Tim Weah was supposed to spend most of his Wednesday evening in Columbus sitting on a bench.
He wasn’t supposed to start the U.S. men’s national team’s pivotal World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. Until “literally five minutes” before it, he didn’t know he would. When he did, as an injury replacement, he was supposed to exit after an hour of taxing labor. Reinforcements had been prepared. Weah saw them. And according to keen observers on site, he looked “cooked.”
But then, with the USMNT struggling to break a 1-1 tie, and with opportunity waning, Weah burst into the penalty box. He barely even glanced at goal. And he fired the U.S. to the top of North and Central America’s qualifying table with a textbook finish.
Technically, it will go down as an own goal. And on paper, Weah’s whirlwind of a Wednesday night will look relatively mundane. He played 72 minutes. He didn’t score. He exited to polite applause, one of many contributors to a crucial 2-1 U.S. win. Sergiño Dest was the original star. Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were vital. Weah’s performance was strong but unspectacular.
Under these circumstances, though, it was remarkable. The 21-year-old from New York didn’t even know when he’d get on the field until the team returned to the locker room after warmups. Paul Arriola, penciled in as the right winger, had pulled up with a groin injury. That’s when Weah found out. “Everything was kind of a rush,” he said.
He hurriedly warmed up. He was, perhaps, unprepared for a 90-minute battle. And indeed, early in the second half, he seemed to be struggling. He looked toward the sideline. He saw backup winger Matthew Hoppe. “I kinda had the idea that I was gonna get subbed out,” he admitted.
And if his night had ended there, around the 65th minute, it would have mirrored his young career, full of promise, but also twists and turns, injuries, roadblocks to stardom. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, he hadn’t yet scored a meaningful USMNT goal.
But then, in the 66th minute, he pounced on Dest’s clever pass. He kept his head down, his eyes drilling into the ball, the back of the net in his peripheral vision. He found it, via a post and a goalkeeper’s back, and completed the USMNT’s second crucial comeback in as many months.
The evening had begun ominously. Smoke from pregame fireworks hadn’t even cleared. A towering tifo lingered. “The future is now,” it read, and at 7 o’clock, ever so briefly optimism was fresh. World Cup qualifying was still young. So was this talented American squad, its oldest outfield player 24 years old, its brightest stars at Juventus and Barcelona, its average age younger than ever before.
But 59 seconds into the match, Costa Rica struck. Columbus fell silent. Bryan Ruiz, the longtime Ticos wizard, unlocked the U.S. right side with an inventive back-heel. Ronald Matarrita beat Dest down the line. Matarrita’s cross found its way to an unmarked Keysher Fuller at the back post.
Fuller’s volley was tame. But goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a mildly controversial choice to start over Matt Turner, seemed to be put off by Costa Rican striker Jonathan Moya, who was right in his lap.
And Moya wasn’t offside, because back where the cross came from, Dest was all the way off the pitch, keeping every Costa Rican player onside.
Dest, though, would soon redeem himself. At the end of a 13-pass move, he danced inside onto his non-dominant left foot and sent a thunderbolt into the top corner to level the score at one.
And not only did he do it with his left foot, but also with an untied left shoe.
“I think my shoelaces were loosened,” Dest said with a smile after the game. He’d just watched the goal back in the locker room, likely marveling at it like the rest of us. “And [the shoe] was not tied.”
The U.S. bossed much of the game. Either side of halftime, it pressed and pressed for a winner. Costa Rica bunkered, and even when it stymied the U.S., it couldn’t get out of its bunker. The Americans were excellent in defensive transition. Midfielders were active. Center backs were alert. Twice in the minute leading up to the second goal, the U.S. lost the ball, but immediately recovered it and recycled possession.
Weah finally broke the deadlock. And once again, three days after a dismal display in Panama stirred up fan-base panic, the USMNT is back on track to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. It is, even if only for a few hours, on top of CONCACAF’s Octagonal.
“We dominated the first half, dominated the second half,” Weah said. “And we got the reward for it.”