The U.S. men's national team played its final World Cup qualifier of the year on Tuesday night, and it will end its 2021 run wondering what could have been.
With a few different bounces, a few different results, this team could already be well on its way to Qatar. Instead, the USMNT wrapped up 2021 with a window that defined its campaign so far: plenty of reason to be excited, but still with plenty to learn.
As it stands, the U.S. are still likely on their way to Qatar, with a four-point window plenty of reason to celebrate given this month's schedule and the current table . But performances like Tuesday's 1-1 draw against Jamaica show that the U.S. have a lot of work to do if they want to make any sorts of statements when and if they get there.
Tuesday's clash with Jamaica had its positives, headlined by a spectacular finish from the in-form Tim Weah. It also had its moments of naivety, its moments of frustrations and, perhaps more importantly, its moments of bad luck. On this day, that bad luck was named Michail Antonio, who put the USMNT right at the top of his personal highlight reel with an otherworldly goal.
Overall, it was a game that reiterated the fact that this USMNT side's ceiling is still unimaginably high, certainly far higher than any team that came before it. But the 1-1 draw in Kingston also showed that this current group's floor still isn't quite high enough to make CONCACAF the cakewalk that many outside of this program expect it to be.
Anyone who follows CONCACAF knows that this process is anything but a cakewalk, especially when it comes to these sorts of trips. This region, by nature, is topsy-turvy and the USMNT got yet another taste of that on Tuesday night.
It's why the U.S., riding high after what felt like an era-defining win over Mexico on Friday, struggled to truly get going in front of a limited crowd in Kingston just a few days later. It's why the U.S. could look so deflated just days after such an emotional triumph.
"They weren't happy with the point," USMNT boss Grgg Berhalter said after the game, "and that's a good sign.
"It shows that this group is highly motivated to win games and have high expectations for their performance."
From the opening whistle, though, it seemed like the USMNT was more than ready to carry over any momentum left over from that Mexico game. It took Weah just 11 minutes to give the U.S. the lead, after all.
And what a goal to get it, as Weah remains the USMNT's most in-form attacker. After setting up a goal against Costa Rica last month, Weah teed up Christian Pulisic's winner as part of a Man of the Match performance against Mexico. And, on Tuesday, he slalomed past an overmatched Jamaica defense to open the scoring and set the USMNT on their path.
That path, inevitably, took a detour thanks to the brilliance of Antonio. There are few players in this region that play at the level of the West Ham star, and there may not be any that can produce the brilliance he did on his 22nd-minute goal. From 30 yards out with little apparent reason to shoot, Antonio uncorked an absolute missile that left the USMNT shell-shocked.
"It's one of those goals where you really just turn around and clap your hands," Berhalter said, "and say it's an amazing goal, an amazing individual effort. You can't do much about that
In many ways, the U.S. never recovered. For the final 70 or so minutes, the U.S. struggled to truly find any rhythm against a very game Jamaica team. Without Weston McKennie driving the midfield, the U.S. struggled to really put Jamaica in a tough spot.
The Reggae Boyz, meanwhile, grew in confidence as the match wore on. They outdueled the U.S. on plenty of those 50-50 moments that this U.S. team prides itself in, the exact moments that led to the USMNT's win over Mexico.
Jamaica seemingly won the game, too, sealing a result that would have been pretty fair given the run of play. Damion Lowe's late header found the back of the net but was ruled out for what looked like a pretty dubious foul call. And dubious may be putting it lightly. In the end, it will be Jamaica, not the U.S., that will leave the night feeling like they deserved more and, with only a point, Jamaica's own World Cup hopes are now in severe jeopardy.
With all of that, though, the U.S. left with a draw, a decent enough result even if it wasn't a fully satisfying one. The opportunity was there to close this 2021 run with two cycle-defining wins and to head into 2022 all but assured of a place in Qatar.
It didn't happen, but the U.S. will still feel pretty good about itself. There are still six games left to play in this World Cup qualifying marathon and, as things stand, the U.S. has its destiny in its own hands. If the U.S. wins its home games from this point forward, it should be okay.
"Closing out this window of four points, averaging two points per game is pretty good," Berhalter said.
"We'll end up this window, either in first or second and that was our objective."
Things do get tougher from here, though. Trips to Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica are all on the horizon and this young team will face its biggest challenges yet in those games.
Games like the one against Mexico show the players up for the task, but games like this one in Jamaica show that there's still so much to learn.
"We're on the right track," Berhalter said "We'll use the winter and spring of 2022 to hopefully get qualification, but the guys have been great.
"When I look at the year, in general 2021, we lifted two trophies. We're in the position where we want to be in World Cup qualifying. We've won 16 games already. The guys have done a great job."
The USMNT's trip to Qatar isn't locked up, even if a four-point window does bring the squad one step closer. But this window also demonstrated once again that this group is far from a finished product, and that there are still plenty of pitfalls that could slip them up in the year to come.