The old joke goes that soccer is a game of feet not inches.
But the difference was a matter of inches in August, when Colorado Rapids midfielder Kellyn Acosta threaded a bending, precision free kick through a swarm of defenders to U.S. teammate Miles Robinson who headed in a dramatic last-minute game winning goal against uber-rivals Mexico.
The heroics helped capture the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the second trophy of the summer for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT). And it marked a triumphant return for Acosta who rejoined the team in late 2020 after an extended absence.
Acosta promises to play a key role in the coming months for the U.S., which is now in the midst of the latest round of qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with a game Thursday against Jamaica and two more key matches in the next week.
“It's definitely exciting,” said Acosta. “I mean, obviously any opportunity to put on the [U.S.] jersey is always exciting times, and obviously these games are with importance.”
Wearing that national team jersey in important matches is the holy grail for a U.S. soccer player. It’s one Acosta has been chasing since he started kicking a ball around the soccer fields of Texas, where he grew up.
“My dream is to play in Europe and to play in a World Cup. That's always been my dream as a kid,” he said.
He hasn’t yet played for a European club, or played in a World Cup. But Acosta has made more than three dozen appearances with the U.S. team, and has a real chance at achieving that part of his dream next year.
Acosta spoke about the latest chapter in his career over FaceTime as he walked around outside Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, before a series of road trips, with five games in two weeks.
Since arriving in Colorado three years ago, he’s cemented his place as a top player on a Rapids team that’s vying for a top spot with Major League Soccer’s playoffs just weeks away. And he’s doing it while also logging valuable minutes with the men’s national team.
“Adding those extra games and those extra miles, a lot of travel. I think that that part is really tough. The physicality of it,” he said. “Mentally, I mean, I'm just excited to be involved in every game and, and be a part of it. So that part of me, I love what I do.”
That passion comes through in the way Acosta plays. A tenacious defender with great ball skills, he covers a lot of ground connecting the defense and attack. His poise has shown through as the USMNT recently won the CONCACAF Nations League title in Denver, the Gold Cup and pulled out a big road win in a crucial qualifying game versus Honduras.
“It really is an amazing honor,” said Robin Fraser, the Rapids head coach, himself a former national team player. “The fact that he has put himself firmly in the mix, I think says a whole lot about Kellyn as a player and his character, and just willingness to go in and do whatever needs to be done.”
That attitude pairs well with Acosta’s physical gifts.
“His physical skillset is pretty impressive,” Fraser said, describing the athleticism that makes Acosta a national team-caliber player. Incredible strength. Explosiveness. Agility, ability to change direction. Plus, he said, Acosta can hit every pass possible with either foot. “I could see him doing this for a long, long time.”
Acosta’s role with the national team represents a bit of a comeback story. He’d been a mainstay with the team, but a few months after the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, for the first time in three decades, Acosta found himself off the national team roster.
“Yeah. I mean, it was a tough couple of years of being absent from the team, especially when I've been in the thick of things the years prior. And yeah, it was a tough pill to swallow,” said Acosta.
Acosta, who is 26, said he worked hard to get back to the team, relying on his support system, his family. He zeroed in on being resilient and fine tuning his game.
“Not being involved helped me kind of mature, helped me kind of focus on the little details that I kinda neglected in a way,” Acosta said.
His maturation has been noticed.
“He's a hard worker. He wears his heart on his sleeve when he plays for the U.S. and the Rapids,” said former U.S. national team member and Rapids TV color analyst Marcelo Balboa. “He fought through those difficult times. And now he's back where he belongs as a big, big part of the U. S. national team.”
With his return, Acosta has emerged as a heady leader, knowing when to slow the game down, when to foul or get in the faces of opponents after they foul a teammate, and how to communicate with the referee.
“I think he feels like a leader and therefore acts like a leader. And a lot of that comes from the confidence of his play week in, week out,” said Fraser.
A lot has happened since Acosta’s first stint with the squad, especially off the field. The pandemic hit, scrambling life and pro sports leagues. Then the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Acosta, who is Black, to speak for social justice.
“This could have been me. This could have been my brother, my dad, my grandpa, anyone,” he said
Acosta joined the group Black Players for Change before last summer’s MLS is Back Tournament. Dozens of players from teams around the league knelt or stood with a raised fist in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time police held Floyd on the ground.
“When I saw the [Floyd] video, it kind of hit home for me,” Acosta said. “And, it was something that I knew as a person, not only as an athlete, but as a person, that I needed to step up.”
That’s now even more important to him, after becoming a father of a now three-year-old.
“He just turned three in August and yeah, I mean, it's been crazy,” Acosta said. “Obviously, you become a dad and kind of see the world in a different light.”
His return to the national team comes at a critical moment. A new generation of players has emerged, with a number of top players now earning significant playing time in Europe, some of them with marquee clubs. Youth leagues and development programs are generating homegrown talent for MLS teams.
“Soccer is on the rise here in the United States,” said Balboa. Not only is the U.S. vying for a spot at next year’s World Cup, it will co-host, with Mexico and Canada, the next one in four more years.
FIFA, soccer’s international body, could pick Denver to hold some games.
“The U.S. is in a battle to qualify,” for the 2022 tournament, said Balboa. “We know that 2026 is going to be in the United States. FIFA is going down to their finals of who's going to host, Colorado's in the mix. So these are exciting times.”
Acosta echoed that.
“Exciting times. I think we have a great team,” he said. “But, you know, we haven't qualified yet.”
Acosta is in the midst of a three-game run with the national team, and came on as a substitute in Thursday night's 2-0 win over Jamaica in Austin, Texas. He is the only U.S. player to have appeared in all of the team's games this year, according to U.S. Soccer. Next up is an away game in Panama, followed by another home match against Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio.
The Octagonal, as it’s called, is the regional qualifying survival of the fittest. Eight teams. Fourteen games. Top three go to the World Cup.
The U.S. cannot afford to miss out on next year’s big event, said Balboa.
“We can not have another hiccup or a huge speed bump or a wall, that we do not qualify for the next World Cup in Qatar,” said Balboa, who played for the team from 1988 to 2000. “That would be catastrophic.”
While the U.S. and Mexico are the traditional regional powerhouses, getting through qualifying is an intense, high-stress affair, with little room for error and half the games on unfriendly turf before high-spirited fans in countries where the game is life.
“Screaming, yelling, fireworks. I mean, the whole nine yards,” Acosta said. “There's definitely hostile environments and it's not easy games. It's something that you've got to adapt to quickly.”
By next year, the squad will know if it’s made it, and Kellyn Acosta will know if he’s achieved his dream to be on that plane to the 2022 World Cup.
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