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Five reasons why World Cup qualifying will be different for the USMNT this time around

6:00 PM EDT 9/1/21
USMNT 2018-2021 split pic
After failing to make it to Russia in 2018, the road to Qatar begins Thursday for a very different U.S. team

It has been 1,423 days since the U.S. men's national team saw their 2018 World Cup dreams die.

On that fateful day in Couva, the USMNT was changed forever, ushering in a new era with new stars and new World Cup dreams.

On Thursday, the U.S. will take to the field for a World Cup qualifier for the first time since. Gone are a generation of veterans that helped the U.S. to success in 2010 and 2014, and in are a talented young group of stars that are thriving at the world's biggest clubs, even if they still have a big point to prove.

It all begins on Thursday in El Salvador as the U.S. kickstarts a 14-game stretch from September to March that will determine whether or not they will be playing games in December 2022. 

To do so, they will need to navigate the always-tricky waters of CONCACAF, but that is a task that this team should, in theory, be more than prepared to handle.

With that said, Goal takes a look at what the current iteration of the USMNT has going for them, and why the 2022 World Cup cycle should be different than the nightmare of four years ago...

Pure talent

At this point, it has been talked about plenty: from a pure talent standpoint, this USMNT is unmatched by any of its predecessors.

Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus, RB Leipzig, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund. All among the world's top teams, and all homes to some of the USMNT's most important players.

The USMNT is a squad filled with Champions League experience, including a player in Christian Pulisic that is just months removed from lifting Europe's biggest club trophy.

In comparison, of the 14 players used on that fateful day against Trinidad & Tobago in 2017, just three (Pulisic, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin) played in Europe at the time.

This current group, then, is a noticeable step forward from years past, as the USMNT was previously loaded with a combination of MLS stars and players at mid-level European teams.

As successful as American players have been to this point, there is an obvious difference between playing for a mid-table Premier League team and Champions League winners Chelsea.

But it is not just that the U.S. is a team loaded with top players; it also has players that have no problem winning ugly.

A summer that yielded two trophies showed that the USMNT's best players may play at the world's richest clubs, but they still have that little bit of griminess in them that helped get them there.

In a qualifying cycle, you need to win in different ways. In some of these games, the U.S. should be able to crush CONACACF foes just on talent alone.

But there are games where they cannot, and it appears that the U.S. is now ready for those too.

The depth to compete

World Cup qualifying, at least in CONCACAF, rarely goes to plan. It is always a marathon, one which requires different combinations of players to navigate everything thrown your way.

But this cycle's process is not a marathon; it is a sprint, and that presents a whole different set of challenges.

Fourteen games in the space of seven months will present a number of different obstacles, whether that be the conditions or the opponents standing on the other side.

Gregg Berhalter spent the entire summer preparing for those challenges, widening the player pool by choosing two different USMNT groups for the Gold Cup and the Nations League.

Those two teams have now come together to form a pool that truly is 50 players deep. There are individuals for every occasion, whether that be a tactical tweak, an important injury or any other wrinkle that may be thrown the team's way.

"I think that the one thing that's amazing about this team, and obviously we showed it this summer -- not to harp on the fact that we obviously won two tournaments -- but what that showed us was that we do have amazing team depth in the squad," midfielder Tyler Adams said.

"And there's even players that might even deserve to be here that weren't even called in at the moment. So we're very fortunate to be in that position to be fair, because that doesn't force us to have to play all three games and that we can rely on that next man up mentality."

In previous years, the loss of a Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley would have been catastrophic, as the U.S. lacked no true replacements. This time, even if someone like Pulisic goes down, there is a player like Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah or Konrad de la Fuente to step in.

In goal, the U.S. has three top options entering the primes of their careers that will spend the next year battling it out for that No.1 spot. Even at striker, a position that has yet to be truly claimed by someone, there are at least enough options to try out different looks

This is a team with top-end talent, but also enough of it to paper over cracks if and when things do go wrong.

A different CONCACAF landscape

Much has changed in the four years since the U.S. missed out on the World Cup, and not just with the USMNT pool.

Rivals Mexico remain the USMNT's chief competitor atop the region, although El Tri have certainly had to deal with their own changes in recent years.

Gerardo 'Tata' Martino has ushered out a few veterans to bring in some new faces and, despite two final losses to the U.S. this summer, Mexico should be just fine when it comes to qualifying for Qatar 2022.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, have struggled to usher out their own veterans as they look to return to the World Cup.

They will do so on the heels of a poor run of form that saw them go winless in 10 matches from November 2019 to July 2021, so while it is easy to say that Costa Rica will be experienced, it is also easy to wonder if time has passed Los Ticos by.

The same can be said of Panama, who have aged out after reaching their first World Cup last cycle. It appears they will fall back into their familiar role of spoiler as a result.

But there are two wild cards in Canada and Jamaica, two teams that have taken noticeable steps forward in terms of talent.

But are they ready for this just yet? Do they have enough to complicate things for the U.S. or Mexico? It is, in truth, too soon to tell.

Overall, the USMNT is staring down a much different WCQ path. For the last few cycles, the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica were seen as virtual locks, even if 2018 showed how things can go so wrong even for the favorites.

Even so, with Costa Rica falling back towards the pack and the U.S. seemingly lifting itself all the way back up, there is a bit of a different look to CONCACAF this time around.

The pain of the past...

Prior to 2018, the thought of the USMNT missing the World Cup was unfathomable. But then it happened.

Over the last four years, that moment has defined the USMNT. The program was assessed, ripped down and rebuilt as the federation tried to learn from its own failures. That moment was one that forced American soccer to look inward in an attempt to figure out exacttly what went wrong.

Berhalter was brought in to develop a culture, one that combined the old-school American principles with new-school American talent. This team is now one that both looks ahead to the future while understanding the past.

This program has learned from where things went wrong last time around. From stadium selection to squad management, Berhalter says his coaching staff has looked back for ways to ensure that the U.S. moves forward.

And, after failing to win on the road once last cycle, the squad has put an increased focus on performing away from home instead of relying on perfect performances from their home games.

An old saying says that once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a habit, but Berhalter and the USMNT are eager to learn from the accident that was the 2018 cycle.

"We addressed it in June 2019 when we got to play Trinidad in the Gold Cup," Berhalter said, "and that was a big moment for that group. It was a group that was basically fresh off of not qualifying, and we had to address our fears.

"Ever since then we built this team to be resilient, to be competitive and it's about looking forward. It's not about looking backward."

But a group unburdened by it

While the USMNT's players understand the past, they also know they are not responsible for it. 

Of the 23 players in that squad in T&T, just six have been anywhere near a USMNT squad in recent years, with just Pulisic, Yedlin, Acosta and Tim Ream in the team this time around.

As a result, these players are not weighed down by the previous generation's failure. Instead, they are inspired by it.

Adams and Weston McKennie have spoken at length about how determined this group is to make their own legacy and not be defined by those that came before them. There is no fear of failure or repeating history, but instead an eagerness to forge their own path.

"I think our mentality is to go in and win all the games that we can," McKennie said. "Our goals are to prove also that we're the best in CONCACAF and I think the only way to do that is to dominate it.

"To dominate, you got to win your games and that's what we're here to do."

And so they know that 2018 is not their load to shoulder, even if they are responsible for writing the wrongs. This is a new team that is determined to do things their way and, in their way, success is the only option.

"There's no Plan B for us, there's only been a Plan A and that's obviously to qualify for the World Cup," Adams said. "When I think about the experiences that we've had now, in the past two years, I would say as a group and how much we've developed, it's ultimately for this moment right here.

"We've waited a long time for this and the expectations are high going into this week."