On Thursday night, the USMNT took another big step toward the World Cup. This was in part accomplished by the U.S. eschewing caution and putting out the strongest possible lineup against Mexico. For its bravery, the team came away with a well-earned draw. In addition, Panama settling for a draw against Honduras on the same night made the Americans’ path to Qatar even clearer. Barring a large and unlikely goal-difference swing, the U.S. can qualify automatically for World Cup with just two points from their remaining two matches. Next up is Panama at home on Sunday. Win, and U.S. is essentially in.
For USMNT fans still traumatized by the catastrophe of 2018, all of this might still have you a little nervous. No one could blame you for it. Once again the U.S. will take its qualification campaign to the wire, and we all remember what happened last time. I would argue, however, that this team and the generation of players driving it have already done enough to earn our trust. We should feel confident and expect the U.S. to deliver that which it has given us no real reason to doubt, and should enjoy the process not only of qualifying but also of looking ahead to what is in store for this group. For evidence supporting this notion, I’d like to point you to this one moment from last night’s game:
Above is a video of Gio Reyna pulling off one of the most spectacular feats I’ve ever seen an American player perform. In it, he picks the ball up a few yards in front of his own penalty area and proceeds to run more than half the pitch’s length, all the way to the front of the Mexican penalty area, bypassing seven—seven!—defenders along the way. At all times, he is the only real threat the Mexican defense has to worry about. Only some perfunctory shuffling from Jordan Pefok and an initiated-but-quickly-abandoned run from Christian Pulisic serve to help Reyna’s cause at all. And yet with the entire defense bearing down on him, and with the most meager of supporting runs, Reyna continues to chop and skip his way across the field, demonstrating what I’m tempted to call an unprecedented level of superiority in the modern history of American soccer.
I don’t know exactly how the stats would describe the play—a run with four or five “completed dribbles”? a “progressive carry” of 70 yards? a move with no “key pass” or shot, ending in a “turnover” off a “successful tackle”?—but I do know what it means: It means that Gio Reyna is a star, a player capable of genius with a touch and feel for the ball and the game that the entire world would love to call their own (had he made that run in an Argentina jersey—which he could have, as it is his grandfather’s country of birth—they would’ve called it something right off their beloved potreros), someone possessing the technique for such a play and also, just as importantly, the personality for it, the sheer gumption to want to run and keep running to show just how good he is. Watching live, I was a little annoyed about halfway through the run, when Reyna declined to play the ball out to the wing for Pulisic, which could’ve set the team up better for a chance on goal. Moments later, after a gassed Pulisic had already applied the brakes and Reyna had woven his way past another defender or two, I no longer thought about the goal at all. Instead, I hoped Reyna would keep running forever until someone could prove themselves worthy of stopping him.
Maybe I have skewed priorities, but watching a player like Reyna do something like that is precisely what I want out of the U.S. national team. It is both the means for future success and an end in itself. Qualifying for the World Cup and performing well at the event are both results that depend on a process, and the process is to discover, develop, and then display great talent. Reyna and his run—and also the U.S.’s willingness to play fearlessly in the Azteca, pushing for and probably meriting a win rather than turtling for a draw—prove that the process is working, and they communicate this success through their very existence. A player, a run, and a team like that deserve to qualify for the World Cup, and I believe that the sport behaves in a way that tends to reward the deserving.
This is why I’m not worried, and why I believe that Reyna and the rest of them will get us to where we need to be. If the scars of last cycle keep you from trusting that sense in yourself, you can at least have faith that the players believe it, and that they have more than enough talent to make it so.