USMNT survives in Trinidad, and qualifies for its true pre-2026 World Cup test

Angst accumulated for 81 minutes last Thursday in Austin, and lingered around the U.S. men's national team into this week. It lingered despite three late goals against Trinidad and Tobago, which made Monday's trip to Port of Spain a near-formality. It lingered because the Americans labored in a way they often have under Gregg Berhalter, floundering in the final third. It reappeared Monday night when Sergiño Dest picked up an inexplicably stupid red card, and Trinidad took a 2-1 lead moments later.

But in the end, with a 4-2 aggregate win, the USMNT wrapped up this two-leg CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal — and qualified for two tournaments that will offer much more applicable tests.

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

It will generate buzz.

It will test event management systems in host cities.

It will also bring opponents and atmospheres that the USMNT rarely sees.

It will be a stark departure from a parked bus and empty seats in Austin, from a patchy pitch and sleepy second leg in Trinidad. It will be nothing like a stodgy duel with Canada, nor a feel-good Ghanaian romp. It will feature Brazil and Argentina, but also Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela — teams that the USMNT could very well meet in the 2026 World Cup knockout rounds, none of whom would sit in a 5-4-1 and essentially decline to attack.

Scruffy CONCACAF games, like Thursday's and Monday's, used to be the barometer by which USMNTs were judged. Could they ram through sturdy defensive roadblocks? Could they cope with unfamiliar elements and exhibit mental toughness on the road? They had to in order to qualify for World Cups. They didn't in 2017. So those questions, and related ones, trailed Berhalter through his first four-year cycle on the job.

But they're no longer the relevant questions. The USMNT qualified for 2022, and won't have to for 2026. It has, in the meantime, established itself as the class of CONCACAF. Its ambitions are loftier — and so, the barometer has changed.

It might need to crack one low block in the 2026 group stage. But as the top seed in a four-team group from which three can advance, the U.S. will be heavily favored to reach the round of 32, even with one slip-up. It will be those knockout games, against top-25 teams in the world, that will make or break this entire World Cup cycle.

And top-25 teams are the ones that Berhalter's USMNT simply haven't beaten outside CONCACAF.

It's the two-sided games against superior teams, or at least comparable ones, that will determine whether the USMNT reaches a quarterfinal or semi. It's precision and tactical balance, plus luck and a host of other factors, that will determine whether they'll do what they've set out to: "Change soccer in America forever."

What mattered Thursday and Monday, therefore, was neither style points nor experimentation. It was booking those true tests.

The USMNT will learn its Copa América opponents at a Dec. 7 draw in Miami. The tournament will kick off June 20 in Atlanta. And over a few weeks in June and July, we will learn more than ever before about the USMNT's 2026 World Cup readiness.

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