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Like it or not, the USA’s 2022 World Cup hopes are in the hands of its young players

Of the 11 players who started for the U.S. men’s national team Wednesday night against Costa Rica, not one was alive when this country served as host for the FIFA World Cup. That was in 1994, only 27 years ago. Some of the games were played in Dallas, where striker Ricardo Pepi now plays in Major League Soccer. At that point, he was eight years from being born.

The USMNT started its youngest lineup, ever, in this World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, a decision made because the “kids” are just that good — but also because their elders simply aren’t. This is having an impact on the attempt to reach Qatar 2022 that is being too casually dismissed by many of the team’s supporters.

The 2-1 victory over Costa Rica was needlessly harrowing because this team — whose players average 22 years, 199 days old — played, at times, like children. The defense stumbled in the first minute against a forward move that forced goalkeeper Zack Steffen to leave his area to head the ball clear. His effort wasn’t strong enough for the ball to cross the sideline, and was saved to Costa Rican left back Ronald Matarrita, who sent a cross over the U.S. defense to unmarked winger Keysher Fuller. He one-timed a rolling shot that Steffen appeared not to see until it was behind him.

Right back Sergino Dest tied the game in the 25th minute with a left-foot golazo strike after a beautiful retrieval by teenaged midfielder Yunus Musah, who set Dest up to move into space above the box and fire the ball into the far left corner.

With the game tied 1-1 early in the second half, defender Miles Robinson sent a soft, lazy, lateral pass toward central partner Chris Richards, who did not react to Robinson’s error and saw Ticos veteran Bryan Ruiz step up to intercept the ball and take off with no one between himself and Steffen’s goal. It helped that Ruiz is 122 years old — OK, only 36 — so Robinson was able to catch him near the top of the box and knock the ball clear.

In the 65th minute, Weah got free down the right side of the box, accepted a pass from Dest and fired a shot so sudden and emphatic it might only have been stopped by one of the world’s best goalkeepers. Blessedly for the United States men’s national team, the Costa Rican player who fit that very description, Keylor Navas of Paris Saint-Germain, departed at halftime because of a pulled muscle.

Weah’s shot slammed off the right post and struck Navas’s replacement, Leonel Moreira, in his left rib. It then rolled over the goal line. The official scorers for Wednesday’s game ruled it an own goal.

In added time, Costa Rica drew a foul 30 yards from the box and had no choice but to send the free kick into the area and hope for the best. The U.S. swiped at the ball with a tangle of legs that never quite connected before it landed in front of Steffen, who covered it. There was a Costa Rica foul along the way, but it could have been a catastrophe.

And that’s pretty much what one ought to expect from this team, so long as it’s countered by an avalanche of energy and creative talent. Which is what occurred in Columbus.

“I said before, I don’t think it gets talked about enough,” coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters. “Twenty-two years and 199 days was the average age of our starting lineup. That’s basically unheard of in international football. You go and look at the Germanys, France, Brazils — they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams.

“So 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 in the second half being up a goal and managing the game pretty well … I’m proud of the effort. The guys showed a lot of poise. And they’re growing; they’re growing as a team.”


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