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Pulisic, Pepi and the USMNT's winners and losers as World Cup qualification secured

21:00 BST 31/03/2022
Christian Pulisic Ricardo Pepi USMNT GFX
Gregg Berhalter's team picked up four points from their final three CONCACAF games, which was enough to earn their spot in Qatar later this year

It has been a four-year journey to this moment, and it is nearly here: the United States men's national team are officially going to the World Cup.

They survived a gruelling CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign to get there, finishing third in the Octagonal to earn one of three automatic spots in Qatar this winter.

Their qualifying journey ended Thursday with a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica but, in actuallity, it reached its peak on Sunday, as the U.S. all-but sealed their spot with an emphatic win over Panama.

It was on that night that the USMNT made a statement, but it was not the only positive step taken over the last week.

There was also the scoreless draw at the Azteca, a game that saw the U.S. go toe-to-toe with rivals Mexico at one of the fiercest stadiums in the game.

Although the loss to Costa Rica was still a low, there was little that could dampen the mood. The U.S. are back on the global stage, and will now spend the next eight months building towards the next step of their journey

But who shined brightest in the final round of qualifying? And which players needed to show more as competition heats up for spots in Qatar?

GOAL is here to breakdown the winners and losers of the final round of World Cup qualifying:

Winner: Christian Pulisic

Captain American proved he is captain material.

Pulisic was exactly the leader the USMNT needed against Panama, as his hat-trick capped what was one of his best performances in a national team shirt.

He was lively and energetic, but it was also a performance filled with emotion and, most importantly, goals.

Against Panama, the normally-stoic Pulisic showed a side of himself that we had not really seen, as he truly let his passion shine through.

After spending years trying to shoulder too much of the load, Pulisic has learned that he plays his best when he does not put so much pressure on himself. And, with this team and with these players around him, he doesn't need to.

Loser: Strikers not named Jesus Ferreira

After seven months and 14 qualifying games, we are still no closer to figuring out who will start for the USMNT in Qatar.

For months, it appeared to be Ricardo Pepi, but the young Augsburg star was relatively quiet once again this week, and the teenager still has not scored for club or country since October.

Jordan Pefok has scored lots of goals at club level in that time, but he did himself no favors this window.

Teed up with a golden chance to win the game against Mexico, Pefok shanked his shot, leaving the USMNT to settle for a draw. It is harsh to judge a player off one missed chance, but that is the way the game works as a No.9.

Jesus Ferreira, meanwhile, did impress in his start, scoring against Panama while showing a bit of CONCACAF understanding by distracting the opposition goalkeeper during both penalties.

Ferreira is still very, very young and still playing his way into a regular role, but he is certainly one to watch over the next seven months in the race to be the No.9.

Winner: Luca de la Torre

From out of the picture to a key piece of the USMNT midfield, what a rise it has been for Luca de la Torre.

The Heracles midfielder is the perfect example of how important it is to be in the right situation, as his time in the Eredivise his helped him take his game to the next level.

Since returning to the USMNT earlier this year, De la Torre has been fantastic, offering Berhalter another legitimate option in the center of the field.

When healthy, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are still starters, and it will be tough for De la Torre to unseat them.

However, he sure as hell has played his way into the rotation and, if all goes well, should be a part of the roster in Qatar.

De la Torre is a player that can unsettle a defense, that can pick out a final ball and carry it when neccesary. That type of player is so valuable, and is why De la Torre is now so important having been nowhere near the team just a few months ago.

Loser: Zack Steffen

Zack Steffen did himself few favors on Wednesday.

The Manchester City goalkeeper was not totally to blame for Costa Rica's first goal, although he was a step slow during the sequence.

But he surely will receive the blame for the second, which saw him fail to claim a cross as two set pieces proved the team's undoing.

The USMNT goalkeeper competition, then, continues, even with Matt Turner sidelined this camp due to injury. Much will be determined by how, or how much, Turner and Steffen play at the start of next season in England.

As things stand, Steffen still feels like he has a leg up, but even so, this is very much a competition and, with a chance to make another good impression, Steffen let it slip through his grasp.

Winner: American soccer

Okay, so this one may be a bit of a cop-out, but it is also important to talk about this all fits in the big picture.

Despite qualifying ending on a bit of a low with the loss to Costa Rica, there is no real way to explain how valuable the last 12 months or so have been to American soccer.

From the Nations League and Gold Cup to this World Cup qualification, the young core of the USMNT have been thrown into the CONCACAF fire and, although they were burned a few times, they emerged.

That is the first positive step, especially considering what happened four years ago.

Now, the U.S. is in position for that next positive step, which is one that should recapture the imaginations of the general public.

After missing out in 2018, the USMNT sank into the background, becoming the butt of jokes from the casual observer. In Qatar this winter, they will be able to come back to the forefront; a team loaded with young, talented stars eager to prove themselves.

The point is, this was a monumental step for American soccer, even if it was just the first one. Brighter days are ahead, and the U.S. earned the right to have those brighter days over the last 12 months.