, scoring three times in an eight-minute span.
“That was the period I was most interested in,” Berhalter said. “Were we going to buckle or could we hang in there? Not only did we hang in there, we pulled away” on two headers by Soto and one by Lletget. In his U.S. debut, Richy Ledezma, 20, assisted on both goals from Soto, who became the first U.S. men’s player since 1968 to score twice in his debut.
With camp ending, the players prepared to return to their clubs scattered around Europe, plus Brazil and MLS. A proposed camp next month will not include European-based players, who will form the core of the team for the foreseeable future.
Those players won’t see each other again until March, the next FIFA window for international matches. There are two Concacaf competitions next summer, Nations League in June and Gold Cup in July, though most players will probably compete in one or the other.
Before they know it, World Cup qualifying will commence. And that’s all that really matters. While U.S. fans are giddy about the prospects of this nucleus leading the program to world-class stature, it’s a methodical process.
First, Concacaf. Then they’ll start thinking about global ambitions.
“You can see a lot of times we have only been together for a week, but you also saw some really good things,” Reyna said after the Panama game. “On and off the field, it’s just slowly bringing this group together where, by the time qualifying comes, [we’ll] be ready to compete and have very good chemistry.”