SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — For even probably the most assured gamers and gifted groups, a maiden journey into the heightened drama of the World Cup qualifying match in North and Central America can really feel like splash of chilly water to the face.
Here, world rankings have a approach of dropping their that means. Club pedigrees and gamers’ salaries can shortly be forgotten. It is a impolite awakening, a ceremony of passage. And the United States males’s soccer group is experiencing it but once more.
Beginning final week, the Americans launched into a three-game sequence of qualifying matches over seven days that they hoped would set up a baseline state of confidence for the lengthy path to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Much of the final week had, as an alternative, left them wanting frazzled and not sure.
After attracts of their first two video games — on the highway in opposition to El Salvador and at house in opposition to Canada — the Americans’ sport late Wednesday evening in opposition to Honduras on the spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano represented a closing probability to salvage the week. A loss would have despatched the group house within the beginnings of a tailspin. A draw would have extended the gradual boil of hysteria.
Instead, they strode off Four-1 winners, a outcome — delivered by 4 second-half targets after an abysmal, disjointed first half that felt just like the nadir of an terrible week — that can present a kernel of positivity to domesticate within the weeks to come.
The most respected factor the gamers and their coaches will deliver house, then, may very well be the teachings discovered: concerning the perils of trusting an excessive amount of in previous outcomes; concerning the precarity of the problem that is still forward; and concerning the fragility of a group’s best-laid plans and ambitions.
“It’s a different animal than we’re used to,” Coach Gregg Berhalter mentioned after the sport, referring to the qualifying match. “So I think that this whole window was great for this group. We really needed that in terms of the eye-opening of what this experience actually is.”
The concern was that they have been tiptoeing onto the identical path an earlier model of the group traveled three years in the past, when the United States fell one level wanting qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, ending a streak of seven straight appearances on the world’s most-watched sporting occasion. On some stage, it appeared irrational: Even with the disappointing outcomes from the primary two video games, the United States is closely favored to qualify, maybe extra so after a win that can buoy their temper, and their hopes. But the bad memories of the last cycle remain raw in many people’s minds.
“I can see it being, you know, just memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back,” Berhalter, who was hired after the 2018 World Cup, said of those concerns on Tuesday night. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can understand that completely. What I’d say is this is a different group, and we’re focused on winning games, and we’re focused on getting points.”
Such talk had not been convincing before Wednesday’s resounding win.
Few would go as far as to call the Americans hubristic: The notion of this regional qualifying tournament as a gnarly obstacle course, with challenging factors unique in world soccer, has long been ingrained in the psyche of the team and its fans, and the players over the past week have spoken of the process with all due respect. They know, too, that it will continue with three more qualifiers in October, and two more a month after that.
But the lofty standards imposed on the squad, the high expectation and calls for perfection, are in many ways of the teams’ own making.
Berhalter said earlier this week that the tournament’s 14 games should be regarded by his players as “14 finals” — effectively labeling the entire slate of games as must-win contests.
Before the first game last week, midfielder Tyler Adams laid out the team’s ambitious to-do list: “We’re looking for a nine-point week, bottom line,” said Adams, 22.
And Weston McKennie said last week the United States needed to assert its position as the best team in the confederation. “The only way to do that is to dominate it,” he said two days before taking the field for the first World Cup qualifier of his career. “And to dominate, you’ve got to win your games.”
These things, for a variety of reasons, did not come true against El Salvador and Canada. And for a half against Honduras, it did not seem as if they ever would. But then the halftime substitute Antonee Robinson pulled his team even three minutes into the second half, and the U.S. started to turn the tide. Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old striker from Texas, gave the Americans the lead in the 75th minute, and then set up midfielder Brenden Aaronson, another substitute, for an insurance goal in the 86th.
Sebastian Lletget’s finish off a rebound three minutes into injury time closed the scoring, and, at last, restored the team’s smiles.
Wins have a way of quieting, if not totally erasing, questions and distractions swirling around a group.
On Sunday afternoon, for instance, McKennie was suspended for violating team rules and had to miss the team’s final two games of the week. McKennie said on Instagram before the game against Canada that he had broken Covid protocols.
Berhalter said the disciplinary move was for the team’s long-term health. In the short term, it hurt. The suspension deprived the team of one of its best players, and McKennie’s teammates spent the ensuing days awkwardly answering questions about his conduct. World Cup qualifying runs through March, and Berhalter suggested that McKennie, who plays for the Italian powerhouse Juventus, would be back in the picture soon enough.
“It’s an open-door policy,” he said. “There will very rarely be a situation where a player would never be allowed back into national team camp. That’s not how we operate.”
Yet McKennie’s lapse was only the most high profile of the personnel headaches that have befallen the team since even before it gathered late last month.
Timothy Weah, one of the team’s best attackers, never joined the group after hurting his leg while training with his club team in France.
Christian Pulisic, the team’s captain and top player, missed the first game while trying to regain his fitness after testing positive for the coronavirus, and then limped out of Wednesday’s win with an ankle injury.
Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was ruled out for the first game, and then the rest, first by back spasms, then by a positive coronavirus test.
Gio Reyna injured his right hamstring in the first game against El Salvador and was sent back to his German club without taking the field again.
Defender Sergiño Dest sprained his right ankle in the game on Sunday and departed, too.
These issues made for a particularly complicated situation during a cramped window of games in which Berhalter had made no secret of his plans to rotate his lineup. But they also were just a taste of the ways things can spiral in the unforgiving landscape of World Cup qualifying.
“It happens,” said Aaronson, 20, of his team’s simmering turmoil. “You have to get over things. I feel like as a team we just need to get over things.”
The next games will arrive fast: Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica next month, then Mexico and a trip to Jamaica about four weeks later.
Before then, the team has some growing up to do. Only six of the 26 players initially called into the squad had any experience in World Cup qualifying. Thirteen of them were 23 years old or younger at the start of training camp. Nine of the starters against El Salvador were appearing in their first World Cup qualifier. (That 10 members of the team are playing for clubs in the European Champions League this year reiterates the level of talent being unfulfilled thus far.)
One problem that needed solving as they took the field Wednesday night was finding some scoring: Heading into the Honduras game, the United States had not produced more than one goal in any of its previous six games.
They left the field after putting four past Honduras, letting them breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“It’s a massive experience that we needed, just to show that with all the adversity we’ve gone through, we’re ready to come back from it,” Robinson said. “Obviously there’s been disappointing times on this trip. But in the end, we’ve ended it on a real high, and now we can attack October with everything we’ve got.”