Like it or not, the USA’s 2022 World Cup hopes are in the hands of its young players

Of the 11 players who started for the U.S. men’s national team Wednesday night against Costa Rica, not one was alive when this country served as host for the FIFA World Cup. That was in 1994, only 27 years ago. Some of the games were played in Dallas, where striker Ricardo Pepi now plays in Major League Soccer. At that point, he was eight years from being born.

The USMNT started its youngest lineup, ever, in this World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, a decision made because the “kids” are just that good — but also because their elders simply aren’t. This is having an impact on the attempt to reach Qatar 2022 that is being too casually dismissed by many of the team’s supporters.

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The 2-1 victory over Costa Rica was needlessly harrowing because this team — whose players average 22 years, 199 days old — played, at times, like children. The defense stumbled in the first minute against a forward move that forced goalkeeper Zack Steffen to leave his area to head the ball clear. His effort wasn’t strong enough for the ball to cross the sideline, and was saved to Costa Rican left back Ronald Matarrita, who sent a cross over the U.S. defense to unmarked winger Keysher Fuller. He one-timed a rolling shot that Steffen appeared not to see until it was behind him.

Right back Sergino Dest tied the game in the 25th minute with a left-foot golazo strike after a beautiful retrieval by teenaged midfielder Yunus Musah, who set Dest up to move into space above the box and fire the ball into the far left corner.

With the game tied 1-1 early in the second half, defender Miles Robinson sent a soft, lazy, lateral pass toward central partner Chris Richards, who did not react to Robinson’s error and saw Ticos veteran Bryan Ruiz step up to intercept the ball and take off with no one between himself and Steffen’s goal. It helped that Ruiz is 122 years old — OK, only 36 — so Robinson was able to catch him near the top of the box and knock the ball clear.

In the 65th minute, Weah got free down the right side of the box, accepted a pass from Dest and fired a shot so sudden and emphatic it might only have been stopped by one of the world’s best goalkeepers. Blessedly for the United States men’s national team, the Costa Rican player who fit that very description, Keylor Navas of Paris Saint-Germain, departed at halftime because of a pulled muscle.

Weah’s shot slammed off the right post and struck Navas’s replacement, Leonel Moreira, in his left rib. It then rolled over the goal line. The official scorers for Wednesday’s game ruled it an own goal.

MORE: USMNT’s Berhalter defends team selection in Panama loss

In added time, Costa Rica drew a foul 30 yards from the box and had no choice but to send the free kick into the area and hope for the best. The U.S. swiped at the ball with a tangle of legs that never quite connected before it landed in front of Steffen, who covered it. There was a Costa Rica foul along the way, but it could have been a catastrophe.

And that’s pretty much what one ought to expect from this team, so long as it’s countered by an avalanche of energy and creative talent. Which is what occurred in Columbus.

“I said before, I don’t think it gets talked about enough,” coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters. “Twenty-two years and 199 days was the average age of our starting lineup. That’s basically unheard of in international football. You go and look at the Germanys, France, Brazils — they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams.

“So for us to be navigating through this CONCACAF qualifying — which is a bear, a monster — with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal, and then in the second half being up a goal and managing the game pretty well … I’m proud of the effort. The guys showed a lot of poise. And they’re growing; they’re growing as a team.”

MORE: Why no VAR in CONCACAF 2022 World Cup qualifying?

The U.S. is in this predicament because the country produced essentially no standout national team players between Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore (who turned 20 in 2009) and Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic (who turned 20 in 2018). One might call this the period in between the Freddy Adu Generation: No Landon Donovan or DaMarcus Beasley or Clint Dempsey emerged to replace the originals.

Of the players who competed for the U.S. at the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, only midfielder Mix Diskerud and winger Brek Shea earned more than 25 senior national team caps. Perhaps the most successful product of that team was Josh Lambo of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who has scored 527 points as a placekicker in the NFL.

The 2011 Under-20 team, which included forward Bobby Wood and midfielder Sebastian Lletget, didn’t even make the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. The 2013 team produced only right back DeAndre Yedlin and midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who have a combined 110 senior caps.

Given that relative vacuum, Berhalter tried to rely on the experience of Lletget, 29, and Acosta, 26, to control the midfield in Sunday’s road game against Panama. His faith was not rewarded. The burden was too heavy for those two to carry, and the U.S. stumbled to a 1-0 defeat. And many fans — and some former players-turned-analysts — hammered the coaching staff for that result.

“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces,” Berhalter said. “We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way. We want to play well. And we want to win games. All World Cup qualifying is difficult. All World Cup qualifying is challenging. And sometimes I feel like people forgot that. And people think it’s a cakewalk. And we’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a game and we’re just going to breeze through these games. It’s not realistic.”

MORE: World Cup qualifying schedule & standings

If you’re wondering whether there has been progress since the Calamity of Couva, the night four years and three days ago when the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup, consider that 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago was the 10th and last game of the final stage of qualifying for Russia 2018. The defeat left the USMNT with a total of 12 points, which was neither enough to qualify automatically (yes, I know you know) nor enough to enter the intercontinental playoff granted the team that placed fourth.

This squad has played six games to date: three at home, three on the road. Wednesday night’s victory placed the U.S. total at 11 points. That’s 1.83 points per game. The average four years ago was 1.2 points per game.

The Americans won three games in what then was called “the Hex”. They’ve already matched that total in a little over half the time. They lost their first two games in 2016-17. They only have one defeat through a half-dozen matchdays, standing second in the Octagonal and three points ahead of fourth-place Panama.

“We weren’t sharp enough in the beginning, but we did well after that,” Dest told reporters. “We just work as a team, and it’s really nice to see.

“We’re like bros for each other, and I think that’s really important to compete on the highest level and to win games. Because football doesn’t have to be always like a nice possession game and stuff. The points are the most important.

“We have a really young team. We are like talents, really upcoming talents. We all work together and we all get experience. Because these games are tough. We’re not used to playing against these opponents.”

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