It was only a few seconds of video posted to Kellyn Acosta’s personal Instagram account on Sunday night, but it spoke volumes about a player, a person and a journey of patience and perseverance.
The scene was the winning locker room inside Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The United States Men’s National Team had just defeated their rival Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup final. The win marked the second time the U.S. had defeated Mexico in a tournament final in as many months.
The social media post in question was a selfie video of Acosta, who had a celebratory beverage in one hand and the Concacaf Gold Cup trophy in the other. He looked satisfied, drenched and exhausted. His journey back to the peak of soccer in the U.S. was complete.
“It was definitely special. Just knowing that we battled for 120 minutes against a great Mexico side,” Acosta told the media in Colorado on Tuesday. “Any tournament or game I’m involved in, I want to contribute in any way possible. The coaching staff really believed in me and my teammates as well and we got the job done.”
The Plano, Texas, native was also the only player for the U.S. to start in both the Nations League final win over Mexico in June and the Gold Cup final win Sunday night in Vegas. Acosta has been a part of the U.S. teams his entire career, but the past few years have been a roller-coaster ride back to the moment in the winning locker room on Sunday.
Almost three years to the day after he was traded to the Colorado Rapids from his hometown club FC Dallas, Acosta lifted the Concacaf Gold Cup trophy over his head. The win marked the second time he’d won the Gold Cup in his career, but rewind three years to the summer of 2018. Acosta was on the fringes of the U.S. pool. He did appear in six matches that year, but he wasn’t involved in the decisive 2018 World Cup Qualifying matches and seemed to be on the outside looking in when U.S. Soccer named Gregg Berhalter the new head coach in December. The following year, Acosta was contributing at the club level, but saw only one call from the U.S. and in August, Robin Fraser was hired at the Rapids.
“With his (Kellyn’s) kind of ability, you just want to help those kids get back to that level of play,” Fraser told Jeff Reuter of The Athletic in April. “If you’ve been through some of the emotions in the days when you’re in the national team pretty consistently — and then when those moments are gone, how you handle that. What do you do with your career, how do you get back to that point? … He has certainly taken on a lot of instruction since I’ve been here, certainly to the point where he got Gregg’s eye again."
Fraser’s hire provided the stability and constant voice for Acosta, but 2020 was again a quiet year on the international front, mostly due to the COVID pandemic. Acosta was consistent for the Rapids, helping his club clinch a spot in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs with a late goal to beat Portland in early November. Berhalter took notice and the midfielder was called into U.S. camp in December of 2020 and performed well enough to earn a call back in January ahead of a busy 2021. Acosta has now featured in every national team match in 2021 under USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter.
“Kellyn was an absolute beast today, winning tackles, covering a ton of ground,” Berhalter said after the USMNT topped Jamaica in the Gold Cup quarterfinal. “We challenged him before the game, we said, ‘Listen, this is going to be a physical game, this is going to be a difficult game and we need you. We need you in the center of the field winning tackles, winning duels but also controlling the game with the ball.’”
Acosta seized his opportunity and become a mainstay in Berhalter’s lineup because of his versatility, athleticism and overall quality. In recent months he’s featured in the midfield and along the back line. He’s been asked to defend, dictate the tempo of matches, connect the play and remain a constant amidst an ever-shifting lineup.
“Kellyn is something else. He’s next level,” Sam Vines said Tuesday. “You just knew he was going to win his tackles, win his battles and when you have someone like that on your team, you’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going to win this game.’ He was the pinnacle point to us winning the tournament.”
In the Gold Cup this past month specifically, Acosta was a force. His trademark engine and athleticism were on display breaking up attacks with tackles, creating offense by linking up the correct passes and even delivering the game-winning assist against Mexico in the 117th minute off a set piece.
“For me, I was just trying to put it in a dangerous spot and let the big boys battle for it,” Acosta said of his inch-perfect assist Sunday. “Miles (Robinson) made my service look good and put it away to win the game.”
For Acosta, he’s happy to be back contributing for both club and country and is excited for the next chapter in 2021.
“I love what I do. To win a huge game Sunday, and now I turn my focus to the game this weekend,” Acosta said. “That’s the beauty of soccer. You get to travel the world. You get to do great things. I’m excited to be back.”