The Verde Report: With MLS on Break, World Cup Qualifying Madness Arrives in Austin

Courtesy of Austin FC

Austin FC capped off an exhausting but profitable trio of matches last week with a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake at Q2 Stadium, marking the first time the club has won back-to-back matches at home.

With their next contest not until Saturday, October 16, the Oaks now can enjoy some well-earned rest. Except for Zan Kolmani, that is. The 21-year-old left back was tabbed to join the Slovenian national team for a pair of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches – the first Austin FC player to represent his senior national team in competition.

Which brings us to the other World Cup qualifying matter of some importance. Specifically, the match between the United States men's national team and Jamaica Thursday night, right here in Austin.

This is a big one. The World Cup is the most sought-after prize in sports, and simply getting to the tournament is no guarantee for any nation apart from the hosts (in this case, controversially, Qatar). The U.S. infamously failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018, making this year's qualifying campaign all the more crucial.

The U.S. will stage seven home WCQ matches – to go with seven away contests throughout CONCACAF – in the lead-up to Qatar 2022. There's history at play, too. The U.S. has never before hosted a WCQ match in the state of Texas. When the first ball is kicked at 6:45pm at Q2 Stadium on ESPN2, that will change.

The Team: In the three-plus years since disaster struck in 2018, the United States has seen an eruption of young talent emerging at clubs across Europe's biggest leagues. That list is topped by Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna (son of Austin FC sporting director Claudio). Unfortunately, both players are currently sidelined with injury and will not join the national team in Austin. Luckily, though, the list goes on to include Barcelona defender Sergiño Dest, Lille forward Tim Weah, and RB Salzburg forward Brenden Aaronson.

But it's in the center of the park where this squad is most exciting. The idea of a three-man midfield of Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Yunus Musah (Valencia), and Weston McKennie (Juventus) has U.S. soccer fans fantasizing of athletic dominance from box to box. The spotlight is on McKennie not just on the field, but off it. The former FC Dallas academy player was sent home from team USA's previous qualifying camp after recklessly breaking COVID-19 protocols. He has been welcomed back into the national team by head coach Gregg Berhalter, though the leash will be short.

Up top, fans will hope 18-year-old FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi can continue his heroics from a September clash in Honduras, when he scored one goal and assisted two more in his national team debut.

The Opposition: Jamaica has qualified for the World Cup just once in its history, in 1998. They are not expected to add to that in 2022, especially after taking just one draw and two losses from their first three qualifiers. Like the U.S., Jamaica is without its attacking centerpiece – Aston Villa midfielder Leon Bailey is out due to injury – and recently nationalized West Ham United striker Michail Antonio, owner of 51 English Premier League goals, announced Tuesday he will not travel with Jamaica to Austin, opting instead to remain in England with his club.

The Stakes: Just three of the eight remaining CONCACAF nations will qualify for Qatar, while the fourth-place team can do so through an intercontinental playoff. The U.S. currently sits in a three-way tie for second place behind Mexico, with 11 of 14 matches still to come.

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