Tim Weah was supposed to spend most of his Wednesday night in Columbus sitting on a bench.
He wasn’t supposed to start the crucial United States Men’s National Team qualifier against Costa Rica. Until “literally five minutes” before, he didn’t know he would. When he did, as a replacement for an injury, he was supposed to quit after a hard hour of hard work. Reinforcements had been prepared. Weah saw them. And according to knowledgeable observers on the spot, he looked “cooked. “
But then, as the USMNT struggled to break a 1-1 tie and the opportunities dwindled, Weah burst into the penalty area. He barely glanced at the goal. And he propelled the United States to the top of the North and Central American qualifying table with a manual finish.
Technically, it will be an own goal. And on paper, the Weah whirlwind of a Wednesday night will seem relatively mundane. He played 72 minutes. He didn’t score. He came out to polite applause, one of many contributors to a crucial 2-1 victory for the United States. Sergiño Dest was the original star. Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were essential. Weah’s performance was strong but unspectacular.
Under these circumstances, however, it was remarkable.
The swirling night of Tim Weah
Weah didn’t even know when he would step onto the pitch until he and his teammates returned to the locker room after warm-ups. Paul Arriola, written in pencil as the right winger, had stopped with a groin injury. Head coach Gregg Berhalter pushed Weah into the starting 11. Weah quickly prepared. “It was all kind of a rush,” he said.
Mentally, he felt prepared. The day before, he had met Berhalter for a one-to-one cinema session.
But he might not have been prepared for a 90-minute battle. At the start of the second half, he seemed to slow down. He looked towards the sideline. He saw substitute winger Matthew Hoppe review tactics with an assistant coach. “I kind of had the idea that I was going to be replaced,” admitted Weah.
And if his evening had ended there, around the 65th minute, it would have reflected his young career, full of promises, but also twists, injuries, roadblocks. At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, he had yet to score a significant goal at USMNT.
But then, in the 66th minute, he jumped on Dest’s smart pass. He kept his head down, his eyes piercing the ball, the back of the net in his peripheral vision. He found it, via a post and the back of a goalie, and made the USMNT’s second crucial comeback in as many months.
USMNT is recovering from a hard blow
The evening had started worryingly. The smoke from the pre-game fireworks hadn’t even dissipated. An imposing tifo lingered. “The future is now,” it read, and at 7 am, very briefly, the optimism was fresh. Qualifying for the World Cup was still young. So were this talented American team, their oldest outfield at 24, their brightest stars at Juventus and Barcelona, their average age younger than ever.
But 59 seconds into the game, Costa Rica struck. Columbus fell silent. Bryan Ruiz, the long one Ticos magician, unlocked the American right side with an inventive back heel. Ronald Matarrita beat Dest all the way. Matarrita’s cross found its way to an unmarked Keysher Fuller at the far post.
Fuller’s fly was tame. But goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a slightly controversial choice to replace Matt Turner, appeared to be put off by Costa Rican forward Jonathan Moya, who was right on his knees.
And Moya wasn’t offside, because where the cross was coming from, after trying to stop it, Dest was completely off the pitch, keeping all the Costa Rican players on the line.
Dest, however, would soon redeem himself. At the end of a 13-pass move, he danced inside on his non-dominant left foot and thundered into the top corner to tie the score at one.
And not only did he do it with his left foot, but also with a untied left shoe.
“I think my laces have come loose,” Dest said with a smile after the game. He had just watched the goal in the locker room, probably amazed like the rest of us. “And [the shoe] was not related.
How the USMNT created momentum and shattered Costa Rican resistance
The first half ended in a tie. As the game progressed he leaned towards the hosts. Costa Rica made a bunker, often with nine or 10 of their 11 players behind the ball. Against Canada last month, and sometimes against Jamaica last week, the United States had failed to enter the bunkers. But on Wednesday, he did it, systematically. His position game stretched Los Ticos at the seams. The ball rushed into the attacking half of the field and into dangerous areas, at the feet of the attackers.
What ultimately broke Costa Rican resistance, however, was an assault. It was the volume. Momentum. The visitors, when they took possession of the ball, could not get out of their bunker and gave the ball to the United States.
“They didn’t have an outlet,” Berhalter said. “And we did a good job, with our midfielders, immobilizing them. Our central defenders cleaned up everything that came out. And that really helps you build momentum in the game. I mean, it was. A time when we lost the ball, get it back immediately, lose the ball, get it back immediately.This helps you support the attacks.
One of those periods of sustained control began in the 65th minute. The United States entered Costa Rica’s half of the field and for 60 seconds the ball stayed there. The Americans have lost it twice. But they have closed all avenues of counterattack. They won it right away. They recycled possession.
Shortly after the second round, a Costa Rican error allowed Dest to play Weah, which ultimately broke the stalemate, and got a result that the USMNT, with an expected goal advantage of 1.4-0.2, well deserved.
“We dominated the first half, dominated the second half,” said Weah. “And we had the payoff.”