After a career resurgence in 2021, Acosta expresses USMNT confidence ahead of El Salvador qualifier
August 31, 2021
IT IS HARD TO think of an American player who has seen his international fortunes change as much as Kellyn Acosta. Just last year when the soccer world returned from its COVID-19 shutdown, Acosta was not in the national team picture and was playing for a struggling Colorado team.
Flash forward 12 months later and ahead of the U.S. team’s World Cup qualifying opener away at El Salvador, Acosta is now an integral part of the most improved team in MLS in Colorado and is firmly on the United States national team – having started and won two finals against Mexico at the Nations League and the Gold Cup.
Acosta has shown his capabilities to fit well in Berhalter’s system. While he might not start for the U.S. team when everyone is health, he is a key backup at several midfield positions. Plus, with the new World Cup qualifying format now having three-game windows, there is a big need for squad rotation which will likely mean Acosta sees the field.
When he was a teenager and into his early 20s, Acosta was once considered a top American prospect having come up through the FC Dallas academy where he made the first team and began playing for the national team. When his game began to struggle in 2018 and 2019, Acosta no longer received international call-ups. It wasn’t until last December when Gregg Berhalter brought him in for another look after he led the Rapids back to the playoffs.
“It was probably the toughest things I've faced in my career besides, having an injury,” Acosta said about his two years away from the national team. “Having this obstacle for me was actually huge for my growth and maturity. No one ever wants to experience it, but sometimes it just happens. But I think that that really helped me grow. It got me to change my focus and refocus on the things that I can control.”
“You always dream to be here and you wish to be here,” he added.
Now 26, Acosta is one of the veterans of the U.S. team who brings a lot of experience to the team. He is a product of the FC Dallas academy which has produced a growing number of top American players – many of whom he has played with and known – like Reggie Cannon, Weston McKennie (who he has known since he was nine), and Chris Richards. Acosta has also been part of a U-17 World Cup team and two U-20 World Cup teams. Now with his recent success over the summer with both the Nations League and the Gold Cup, he is able to bring more to the table.
As a veteran, he is also aware that CONCACAF soccer is often just different. The current U.S. team brings with it a lot of talent but Acosta knows that sometimes in these games teams sometimes aren’t able to play the way they want to play. That’s where it comes down to the ability to just finish the job and get results, even if it is playing ugly.
“My first real qualifier might have been like St. Vincent,” Acosta said. “It was tough. I mean, that game brought different challenges. We're not typically used to whether - we played in the afternoon, it was blazing hot. The field conditions weren't great. With these games, sometimes, you can't play beautiful football. You want to be at times you will. But sometimes if you just let the grind and be gritty and be sound defensively and capitalize offensively.
“But the resiliency of the group to move forward and keep battling was huge,” he continued. “, we have a good group of guys, guys that are experienced the CONCACAF region and got a little bit taste this past summer.. It's the mental aspect of the game. Regardless of the conditions, the weather, the field, we got to be up to it. And for all of us, I think we've shown in the past that no matter what kind of adversity is thrown our way, we've been able to adapt. Look at the Mexico game at the Nations League - crowd throwing things, referees making different calls. Maybe the field is not as great, but we were able and willing to adapt.”
Acosta is ready for the games ahead even if it is not yet decided what position he might feature. He could play the No. 6, the No. 8 role, or even as a backup fullback.
“I'm obviously going to give my all and give everything,” Acosta explained. “For me, the positions are little details. I've played in different games and played in different positions. Wherever I get asked to play, I'd be willing to do so.”
Of course, the big talking point heading into this game will be that it is the first World Cup qualifier since 2017 when the U.S. was upset by Trinidad & Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup. That loss was obviously a massive blow to the program but it overshadowed a qualifying campaign that was poor from the start – the opening two losses, the failure to win on the road, and most importantly the devastating September losses which included a home loss to Costa Rica.
Most successful World Cup qualifying campaigns have strong starts with momentum often then carrying the team. Acosta sees these games as very important. Like he has done throughout his career, Acosta has a way of turning a negative into a positive. He grew as a player and as a person in his two years away from the national team. Now he is looking back to the negativity of the 2017 failures as motivation ahead of the upcoming trip to El Salvador.
“We could definitely use as motivation,” Acosta said. “We never want to go down the road again. In that aspect, we don't want to have that same feeling that we did back in 2017 and we go into these games as motivation to do whatever we have to do to win. You can play a beautiful football, but sometimes you got to get pretty gritty, roll up their sleeves and grind out a result. Whatever kind of way we have to do it, as long as we get the result. That's the most important.”