USMNT lives in Trinidad, and deserves its true test before the 2026 World Cup

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Antonee Robinson of the United States celebrates a goal against Trinidad and Tobago at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 20, 2023 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

Antonee Robinson of the United States celebrates a goal against Trinidad and Tobago at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 20, 2023 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. (Carmen Mandato/USSF via Getty Images)

Angst rallied for 81 minutes last Thursday in Austin, and circled the American men’s national team into this week. He survived despite three late goals against Trinidad and Tobago, which made Monday’s trip to Port of Spain almost formal. It was going on because the Americans were working in a way that they often do under Gregg Berhalter, going on in the last third. It appeared again on Monday night when Sergiño Dest picked up a vaguely stupid red card, and Trinidad and Tobago took a 2-1 lead afterwards.

But in the end, with a 4-2 aggregate win, the USMNT completed a two-legged semifinal of the CONCACAF Nations League – and qualified for two tournaments that will provide far more fitting tests.

First, in March, there is another round of Nations League finals. Next, and most important, is Copa América 2024. The South American giants will visit the United States this summer. The USMNT will join them for a 16-team fiesta that will be a 2026 World Cup dress rehearsal in every way possible.

It generates a buzz.

It will test event management systems in host cities.

It also brings opponents and atmospheres that the USMNT rarely sees.

It will be a real departure from a park bus and empty seats in Austin, from a small field and a sleeper second leg in Trinidad. It will be nothing like a stodgy duel with a Canadian, or a Ghanaian romp. It will include Brazil and Argentina, but also Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela – teams the USMNT could very well meet in the 2026 World Cup finals, none of which would sitting in 5-4-1 and basically refusing to attack.

Scruffy CONCACAF games, like Thursday and Monday, used to be the barometer by which the USMNTs were judged. Could they run through strong defensive roadblocks? Could they deal with unfamiliar elements and show mental toughness on the road? them there were to qualify for the World Cup. They didn’t do that in 2017. So those questions, and related questions, took Berhalter through his first four-year cycle on the job.

But they are no longer relevant questions. The USMNT qualified for 2022, and does not need to for 2026. It has, in the meantime, established itself as the class of CONCACAF. His ambitions are higher – and so, the barometer has changed.

PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - NOVEMBER 20: Yunus Musah #6 of the United States is tagged by Real Gill #10 of Trinidad and Tobago during the first half at Hasely Crawford Stadium on November 20, 2023 in Port of Spain Spain, Trinidad And Tobago.  (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

It may have to crack one lower block in the 2026 group stage. But as the top seed in a four-team group from which three advance, the US will be desperate to reach the round of 32, even with one slip. These knockout games, against the world’s top 25 teams, will make or break this cycle of the World Cup.

And the top 25 teams are the ones USMNT Berhalter didn’t just beat outside of CONCACAF.

The two-way games against superior teams, or at least comparable ones, will determine whether the USMNT reaches the quarterfinals or semifinals. Accuracy and tactical balance, as well as luck and a number of other factors, will determine whether they will do what they set out to do: “Change soccer in America forever.”

What mattered on Thursday and Monday, therefore, was not style points or experimentation. He was ordering these real tests.

The USMNT will learn their Copa América opponents in the December 7 draw in Miami. The tournament begins on June 20 in Atlanta. And over the course of a few weeks in June and July, we’ll learn more than ever before about the USMNT’s preparations for the 2026 World Cup.

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