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In their next World Cup qualifying match, U.S. men's team meets Jamaica

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. men's national soccer team plays its next World Cup qualifying match later today. But last Friday's win over Mexico is still resonating as it was a signature victory for the U.S. team over its archrivals. But players and coaches say they're laser-focused on the game against Jamaica today. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Within an hour of last Friday's win over Mexico, U.S. forward Christian Pulisic already was thinking about today.

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CHRISTIAN PULISIC: Jamaica's going to be a tough match. We know what's - you know, what they're about. We're going to get the scouting report. We're going to prepare as best we can.

GOLDMAN: Professional athletes are very skilled at returning to earth while the rest of us stay in orbit. And so it was as Pulisic calmly addressed the media gathered in Cincinnati. Many of the still orbiting crowd of 26,000 kept replaying the moment when Pulisic's goal broke a scoreless tie and swung the match America's way. He sat out several World Cup qualifiers with a badly sprained ankle. For Krista Lambert, who traveled to Cincy from West Virginia, Pulisic's performance confirmed his exalted status.

KRISTA LAMBERT: It doesn't matter how much he's injured, what has happened in the past. He's Mr. America. That's my dude. That's my dude.

GOLDMAN: Four years ago, Lambert and her husband were in Trinidad and Tobago and watched as Krista's dude wept on the field, tears of anguish as the U.S. lost to that country and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

LAMBERT: It was very embarrassing. However, I think we built on the problems that were there, and we came through.

GOLDMAN: It's been a slow process for the American men as the team has gone through head coaching changes, countless players and constant reminders. Every time the U.S. had a bad outing, critics brought up the Trinidad and Tobago debacle, and it continued in the early stages of this qualifying process. Speaking yesterday from Jamaica, head coach Gregg Berhalter said that's what makes the Mexico win significant. Beyond beating its archrival for a third straight time in the same year, the first time that's happened, the win vaulted the U.S. to the top of the regional World Cup qualifying standings, an indication, said Berhalter, that a young and talented group of American soccer players is starting to get it.

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GREGG BERHALTER: Absolutely, something's changed with the team. I have talked to all the time about how inexperienced we are, how young we are, and we need to gain that experience. And what I've seen is just the understanding increasing of what this is about, what these games entail, the level of competition.

GOLDMAN: Berhalter is picking his teams for each match from a deep pool of players. Thirty-four have appeared in the first seven World Cup qualifying matches, 26 of them for the first time at that level. Berhalter, a former player himself, says some play in some matches and not others depending on the opponent and what skills are needed.

BERHALTER: It's a challenge because, you know, I've been there, and it's never nice to get a phone call saying, you know, you're not part of a camp. And you think, I'm out; I'm done. And what I try to do is communicate to the guys that that's not the case. Things can change very quickly. And, you know, we consider you part of the program.

GOLDMAN: Right now it appears his array of players has bought into the one for all, all for one approach. The next maturity test comes today, a chance to follow a stirring home win with a road victory - always tough in these qualifiers - and another step toward erasing bad memories from four years ago.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE FIRE'S "FIREWALKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.