Reyna's return, the ghosts of 2014 and five things to watch as the USMNT seek World Cup qualification

Giovanni Reyna USMNT Costa Rica 2021Getty

This is it. After nearly five years of waiting, the U.S. men's national team's road to redemption concludes this week.

Since that 2017 collapse in Trinidad & Tobago, this is the moment that the U.S. has been building towards. The Gold Cup, Nations League, a succession of friendlies – all just side stories. This is what it's all been about.

This three-game set of World Cup qualifiers will determine the USMNT's fate.

Get the results needed and they're headed to Qatar. Fall apart, again, and suffer through another four years of criticism, of questioning, of pessimism.

There's a wound that has yet to truly heal from that night in Couva, a devastation that hasn't gone away in the years since.

The only way to emerge from that past is to bury it, and the only way to bury the past is to guarantee a brighter future.

Over the next week, the U.S. will face Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica with everything on the line.

Gregg Berhalter & Co. know what's required as they sit second in the group, but just four points above fourth and, most importantly, five points away from fifth.

So, here's a closer look at five things to watch over the next week as the U.S. looks to put an end to that five-year wait.

The return of Reyna

We haven't seen Gio Reyna in a USMNT shirt since the international window before Ricardo Pepi earned his first call-up.

Much has changed in the interim. This is a totally different USMNT than the one that saw Reyna limp off in September and, for that reason, the USMNT may need a totally different Reyna.

By and large, the USMNT has utilized Reyna out on the wing, usually opposite someone like Christian Pulisic or TImothy Weah.

So, that's option No.1, the familiar choice, perhaps the most logical one, too, with Brenden Aaronson out of action.

But then there's the temptation to start Reyna in the central position that he himself believes is his best.

"That's where I grew up playing," the teenager said. "I've done it for Dortmund, I’ve done it [for the US], too. So, we’re open to a lot of things.

"We have to wait and see what the plan is for the game and obviously the lineup. But we’ve talked about it. It’s definitely a possibility."

Starting Reyna as a No. 10 or even as a No. 8 would do several things for the USMNT.

Firstly, it would open up a spot on the wing for some combination of Pulisic, Weah, Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola or Jesus Ferreira to start.

And secondly, it would help cover for the absence of Weston McKennie, allowing Berhalter to play two defensive-minded midfielders like Kellyn Acosta and Tyler Adams in more of a 4-2-3-1.

Is that a tactical tweak Berhalter is willing to make and, even if he is, is Reyna fit enough to be counted on after missing so much time? We'll have to see.

Dealing with fear

There are few players remaining from that infamous 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle failure. Only three players in this squad (Pulisic, Arriola and DeAndre Yedlin) were on the field on that infamous day in Couva.

But those memories loom large, even over a group of players that had nothing to do with missing out on Russia four years ago. On social media, there's still a general sense of trepidation.

Before Trinidad & Tobago, the USMNT missing out on the World Cup was unfathomable. But now, it's a very real threat, a dark cloud that hangs over this program until the moment it is finally vanquished by actually qualifying.

The players have long insisted, though, that they don't feel the weight of history on their backs.

“There's no fear. There's no fear at all,” said Adams. “The minimum is that every game that we go into, we're leaving it out all out on the pitch so that we don't have any regrets. And when we leave it all out on the pitch, we're going to win games, that’s the bottom line.

"So, we’re confident in the group and we're confident in the mentality of the group.”

Adams was one of many players to earn their first caps in the wake of that qualifying failure. He was one of many players to watch on as the U.S. squandered last cycle.

For a fanbase scarred by the events of 2017, there's still this looming worry that it could happen again, but it seems that worry hasn't seeped into the squad itself.

Sacrificing Mexico for Panama?

Berhalter admitted he'd seen the chatter, and he admitted he has at least considered starting a B team against Mexico on Thursday night.

The U.S. knows what is in for when they head to the Azteca. Mexico, as usual, will be favored, especially given the fact that the U.S. has never emerged from the famous stadium with a win.

And so, the question is asked: is there another option? Should the U.S. go all out to win in Mexico?

As things stand, the U.S. can qualify in Mexico if results go their way. A U.S. win plus a Panama loss plus a Costa Rica draw or loss would send the U.S. through.

But we also know that, with four points, the U.S. has a 98 percent chance to qualify. With five, that number jumps to 100 percent. And any points dropped by Panama would move the U.S. one step closer as well.

So, with that in mind, might it make more sense to go all-in on beating Panama at home in the second game of this window? Should the U.S. rest players, play for a draw and hope for the best against Mexico?

Berhalter played coy, saying he wasn't planning on unveiling his lineup before kickoff, but he said it is at least a thought worth considering.

"I heard that argument, that we should play a B-team, and what I did was I took it to the staff and we debated it. We looked at all sides," he explained.

"We said 'Hey, does this have merit?' and think it was an important exercise to do for us to do that.

"We came out with our answer. You'll see tomorrow, but, certainly, there's no harm in looking at both sides of this thing.

"We know that the Panama game will be an important game. We also know that Mexico will be an important game and we also know Costa Rica has the potential to be important, so our mindset is one game at a time."

What to do without Weston

The U.S. has some notable absences, players like Sergino Dest and Aaronson that would no doubt start at some point this window.

But there's no bigger absence than that of Weston McKennie, the USMNT's midfield star.

McKennie is set to miss the rest of Juventus' season and, ultimately, the rest of the qualifying cycle due to injury, robbing the U.S. of a player that was, at one point, their most in-form player.

When assembling a lineup, McKennie, Adams and Pulisic are almost certainly the first names on the team sheet, the pillars of this young USMNT group.

This week, one of those pillars is gone, and, in many ways, it will be impossible to replace him, as the U.S. doesn't have a midfielder to do all of the things McKennie can do.

The good news? They do have midfielders that can do some of the things McKennie can do.

Kellyn Acosta can provide the energy, while Gianluca Busio can provide the creative flair. Luca de la Torre can carry the ball up field in a way that either complements or replaces Yunus Musah.

And then there's Cristian Roldan, the USMNT's off-the-bench swiss army knife that has the veteran experience to help kill games.

"I always play in a similar way and a lot of other guys, I don't think, are going to change their games," Adams said.

"But when you have guys like Busio and Luca, those final-play guys that can really put in the pass and break down opponents, and then you have guys like myself and Kellyn that are just battling in there, winning balls, being able to play forward, break up attacks, that's super important.

"Then you have guys like Yunus that are like hybrid players that are really, really good at both things. When you mix and match those types of players, that gives us a really versatile midfield.

"I think that, throughout this qualifying cycle, we've found different combinations that are very good. We're good at playing with different people and we understand each other's roles which is also really good."

Pepi's time running out?

The fact is this: Ricardo Pepi hasn't scored since October.

To be fair, there haven't been a lot of matches since then but, no matter which way you look at it, it's been too long since the Augsburg striker has hit the back of the net.

Berhalter hasn't seemed too concerned with the drought, as he has said time and time again that Pepi does more than score.

And, to look at things properly, it isn't uncommon for a teenage striker to go through a bit of a rough patch from time to time, particularly one getting to grips with a new league.

But, if the U.S. are going to get to Qatar, they'll need goals from somewhere. They'll need someone to win them games and to earn them points.

With Jordan Pefok back in the squad amid a fantastic run of form with Young Boys, it is fair to ask if Pepi is that guy right now. Pefok is the hot hand, for sure, and you can't say that he hasn't earned the chance.

Right now, Pepi may still be the guy. He may not. He may very well be the USMNT's striker of the future.

But the USMNT's World Cup hopes may very well ride on Pepi proving he is the USMNT's striker of the present, too.