ST. PAUL, Minn. — The U.S. men’s national team can breathe again. It can feel its fingers and toes again, too, as a 3-0 win over Honduras in frigid conditions has the U.S.’s World Cup qualifying campaign back on track.
It’s a win that is most welcome for the players and manager Gregg Berhalter, because let’s face it, the current World Cup qualifying window had been a brutal slog. The 1-0 win against El Salvador was labored, the 2-0 loss against Canada deflating. Berhalter’s side looked to be regressing, rather than getting stronger. With the Honduras match scheduled for Minnesota in the dead of winter, it seemed an unnecessary complication for a more talented U.S. side.
It was a game that was about survival. Honduras may have already been eliminated, but as the 2018 cycle showed, such opponents (read Trinidad & Tobago) can spring a nasty surprise. The U.S. had to endure the elements, with temperatures at kickoff around 1 degree, -14 with the wind chill. By game’s end, the wind chill had sunk to -16.
The U.S. also had to cope with its own self-doubt. The American attack has struggled of late, and a single stumble at home would have not only sent their qualifying campaign off the rails, but would’ve increased the already rising pressure on the players and Berhalter.
And yet the U.S. surmounted all of those obstacles, and it did it the old fashioned way, with a trio of set-piece goals. As recently as last summer such tallies were a staple of U.S. victories, but prior to Wednesday, the U.S. hadn’t scored a single goal from dead-ball situations in the entire Octagonal. McKennie’s eighth-minute header broke the streak, and then Zimmerman made it two in the 37th minute, firing home after corralling Kellyn Acosta‘s delivery in the box.
The boost to the U.S. was gargantuan. The goals were just the third and fourth times the U.S. has broken through in the opening half in 11 World Cup qualifying matches in this cycle. The tallies settled nerves and warmed limbs, at least on the U.S. side.
“To be honest, I don’t think they wanted any part of [the cold] tonight,” Zimmerman said of Honduras. “As soon as we got that first goal, and especially the second goal, we felt like we were in really good form, and in control the game.”
How cold was it? The U.S. Soccer Federation released a laundry list of a dozen mitigation efforts prior to kickoff, ones that went from heated benches on the sideline to in-sole warmers provided by the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
On the field, and with play predominantly in the attacking half, U.S. keeper Matt Turner was left to engage in sprints around his own penalty area to keep warm, especially after referee Oshane Nation forced Turner to dispose of his hand warmer just minutes into the match.
The USSF provided thermal head coverings to Honduras, but manager Hernan Dario Gomez railed against the conditions. Three players were subbed at halftime, and a later tweet from the Honduran Federation stated that two of them were due to “extreme climate conditions.”
“I’m not going to analyze my team, the game or my players performance. It’s not possible and I’m not capable of doing it under these circumstances,” Gomez said after the match. “Inside the locker room my players are receiving IV fluids and many of them are in pain.”
But Berhalter made no apologies for his choice of venue. He recalled how in the past Honduras has had no qualms about scheduling games in difficult conditions.
“When we go down to those countries, and it’s 90 degrees and 90% dewpoint and it’s unbearable humidity, and guys are getting dehydrated and cramping up and getting heat exhaustion, you know, that’s the nature of our competition,” he said.
It would be overstating things to say that the U.S. looked fluid in attack, but it was also a game in which it adapted, controlled the tempo and shut down a pair of dangerous attackers in Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. Once the U.S. got its nose in front, it never looked like giving up the lead.
The U.S. extended its halftime lead with another set-piece goal. Pulisic had just come on as a substitute, and lashed a shot home in the 67th minute after Ricardo Pepi and Zimmerman got touches to Acosta’s corner.
It was the kind of emphatic result that the U.S. has been craving — Berhalter even found time to take a photo with fans with roughly 10 minutes left — and the U.S. did it with the coach digging into his depth. Both Zimmerman and Acosta filled in for the injured Chris Richards and Tyler Adams, respectively. Jordan Morris started for Pulisic while Yunus Musah and Sergino Dest also made way for De la Torre and Reggie Cannon.
But as it so often does, the focus returned to the team’s two stars: McKennie and Pulisic. The Juventus midfielder remains the USMNT’s emotional center, and has completely rehabilitated himself following his two-game suspension in September for violating the team’s COVID-19 protocols. His goal gave the U.S. confidence, as did his overall play. If he felt like he “let the team down” almost five months ago, as he stated prior to this game, he most certainly lifted it up this window.
“He’s a guy that that leads by his performance,” Berhalter said of McKennie. “I thought he had an outstanding window. You could tell that he’s in big form at Juventus, the way he came into this window. He’s dominant.”
Pulisic’s situation is less clear cut, even with his goal. The fact that he didn’t start wasn’t a complete surprise given his form of late, but it still amounted to a tough decision for Berhalter, leaving him open to second guessing. It also risked fraying the relationship between manager and star player. Ultimately it paid off.
“I think the hardest thing to do as a coach is talk to a player and tell him that you support him and you’re behind him 100%, and then you don’t start them,” Berhalter said. “Because the players feel somehow that you’re not supporting him and for Christian it was a very difficult decision. But I felt it was a decision that was made to put him in the best possible position to make the impact that we know he can make. And that’s why when he’s in those positions on the field, he has the quality to make finishes like that, to score goals like that. And that’s the impact that he made for the group and really helped seal the victory for the team.”
Will the goal act as a springboard for the U.S. No. 10? Club and country are two completely different environments. The managers are different as is the competition. Pulisic doesn’t give much away either. His celebration in this instance seemed muted, but the tally can only help, and with qualification in sight the U.S. still needs Pulisic to be rounding into form to get over the World Cup qualifying finish line.
The final window now looms. The March 27 match against Panama will likely decide things, although there is an outside shot that a win in Mexico City at the Azteca might wrap things up for the U.S.
At least now Berhalter’s team has a bit of momentum. A trip to Qatar is in sight.