By Tim Hayes ’22
Since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) has always had a special place in my heart. I watched John Brooks’ game-winning header against Ghana, Jermaine Jones’ golazo against Portugal, and Tim Howard come up clutch with a World Cup record 16 saves against Belgium.
Fast-forward to Oct. 10, 2017. The USMNT headed into their last game of World Cup qualifying against Trinidad and Tobago. They had a 96% chance of qualifying going into that game, and no one in their right mind thought that 4% chance would become a reality. But as the nightmare goes, the unthinkable happened.
I remember it like it was yesterday, just sitting on my couch in disbelief, endlessly refreshing the sports app on my phone, praying the scores would change. But they never did, and after losing 2-1 to Trinidad, the USMNT would miss their first World Cup since 1986.
Everything changed after that. For the next 3 years, the USMNT’s road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be a long and bumpy road, with tests at every turn.
They would have their highs and lows. The first year of the journey was filled with mixed and non-convincing results that left U.S. fans wondering where their team would go, with early results like the wins against Mexico and Columbia. In their first tournament since the failure in Couva, the USMNT would fall short in the 2019 Gold Cup Final against Mexico.
But that never stopped this team. They would head into Nations League play and get off to a strong start, only then to fall on the road 2-0 to Canada, the first time they had lost to them in 35 years. They recovered quickly and finished with convincing results and would top the group, granting them a spot into the tournament/s knockout round. But then, everything stopped.
Covid struck, and for nearly 10 months, the USMNT wouldn’t step on the field. Finally, when the world opened up, the team returned for the Nations League Finals. There, they would get revenge against Mexico, beating them in an epic clash 3-2. Shortly after, the U.S. would top Mexico 1-0 in the 2021 Gold Cup final, making it not only two trophies in one summer, but two decisive victories over their arch-rivals in the finals.
In Sept. 2021, World Cup Qualifying returned. The USMNT would get off to a slow pace, but a 4-1 road win against Honduras brought confidence back to the fan base that they would be returning to the promised land. Key wins against Panama, Jamaica, and a 2-0 win over Mexico put them in prime position going into their final game against Costa Rica.
Even though they would lose to Costa Rica in San Juan, the USMNT would still qualify for the World Cup via goal differential. Their 7-4-3 record was good for third place in the eight-team group, earning them an automatic spot. The monkey was finally off their backs, and the whole of the U.S. soccer community could take a much-needed deep breath. After they clinched, I took my dog for a walk and was thinking about the journey that led to this achievement, and that was when I realized something.
The USMNT’s journey to qualify for the World Cup was no different from my journey through high school. Both were filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I look back at the achievements of the USMNT: winning the Nations League and Gold Cup, beating Mexico four times in three years, and qualifying for the World Cup. Then I looked back at some of my achievements: making the honor roll at Brother Rice all four years, winning the Spirit Award for my soccer team my senior year, and getting into 12/13 colleges I applied to. Both my achievements and those of the USMNT made me equally proud.
Another thing I realized is that people and a team don’t grow and mature from winning. The losses and the setbacks grow us the most.
Both I and the USMNT went through struggles. The first year after failing to qualify were some of the darkest times for U.S. Soccer, the same way in my first year at Brother Rice I struggled at math. Their loss against Canada was a low moment in the process, the same way I lost my grandpa out of nowhere in late 2019. And even through World Cup qualifying, the USMNT went through plenty of struggling and bad results, the same way I struggled in some of my classes through high school.
Looking through the years and process, it’s stunning the growth I saw not only in this team, but in myself as well. For months, I’ve struggled with my college decision, but seeing the USMNT complete their journey for World Cup qualification finally gave me the confidence to make my decision to commit to Marquette.
Looking back, when people say it’s not about the destination, but the journey you take there, they couldn’t be more right. The journey grows us into the people we need to be, and gives us more than the destination ever could.