SAN JOSÉ – Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams had relief on their faces as they headed straight from the stadium for a charter jet to Europe and weekend club games.
“This is whatever I’ve always wanted to be, and right now emotions are a bit crazy,” Pulisic said, his voice quavering.
Coach Gregg Berhalter had rushed out for a red-eye to New York and a 12 1/2-hour connecting flight to Friday's World Cup draw in Doha, Qatar.
Recovering from the past and preparing for the future intertwined as the United States clinched a return to the World Cup.
For Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola, all on that doomed American team at Trinidad 4 1/2 years earlier, the pain had not gone away until now. The 2-0 loss to Costa Rica on Wednesday night was deflating, but by the time players entered the locker room of Estadio Nacional, focus turned to the accomplishment of clinching a return to soccer's showcase for the first time since 2014.
Erik Palmer-Brown started popping open the Duet Mousseux Brut even as Berhalter was giving his speech. Then the new JBL Boombox 2 got to blare.
“We’re the youngest team to ever qualify for the World Cup, youngest U.S. team, and we’ll be the youngest team at the World Cup," Berhalter said. ”That’s an accomplishment for these guys. It really is."
They had traveled 25,042 miles (40,301 kilometers) on charters — circling the globe adds up to only 24,901 — making four trips to Central America, plus one each to Mexico, Canada and Jamaica, plus up to five trans-Atlantic round trips. Forty-four players were called in, of which 38 took the field. In all, 114 players have been used since Trinidad, 88 since Berhalter was hired in December 2018.
Pulisic had buried his face in his hands at Couva, wiping away tears.
“That was one of the toughest days of my life. I’ll never forget it,” he recalled. “Now to be in this position — qualified for a World Cup, we’re all extremely proud.”
Berhalter admitted the pressure was omnipresent.
"The public was on edge. They desperately wanted us to make it,” he said.
All of 23, Pulisic, Adams and Weston McKennie are the team leaders. Right back Sergiño Dest and left back Antonee Robinson became offensive threats. Gio Reyna, at 19, emerged as a budding star, just like his dad three decades earlier.
“Now we have to test ourselves against the best players in the world, the best teams in the world," Adams said. "This was only the first stage in our development.”
Berhalter is among a 12-person U.S. Soccer Federation attending the draw, mapping out Qatar plans for a tournament that opens Nov. 21, in the middle of European club seasons.
Four games are likely in June, two in the CONCACAF Nations League and two exhibitions, followed by a pair of friendlies in September, possibly in Europe. Major League Soccer players may have a domestic training camp before the tournament.
And if the U.S. winds up in Groups E through G, which don't start play until Nov. 24-25, the Americans might train in Europe for several days and have one more exhibition before heading to the Middle East.
“The starting point is getting out of the group,” Berhalter said.
USSF staff locked down hotel and training arrangements on Oct. 1, 2019, the day the portal opened, putting the team in an optimum logistical situation.
Berhalter presumes form will change between now and November, causing roster churn. He was impressed with the growth over 14 qualifiers in temperatures that ranged from minus 3 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 16 Celsius) in St. Paul, Minnesota, and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 Celsius) in Austin, Texas.
“I think we improved our pressing,” he said. “But we’re going to continue to evolve and to continue to improve. The 4-3-3 system, as it’s been good for us, we might work with some other systems just to have some flexibility in the World Cup. I think it’s important to see who we are playing and start planning out how we can be successful there."
For all the positive feelings, the U.S. dropped to third among eight nations in North and Central America and the Caribbean, behind Canada and Mexico. If not for last week's 0-0 draw at Mexico, the Americans would have finished fourth and wound up in a June playoff against New Zealand.
“The easy part is over, and now we focus on this draw,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, who rose like a rocket from initially off the roster in October to starting nine of the past 11 games. “Ultimately just focus on staying fit, staying healthy, performing for our clubs."
Forward remains a concern. After scoring three goals over two games last fall, Ricardo Pepi has gone scoreless in 19 games for club and country. Strikers produced just four of the Americans' 21 goals, with Jesús Ferreira getting the other.
“We're hoping that one of our 9s gets into a good form by the time the World Cup comes around,” Berhalter said Thursday during a layover at JFK International Airport.
Midfielders and wingers have been the engine, with Pulisic scoring five of the team's 21 goals, and McKennie, Brenden Aaronson and Robinson two each.
“We can do a lot of damage, man," Pulisic said. "I think we’re a confident bunch of guys and I think that country will get behind us and we’re going to give everything we got."
“I just like the fight of his team and I think we have a lot of quality, as well,” he added. “I think we can be a force going into the World Cup.”
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