As much as a game that's the third into a 14-game gauntlet can be a must-win, such were the circumstances for the U.S. men's national team in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday night in Honduras. And thanks in large part to an 18-year-old who had never played for the U.S. senior team before, a win was secured.
Ricardo Pepi delivered a goal and two assists in his debut, and halftime substitutes Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget scored as well in a four-goal second half as part of a 4-1 win in San Pedro Sula.
The U.S., fresh off a pair of draws at El Salvador and at home vs. Canada, took on Los Catrachos knowing that anything less than a win would put its quest to qualify for Qatar 2022 in serious peril. Compounding the results were injuries to key players (Gio Reyna, Sergiño Dest) and discipline to a team leader (Weston McKennie), leaving manager Gregg Berhalter in need of some outside-the-box options for the key match.
Those options included handing starts to four players who have never appeared in a World Cup qualifier (Pepi, George Bello, James Sands, Mark McKenzie) and opting for a 3-4-3 formation in hopes of jump-starting an attack that has mustered just one goal in two matches. The radical change had a negative effect, though, with the U.S. looking dreadful and Honduras leading 1-0 at halftime and prompting more significant changes that wound up turning the tide.
The victory completely alters the U.S.'s outlook in the eight-team Concacaf World Cup qualifying table, with Mexico on top with seven points followed by Canada, the U.S. and Panama each with five. The top three teams secure berths in Qatar, while the fourth-place team goes to an intercontinental playoff for another potential place in the 2022 World Cup.
Playing with desperation, the U.S. came out aggressively from the opening kick and very nearly scored the opener less than 30 seconds in, with Bello having a look from the left side of the box go just wide of the far post.
From there, a physical first few minutes unfolded, and after a Honduras free kick was blasted into the U.S. wall, Carlos Pineda was able to curl in a chance off the second wave of attack, missing the far post with the opportunity.
The U.S. had another close call in the 11th minute, when Tyler Adams launched a ball out of the back seeking Christian Pulisic down the center. Goalkeeper Luis Lopez came out and won the ball, but wound up crushing one of his teammates, defender Marcelo Pereira, in the process.
The U.S.'s fluidity in the final third was not the sharpest, but that didn't stop Pulisic from getting another close-call in the 19th minute, leaping to try to meet a cross, but ultimately coming up short on the attempted header.
Honduras took the lead about seven minutes later. Brayan Moya capitalized on some awful defending in the U.S. box, scoring on a wide-open header from close range to give the hosts a 1-0 edge.
Berhalter didn't wait to make significant changes, swapping three players at halftime by bringing Lletget, Robinson and Aaronson on for Bello, John Brooks and Josh Sargent.
Robinson was the one that made an immediate impact. After a cross into the Honduras box wasn't fully dealt with, it fell to Robinson, how lofted a first-time, right-footed lob into the back of the net before celebrating with an acrobatic flip, having given the U.S. a lifeline and making the score 1-1.
The sequence started with Pepi laying the ball off for Pulisic, who pushed forward before finding Lletget out wide. The LA Galaxy midfielder tried to pick out Pepi, who had surged forward from the halfway line, with his cross, but it wound up falling nicely for Robinson, who scored the first national team goal of his career.
The U.S. lost a key component in the 62nd minute, when Pulisic was forced off with an injury. He had just been on the receiving end of a hard challenge moments earlier and came off momentarily before re-entering, only to not be able to continue. Cristian Roldan replaced him.
U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner came up huge a couple of minutes later, denying a close-range header from veteran Maynor Figueroa with a diving save after Andy Najar had chipped a cross into the mixer.
Adams, who rarely scored, forced a save on the other end in the 71st minute. With the ball falling to him at a reasonable distance, and with the shooting lane opening up, the RB Leipzig midfielder unleashed a rip, which Lopez put around the post with a diving save to his left.
The U.S. took the lead moments later, though. Pepi made the most of his opportunity, getting to substitute DeAndre Yedlin's cross and heading home a massive goal in the 75th minute to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
Pepi helped ice the match 12 minutes later. On a U.S. counter, Pepi got the ball out wide on the right and crossed for Aaronson, who scored for the second straight match and delivered a valuable insurance strike to the U.S. by making it 3-1.
Another instance involving Pepi put a cap on the result for the U.S. He had a shot from inside the box saved, but the rebound fell right to Lletget by the far post, and he finished into a vacated net to make it 4-1 and seal the three points.
The U.S. returns to action next month, hosting Jamaica at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium on Oct. 7 before heading to Panama for an Oct. 10 showdown. The second match window concludes on Oct. 13 vs. Costa Rica at the Columbus Crew's new Lower.com Field.
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