SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Even for the most assertive players and talented teams, an inaugural journey into the heightened drama of the World Cup qualifying tournament in North and Central America can feel like a splash of water cold in the face.
Here, the world rankings tend to lose their meaning. Club pedigrees and player salaries can quickly be forgotten. It is a rude awakening, a rite of passage. And the United States men’s soccer team is still experiencing it.
Starting last week, the Americans embarked on a three-day, seven-day qualifying streak that they hoped would establish a basic state of confidence for the long road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Much of the past week had left them rather flustered and unsure.
After draws in their first two games – on the road against El Salvador and at home against Canada – the Americans’ game on Wednesday night against Honduras at the Spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano represented a last chance to save the week. A loss would have sent the team home at the start of a free fall. A draw would have prolonged the slow boil of anxiety.
Instead, they came out winners 4-1, a result – scored by four goals in the second half after an abysmal, rambling first half that looked like the nadir of a horrific week – that will provide a core of positivity. to cultivate in the weeks to come.
The most valuable thing players and their coaches will take home, then, could be the lessons learned: about the dangers of relying too much on past results; on the precariousness of the challenge that remains to come; and the fragility of a team’s best-developed plans and ambitions.
“It’s a different animal than what we’re used to,” coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game, referring to the qualifying tournament. “So I think that whole window was great for this group. We really needed this to open our eyes to what this experience really is. “
The fear was that they had taken the same path as a previous version of the squad three years ago, when the United States fell by a point to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, putting thus ending a streak of seven consecutive appearances at the world championships. most watched sporting event. On one level, it seemed irrational: Even with the disappointing results of the first two games, the United States are overwhelmingly favored to qualify, perhaps more after a win that will boost their mood and their hopes. But the bad memories of the last cycle remain vivid in the minds of many people.
“I can see it’s, 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. Tuesday evening. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can understand it completely. What I would say is it’s a different group, and we focus on winning games, and we focus on getting points.
Such a speech had not been convincing before Wednesday’s resounding victory.
Few would go so far as to call Americans pride: The notion of this regional qualifying tournament as a gnarly obstacle course, with challenging factors unique to world football, has long been ingrained in the psyche of the world. ‘team and their fans, and the players last week spoke about the process with all due respect. They also know that will continue with three more qualifiers in October, and two more per month after that.
But the high standards placed on the team, the high expectations and calls for perfection, are in many ways the work of the teams.
Berhalter said earlier this week that all 14 matches in the tournament should be considered by his players as “14 finals” – in effect qualifying the entire list of must-see competition matches.
Ahead of last week’s opener, midfielder Tyler Adams outlined the team’s ambitious to-do list: “We’re looking for a nine-point week, the end result,” said Adams, 22. .
And Weston McKennie said last week that the United States must assert its position as the best team in Confederation. “The only way to do that is to dominate him,” he said two days before taking the pitch for the first World Cup qualifying game of his career. “And to dominate, you have to win your matches. “
These things, for various reasons, did not materialize against El Salvador and Canada. And for a half against Honduras, it didn’t look like they ever would. But then half-time substitute Antonee Robinson shot his team even three minutes in the second half, and the United States began to reverse the trend. Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old Texas forward, gave the Americans the lead in the 75th minute, then set up midfielder Brenden Aaronson, another substitute, for an insurance goal in the 86th minute.
The arrival of Sebastian Lletget on a rebound three minutes after added time closed the scoring and, finally, brought a smile back to the team.
Victories have a way of calming, if not totally erasing, the questions and distractions that swirl around a group.
On Sunday afternoon, for example, McKennie was suspended for breaking team rules and had to miss the last two team games of the week. McKennie said on Instagram ahead of the game against Canada that he broke Covid protocols.
Berhalter said the disciplinary measure was for the long-term health of the team. In the short term, it hurts. The suspension deprived the team of one of their best players, and McKennie’s teammates spent the next few days awkwardly answering questions about his driving. Qualifying for the World Cup runs until March and Berhalter has suggested that McKennie, who plays for Italian powerhouse Juventus, will 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 is never allowed to return to the national team camp. This is not how we operate.
Yet McKennie’s failure was only the most publicized of staff headaches that have befallen the team since even before they met at the end of last month.
One of the team’s best forwards, Timothy Weah has never joined the squad after injuring his leg during training with his club team in France.
Christian Pulisic, captain and team best player, missed the first game trying to get back in shape after testing positive for the coronavirus, then limped out of Wednesday’s victory with an ankle injury.
Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was ruled out for the first game and then the rest, first with back spasms and then with a positive coronavirus test.
Gio Reyna injured his right hamstring in the opener against El Salvador and was sent back to his German club without retaking the pitch.
Defender Sergiño Dest sprained his right ankle in Sunday’s game and is also gone.
These issues made the situation particularly complicated during a restricted window of matches in which Berhalter had made no secret of his intention to rotate his roster. But they were also just a taste of how things can escalate in the unforgiving World Cup qualifying landscape.
“It happens,” Aaronson, 20, said of his team’s latent turmoil. “You have to overcome things. I feel like as a team we just need to get over it. “
The next matches will arrive quickly: Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica next month, then Mexico and a trip to Jamaica about four weeks later.
Before that, the team has a bit of growth to do. Only six of the 26 players initially called up to the squad had World Cup qualifying experience. Thirteen of them were 23 or younger at the start of training camp. Nine of the starters against El Salvador were in their first World Cup qualifying game. (The fact that 10 squad members are playing for European Champions League clubs this year reiterates the level of talent not achieved so far.)
One problem to be resolved when they entered the field on Wednesday night was scoring goals: Prior to the game against Honduras, the United States had not scored more than one goal in any of their previous six games.
They left the field after putting four ahead of Honduras, letting them breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“It’s a huge experience that we needed, just to show that with all the adversity that we’ve been through, we’re ready to come back,” said Robinson. “Obviously this trip has had some disappointing times. But in the end, we finished it very high, and now we can attack October with all we have.