United States reliance on youth pays off in comeback win over Costa Rica

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – As Sergino Dest and Tim Weah were making their way back to the United States bench after being substituted, the two goal-scorers pumped up the home crowd at Lower.com Field. Dest high-fived teammates, as well as a few fans. Weah found time to give his jersey to someone in the crowd. Even though there were about 17 minutes left in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, they both showed their exuberance and confidence that the U.S. could see out the rest of the match.

That the U.S. did, prevailing 2-1 over the Ticos to grab a vital three points in its World Cup qualifying quest.

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The energy displayed by Dest and Weah was fitting in that this was a match where youth triumphed over experience. The U.S. starting lineup, averaging 22 years and 229 days, was the youngest it had ever fielded in a World Cup qualifier. Costa Rica meanwhile put out a starting XI with six players over 30. And its youngest player, 27-year-old Keysher Fuller, was older than the U.S.’s oldest player, 26-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen. The difference became even more pronounced later in the game when 39-year-old forward Alvaro Saborio, 37-year-old midfielder Christian Bolanos and 33-year-old defender Kendall Waston all entered the match.

The U.S. certainly showed its inexperience at times, not the least of which was falling behind with less than a minute elapsed on the clock. But the U.S. showed plenty of resilience in recording a win that likely puts it second in the Octagonal standings.

“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 the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well,” said Berhalter after the match. “I mean, Gianluca Busio comes on, and he looks like he’s 30 years old. So I’m proud of the effort. The guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing. They’re growing as a team.”

The start couldn’t have been more inauspicious. Less than a minute into the match, Steffen – something of a surprise starter after Matt Turner had started the first five matches — came off his line to clear a through ball with his head, but it didn’t eliminate the danger. With the U.S. defense scrambling to get back in shape, Ronald Matarrita found a wide open Fuller at the far post to side-foot past Steffen.

Yet this youthful U.S. team didn’t crumble. In fact, it immediately seized the initiative, and even as the U.S. looked overeager with some of its passing, it was first to a lot of second balls and put consistent pressure on the Costa Rica goal.

“We weren’t nervous at all,” said Weah. “Obviously it was a bummer to take the goal pretty early in the game. But we knew what our game plan was, and it was to expose their backline and I feel like we did that. The outside backs played a huge role today. The wingers played great. Everyone played great so it was us coming together and just staying focused and adding that intensity.”

The fear was that with all-world goalkeeper Keylor Navas in net for the Ticos, it was going to take something otherworldly to get on the scoreboard. Dest delivered precisely that, taking a pass from Yunus Musah near the corner of the box, moving the ball to his supposedly weaker left foot, and unleashing a rocket into the top corner that left Navas with no chance. Not even the fact that his shoelace was untied could stop him.

“I think it was [Weston McKennie], he made the run in behind and the guy follows him, so there was space for me,” said Dest. “I just got put inside and I thought like the only thing I could do at the moment was just shoot it, because we had to score. We are 1-0 down, so I felt like you know, we needed this point so I was just trying to show it and it was an amazing goal.”

A critical point in the match came at half-time when it was revealed that Navas had suffered an adductor injury and would have to be substituted for Leonel Moreira. Without its talisman in net, the game was there for the taking.

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The U.S. eventually took advantage in the 66th minute, as Dest turned provider for Weah, whose tight-angled drive went off the post, off Moreira and in. It officially went down as an own goal, though Berhalter said he would try to get that changed.

Still, it was a big moment for Weah, who only found out five minutes before game-time that he would be starting after Paul Arriola was injured during the warmup. And just prior to the goal he noticed he was about to be subbed out.

“I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndre [Yedlin] on the sideline getting ready to come in, so I kind of had the idea that I was gonna I was gonna get subbed out,” he said. “But my goal was just to stay focused on till then and it just so happened at the ball came out wide to Serge and I saw the run and I just hit it one time and it happened to go in. It’s just being focused in those moments.”

It was a redemptive performance for the U.S. following last Sunday’s loss to Panama, but especially for Dest. Much has been expected of the defender, he of the Ajax and now Barcelona pedigree, yet he has endured a rollercoaster ride in qualifying, struggling during the last window, especially when playing on the left side of the U.S. defense. In this window, Dest succeeded in raising his level, and in this match, he was the difference-maker that fans and teammates alike expected.

“It’s almost like the sky’s the limit for [Dest]. He could be as good as he wants to be,” said Berhalter. “You saw today with his attacking play, it’s unreal. For Serge it’s just hanging in there mentally, really pushing himself to be to be the best when he’s on the field.”

Dest admitted that qualifying games in CONCACAF are “an eye-opener” and a different world from what he’s used to in Europe. He noted that the intensity is high, and the opponents are hardworking.

“And it’s just physical,” he added.

But Dest and his teammates are learning they can play that card as well. And they needed to use their physical attributes — and brains too – to get past the Ticos. One moment that crystallized the task facing the U.S. was when defender Miles Robinson gave the ball away in the second half, sparking Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz on an apparent breakaway. But Robinson ate up the yards in ravenous fashion and snuffed out the threat. Costa Rica just didn’t have the legs.

In the process, the U.S. banished some ghosts too. It was the Ticos who sent the U.S. team’s qualifying effort during the 2018 cycle into a tailspin with a 2-0 road victory. Four years later, this Costa Rica team is clearly one that is in transition. But it’s a foe that still needs to be vanquished, and the U.S. this time protected its home turf.

The win allowed the U.S. to likely sit in second place in the Octagonal standings, pending Mexico‘s result against El Salvador. The six points in this window are a smidgen less than what was expected, given that getting a draw in Panama was doable. But the road is going to get tougher. The home encounter with bitter rivals Mexico looms, as does a road tilt against Jamaica, which looked revived after a 2-0 road win against Honduras. The U.S. will need to play with more consistency.

But so far youth has served the U.S. well, and at least for the moment, the qualifying campaign is back on track.

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