Christian Pulisic walked across the field with a towel draped around his head, angry after another U.S. defeat.
“We're competitors, man. We hate to lose. In the moment I was frustrated,” he said. “It took me a little bit for it to sink in, that the qualification hit.”
Nearly 4 1/2 years after Pulisic buried his head in his hands to hide tears of failure, the U.S. rebounded to qualify for this year's World Cup. A 2-0 loss to Costa Rica on Wednesday left the Americans in third place after the final night of qualifying, the final guaranteed berth from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
On the 1,267th day after a 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, DeAndre Yedlin addressed the team before the kickoff.
“I just thanked each and every one of them for giving me a second opportunity to redeem myself, and the country a second opportunity to redeem itself,” said the 28-year-old defender, the only American left from the 2014 tournament.
The U.S. remained winless in 12 qualifiers at Costa Rica, with 10 defeats and two draws.
Coach Gregg Berhalter, who played for the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup, congratulated the players in the locker room. Starting lineups in the 14 qualifiers averaged an American-record low of 23 years, 302 days.
“Being the youngest team in the world to qualify for the World Cup is no easy task," he said. "It’s a proud moment for the team, proud moment for U.S. Soccer, and we’re looking forward to competing in the World Cup again.”
A sellout crowd of about 35,000 in National Stadium came to life with the goals, but the Americans’ 5-1 rout of Panama at home last weekend gave them a huge goal-difference margin over Costa Rica. That meant the U.S. merely had to avoid losing by six goals or more in order to claim an automatic berth.
Canada, which had clinched its first World Cup trip since 1986 with a win Sunday, finished first in the group with 28 points after a 1-0 loss at Panama, ahead of Mexico on goal difference. El Tri clinched its eighth straight World Cup berth with a 2-0 home win over El Salvador, while the U.S. (25 points) finished third with a plus-11 goal difference to plus-five for Costa Rica (also 25 points).
The U.S. finds out at Friday’s draw which three nations it will face in the group stage, which starts Nov. 21 at a tournament pushed back five months to avoid summer desert heat. A growing and increasingly hypercritical fan base is hoping to see Pulisic & Co. reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.