By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports activities Soccer Author
Down 1-0 with 45 minutes to go in Wednesday’s pivotal match towards Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. men’s national team’s listless begin to 2022 World Cup qualifying appeared destined to proceed.
The reside standings painted a grim image. Barring an unlikely second-half comeback — solely twice of their historical past had the Individuals overturned a deficit to win a qualifier on the highway — Gregg Berhalter’s group would sit sixth within the eight-nation “Octagonal” standings with a 0W-1L-2T file, the identical form of gap the USMNT couldn’t dig out of en path to lacking the lower for the earlier World Cup.
Together with his group flailing, Berhalter — already lacking injured starters Gio Reyna (hamstring), Sergiño Dest (ankle) and the exiled Weston McKennie — modified three gamers and his formation on the break.
It labored. The Individuals exploded for 4 second-half targets, three by substitutes Sebastian Lletget, Antonee Robinson and Brenden Aaronson, and one other by 18-year-old debutant Ricardo Pepi to present the U.S. a 4-1 victory and the three factors it desperately wanted to get its qualifying marketing campaign for Qatar 2022 again on monitor.
“This complete window was nice for this group,” stated Berhalter, who began the youngest U.S. lineup ever in a qualifier. “We actually wanted that by way of the eye-opening of what this [qualifying] expertise really is. To cap it off with a win, it was necessary for the standings. The U.S. does not come again after giving up a aim too usually. The blokes confirmed their resiliency.”
The end result offers the USMNT 5 complete factors and places them in third place within the eight-team “Octagonal” standings. The highest three groups within the CONCACAF area (North and Central America and the Caribbean) robotically make subsequent yr’s World Cup in Qatar. The U.S. is determined to return to the worldwide stage after lacking the 2018 occasion, its lone failure within the final 35 years.
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World Cup qualifying is a zero-sum deal, so the priority was actual when the U.S. left 4 factors on the desk by way of the primary two video games of the 14-match slate. Wednesday’s triumph — which got here on the heels of Berhalter suspending Juventus midfielder McKennie a second straight sport for what ESPN reported was a number of violations of group guidelines — largely makes up for it.
Now, the Individuals head again to their golf equipment on a excessive observe following a tricky seven days. In addition they have some momentum forward of the October video games towards Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica.
“That is a particularly younger group; it has no expertise going by way of this earlier than, they usually’re grinding,” stated Berhalter, who gave 16 gamers their qualifying debuts this month. “There’s going to be extra ups and downs all through the course of qualifying.”
Issues have been definitely wanting down at halftime on Wednesday.
“We wanted to compete extra,” Berhalter stated. “After they scored, as an alternative of seeing that response that we’re used to, our heads went down a little bit bit.”
So the coach scrapped his five-man backline and went to his bench. The strikes paid off instantly, with Aaronson, Lletget and Robinson offering an urgency that had been sorely missing.
Nonetheless, the star of the present was Pepi. After U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic limped off the sphere with what Berhalter stated was an ankle damage, Pepi — the FC Dallas striker who lately dedicated to the U.S. program over Mexico — helped arrange Robinson’s equalizer, then netted the eventual game-winner himself.
“[He] labored tirelessly, competed towards bodily heart backs, scored a very good aim,” Berhalter stated. “For an 18-year-old, it’s actually spectacular what he did.”
In his first match on the senior worldwide degree, what Pepi did was set up himself because the USMNT’s first-choice striker going ahead after Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok did not stake their declare for the place within the first two September contests.
Pepi was additionally concerned within the last two U.S. targets, together with organising Aaronson’s with a seeing-eye cross.
Lletget then added the nightcap by changing the rebound of a Pepi shot three minutes into stoppage time.
“When Gregg advised me that I used to be going to begin on the aircraft on the best way right here, it was very particular,” stated Pepi, who didn’t play within the first two matches this window regardless of the U.S.’s battle to attain. “I used to be ready for the second, and I took benefit of it.”
The identical may very well be stated for his group. After the drama of the previous week — the dropped factors at dwelling and the lamentable state of affairs with McKennie, one of many squad’s most irreplaceable members — a shorthanded American aspect confirmed actual character with their backs towards the wall.
Whereas the unique aim was to get 9 factors from the three video games, getting 5 with out shedding a sport is greater than respectable. It means the Individuals held serve. Now, with two of the three video games within the U.S. subsequent month, they’ll look to maneuver up the standings earlier than a date with blood-rival Mexico in Cincinnati in November.
“We took factors off a group away from dwelling, and that’s necessary,” Berhalter stated.
And never a second too quickly.
One of the crucial outstanding soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has coated United States males’s and girls’s nationwide groups in additional than a dozen nations, together with a number of FIFA World Cups. Earlier than becoming a member of FOX Sports activities, the New York Metropolis native was a employees author for Yahoo Sports activities and ESPN. Observe him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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