SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — For even the most confident players and talented teams, the first trip into the heightened drama of a World Cup qualifying tournament in North and Central America can feel like a splash of cold water in the face.
Here, world rankings have a way of losing their meaning. Club pedigrees and players’ salaries can be quickly forgotten. It is a harsh awakening, a sacrament. And the United States men’s soccer team is experiencing it again.
Starting last week, the Americans began a three-game series of qualifying matches over seven days, which they hope will set a baseline of confidence for the long road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Instead, much of the past week had left him looking frizzy and precarious.
After draws in his first two matches – On the road against El Salvador And against Canada at home – The Americans’ game against Honduras at the Spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano late Wednesday provided the last chance to salvage the week. A defeat would have sent the team home at the start of the tailspin. A draw would have prolonged the slow simmer of worry.
Instead, they trailed the winners 4–1, a result – delivered by four second-half goals after a disappointing, first-half felt like the nadir of a terrifying week – that needed to be cultivated in the week. will provide a kernel of positivity. Come.
The most valuable thing players and their coaches will bring home may be the lessons learned: about the dangers of relying too heavily on past results; about the uncertainty of the challenge ahead; And about the fragility of a team’s best plans and ambitions.
“It’s a different animal than what we’re used to,” coach Greg Berhalter said after the game, referring to the qualifying tournament. “So I think this whole window was great for this group. We really needed it in terms of an eye-opening view of what this experience is all about.”
The fear was that they were following the same path the team’s first edition had traveled three years earlier, when the United States fell one point short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, leaving seven in the world. A series of straight demonstrations had ended. Most viewed sporting event. On some level, this seemed irrational: despite the disappointing results of the first two games, the United States are in favor of qualifying, perhaps after a victory that will lift their mood and their hopes. but bad memories The last chakra remains raw in many people’s minds.
“I can see it, you know, memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back,” Berhalter, who was hired after the 2018 World Cup, said Tuesday night of those concerns. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can totally understand that. What I would say is it’s a different group, and we’re focused on winning games, and we’re focused on getting points.
Before Wednesday’s thumping victory, such things were not convincing.
The Americans would go as far as to call it hubristic: the notion of this regional qualifying tournament as a terrifying obstacle course with unique challenging factors in world football has long been ingrained in the psyche of the team and its fans and players. Have spoken about this process with full respect in the last one week. They also know it will continue Three more qualifiers in October, and a month after that two more.
But the high standards placed on the squad, the high expectations and demands for perfection, are in many ways the way teams create their own.
Berhalter said earlier this week that the tournament’s 14 games should be considered “14 finals” by his players – effectively labeling the entire slate of games as must-win competitions.
Ahead of 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 the 22-year-old Adams.
And Weston McKennie said last week the United States needed to emphasize its position as the best team in the confederation. “The only way to do that is to dominate,” he said two days before he took the field for the first World Cup qualifier of his career. “And to dominate, you have to win your games.”
These things, for a number of reasons, did not hold true against El Salvador and Canada. And half-time against Honduras it didn’t look like they would ever do that. But then halftime substitute Antoine Robinson Dragged his team for three minutes in the second half, and America began to turn the tide. Texas striker Ricardo Pepi, 18, gave the Americans the lead in the 75th minute, and then set up midfielder Brendan Aaronson as another option for an insurance goal in the 86th minute.
Sebastian Llett closed the scoring by ending the rebound in three minutes of injury time, and in the end, restored the team’s smile.
One way to quell the victory, if not eliminate it outright, is by revolving around a group of questions and distractions.
For example, on Sunday afternoon, McKennie was suspended for violating team rules and had to be out of the team for the final two games of the week. McKennie said on Instagram before the match against Canada that he had broken the Kovid protocol.
Berhalter said the disciplinary move was for the long-term health of the team. In the short term, it hurt. The suspension deprived the team of one of its best players, and McKennie’s teammates awkwardly spent the following days answering questions about his conduct. World Cup qualifying runs through March, and Berhalter suggested that McKennie, who plays for Italian powerhouse Juventus, would soon be back in the picture.
“It’s an open door policy,” he said. “Very rarely there will be a situation where a player will never be allowed back to the national team camp. That’s not how we operate.”
Yet McKennie’s omission was only the most high-profile of the personnel headache that has already plagued the team’s gathering at the end of last month.
One of the team’s best attackers, Timothy Weh, never joined the group after injuring his leg while training with his club team in France.
Team captain and top player Christian Pulisic missed the first game in an attempt to regain fitness after testing positive for the coronavirus and was ruled out of Wednesday’s win with an ankle injury.
Goalkeeper Zach Stephens was ruled out for the first game, and then the rest, first because of a back cramp, 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 Sergino Dest sprained his right ankle in the game on Sunday and he was also gone.
These issues made for a particularly complicated situation during a tight window of play in which Berhalter made no secret of his plans to rotate his lineup. But they were just a taste of the way things spiraled in the unforgivable scenario of World Cup qualifying.
“It happens,” 20-year-old Aaronson said of his team’s turmoil. “You have to finish things. I think as a team we need to get over things.
The next games will come fast: a trip to Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica next month, then Mexico, and about four weeks later, Jamaica.
Before that, the team has to do something big. Of the 26 players initially called into the squad, only six had any World Cup qualifying experience. Thirteen of them were 23 years of age or younger at the start of training camp. Nine starts against El Salvador were appearing in their first World Cup qualifier. (The team has 10 members playing for clubs in the European Champions League this year, indicating that the level of talent so far remains incomplete.)
One problem that needed to be resolved when they took the field on Wednesday night was some scoring: Honduras leading the game, the United States had not scored more than one goal in one of its last six games.
He left the field after passing four of Honduras, which gave him a sigh of collective relief.
“It’s a great experience that we needed, just to show that we’re ready to come back from whatever adversity we’ve gone through,” Robinson said. “Obviously there have been disappointing times on this journey. But in the end, we finished it at a real high, and now we can attack October with everything we have.”