The game clock had run through the entire 90 minutes of regulation and the result already been determined when Tyler Adams, once again going the distance for the U.S. men’s national team, found himself in possession of the ball at the center of the field at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. Why not go for another? There is no such thing as too many goals in soccer. No one whines about “running up the score.”
So Adams pushed the ball through the middle, U.S. teenager Ricardo Pepi forced a save from Honduras goalkeeper Luis Lopez, and veteran Sebastian Lletget slammed the ball into the net off the rebound to complete a soaring 4-1 victory that stood as the first for the U.S. in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Who would have believed at halftime of Wednesday’s game the Americans would close the night focusing on goal differential?
At the break, it looked like 45 more minutes of similar soccer might lead coach Gregg Berhalter (below) to be focusing on his next employment opportunity.
There had been a scoreless draw at El Salvador, then a blown lead and 1-1 tie at home against Canada. In between, prominent young midfielder Weston McKennie got himself suspended and sent home for a violation of team policy. And now the U.S. appeared to be headed toward an empty evening that might have placed Berhalter into a similar position to where Jurgen Klinsmann stood following consecutive defeats that opened the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying. If the evening did not begin as a must-win for the coach or the team, it sure felt that way after how dismally the USMNT performed through the first half.
“We had a meeting, and we talked about just focusing on what we’re doing,” Berhalter told reporters. “It’s completely understandable that fans aren’t excited about two points from two games. But it wouldn’t have doomed the qualifying. It was just about getting ready for the next game; that was the important thing.
“The mindset of the guys over the last two days completely changed. I think they’re more relaxed and more focused. The mood around the camp was really good. Despite all this crap that happened in the last couple days, the guys’ spirits were extremely high.”
Berhalter’s decision to devise an untested lineup in an uncommon formation that forced multiple players into unfamiliar duties led to a first half against Honduras not even its author could love. It wouldn’t be accurate to say the Americans were lucky to trail by only a goal; Honduras didn’t create that many scoring opportunities. No, the U.S. was lucky that FIFA or CONCACAF or Lionel Messi himself didn’t barge out onto the field and refuse to allow the group responsible for that crime against soccer to continue playing.
The Americans were atrocious. James Sands, deployed as a defensive midfielder, looked as though he was playing right wing for USA Hockey — without skates. He spent more time on his back than on his feet. Adams (above) was stationed at right wingback rather than his customary spot as a deep-lying midfielder and was burned as Diego Rodriguez set up the 27th-minute goal by Brayan Moya, who jetted past spectating defender John Brooks in much the same way as Canada’s Cyle Larin had three days earlier.
Exactly what Berhalter was thinking with his lineup selection and alignment is a challenge to explain. Far removed from the debacle that necessitated a comeback, and from a comeback almost without precedent in USMNT history, he took an analytical approach to the failures of the first half. He seemed not to accept the design was flawed, instead pointing to execution errors such as “our back line wasn’t pushing up quick enough” and failing to win second-ball opportunities when fielding goal kicks, as well as the team losing its spirit after falling behind.
Berhalter chuckled when a reporter asked if Berhalter felt like the team would have been “on the brink” had it returned home from Honduras with a defeat, then apologized for the reaction. Having defeated Mexico in consecutive tournament finals this past summer, Berhalter presided over another rare USMNT achievement: This was only the third time in the program’s history it had recovered to win after conceding the first goal in a road qualifier. They lost 26 such games.
“Listen, even if we had lost the game, we wouldn’t have been out of qualifying,” Berhalter said. “There would still be 11 games to play. Again, there’s the mentality that we’re just jumping all over reaction. I think part of it was our fault for setting it up, what we wanted to do, being that open about it [winning all three September qualifiers].
“At halftime, the message was: We’re going to get back in this game.”
Down 1-0 at the half, probably not as scarred by what he had seen as the USMNT fans scorching Twitter were, Berhalter made three personnel changes that effectively redesigned the formation and energized the attack. He removed Brooks in favor of Lletget, which meant the U.S. returned to a four-man back line and added an offensive-minded midfielder. He removed forward Josh Sargent in favor of Brenden Aaronson, who is more comfortable as a creator. And left back Antonee Robinson replaced George Bello, who had struggled through the first half, at the same position.
The difference was immediately apparent. After Pepi won the ball near midfield just three minutes into the second half, Robinson used his speed to get forward and tied the game by knocking in a deflection. It took nearly 20 minutes, but after veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin came on to replace Sands, Yedlin found himself open on the right side with an opportunity to send a cross into the box, and Pepi (below) jetted above the defense for a beautiful header that gave the U.S. a lead.
“I felt like I was in a good spot, so I got up in the air and I headed the ball. I was ready for that moment,” Pepi told reporters. “I was ready for that opportunity. I was waiting for the ball to come to me. I feel like everything was perfect.”
Never a popular choice as USMNT head coach, Berhalter has not lost in 13 consecutive competitive games. He directed the team to the CONCACAF Nations League title as well as to the championship of the region’s Gold Cup. Now he has the U.S., for the moment, in one of the three qualifying positions for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The U.S., Canada and Panama all have five points, but that last goal by Lletget tied the others’ goal differential and placed them ahead of Panama on total goals scored.
“Ideally, we were focused on slowing the game down,” Berhalter told Sporting News. “But if space is open when you’re doing that, you should take advantage. And that’s what we did.”
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