The U.S. men's national team was on the brink of disaster Wednesday night in Honduras. Trailing 1-0 at halftime after being absolutely dominated by their opponents, the Americans needed to find something. What unfolded over the next 45 minutes may have changed the team's fortunes in World Cup qualifying and, in turn, saved manager Gregg Berhalter's job.
The USMNT entered the Honduras match following two wildly disappointing matches. A lifeless 0-0 draw in El Salvador and a 1-1 result against Canada in Nashville. Before qualifying began, many had penciled those in as two contests as wins. After all, El Salvador is the weakest CONCACAF team left in qualifying and the U.S. should always beat Canada on American soil. Instead, with two lackluster performances the Americans had two points of a possible six as they went back on the road.
Wednesday night's first half was more of the same from Berhalter's squad. There was no coherent flow to the offense and the defense found itself out of position regularly. It was abysmal soccer. If the U.S. hadn't escaped with at least a draw, Berhalter might have been finished. Instead, he made astute substitutions, changed tactics, and the Americans came to life, bagging four goals in a wild second half and flying home with a 4-1 win.
The adjustments were simple. He subbed in Sebastian Lletget, Antonee Robinson and Brenden Aaronson for the perpetually lost John Brooks, youngster George Bello and the ineffective Josh Sargent. The squad immediately perked up. There was more room to move. Robinson attacked relentlessly up the left wing, Lletget's passing helped open the middle of the field and Aaronson's pace put pressure on the Honduran defense.
Perhaps most importantly, 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi was essentially used as the lone striker with Sargent out and he had room to operate. In his first appearance with the senior national team, he started changing the match almost immediately. Pepi scored his first international goal and assisted on two others. Meanwhile, the subs were brilliant. Robinson, Aaronson and Lletget all scored, while later sub DeAndre Yedlin assisted on Pepi's goal with an excellent cross.
While Berhalter should be lauded for pulling the right strings and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, it's worth asking why his tactics have been so ineffective for the majority of qualifying. Why didn't he make the same kinds of tactical changes during what was essentially a stalemate against El Salvador? Why did he wait until the 83rd minute to make his first non-injury substitution when things went poorly against Canada?
Yes, Berhalter has earned a reprieve, but no one should feel comfortable. He likely bought himself time by winning two trophies over the summer, as the U.S. won the Nations League and Gold Cup titles. Everyone was feeling great about the program and the depth of talent available following those wins. Then El Salvador and Canada happened and it felt like the Americans were back at square one.
These qualifiers have shown what can happen when the U.S. doesn't have all its talent on the field at once. Weston McKennie missed two matches after COVID protocol violations, Gio Reyna missed two with a hamstring injury, Sergiño Dest missed the Honduras match after picking up an ankle injury against Canada, and Christian Pulisic was out of the El Salvador match while recovering from COVID. The country's four best players didn't take the field together once in this window and everything nearly fell apart.
It's hard to win without your best talent on the field, but Berhalter's inability to coax more out of the other players, or score tactical victories when his team isn't at its best is seriously concerning.
Berhalter will get another chance to prove himself soon. Three matches in six days await in early October and the U.S. will need to be ready. They open the qualifying round hosting Jamaica, then travel to Panama before hosting Costa Rica in Columbus. The U.S. currently tied for second in the Octagonal with Canada and trails first-place Mexico. There's ground to make up to make this feel like a sure bet.
The U.S. and Berhalter narrowly avoided disaster in Honduras. Now it's time to figure this out and fully turn things around.