Perhaps no moment better illustrated the mounting pressure – and its slight relief – on the United States Men’s National Soccer Team than the one that occurred in the 67th minute on Wednesday.
Talented American winger Christian Pulisic, who plays for English club Chelsea, spat and looked frustrated during his recent performances for his country. And against Honduras, on a freezing night in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pulisic wasn’t even in US coach Gregg Berhalter’s starting lineup. But after entering the game as a 64th-minute substitute and netting a goal three minutes later, Pulisic calmly celebrated as he ran with his arms outstretched, then clenched his fist and hugged his teammates.
With a 3-0 win over Honduras to close out this three-game World Cup qualifying window, the United States kept their fate in check and eased some – but not all – of the load on their collective shoulders heading into the final set of games in March. It is these games now that will decide whether the United States will participate in the World Cup this fall.
With the United States’ victory and Mexico’s victory over Panama, 1-0, the teams remained tied for second place in the eight-team qualifying group from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Canada beat El Salvador 2-0 to stay first. The top three ranked teams at the end of regional qualifying in March will receive automatic entry to the tournament in Qatar in November.
“Three points was pretty much a necessity, just with where we are and where we want to go,” USA defender Walker Zimmerman said. “We really took it upon ourselves.”
Three days earlier, the United States had made things more difficult by losing 2-0 to a revived Canadian side on the road. After the match, questions resurfaced about USA’s coaching, his tactics, his courage.
But even in the bitter cold of Minnesota on Wednesday, the United States dominated as expected against Honduras, bottom of the qualifying group and already eliminated from the World Cup. USA scored like never before and they looked much more comfortable.
“Our target in this window was to stay second or move into first place and it looks like we will achieve that,” Berhalter said after the win.
The United States has played its previous two games of this qualifying window in outdoor stadiums in cold weather – at home against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, last week, and on the road against Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, on Sunday. . But Wednesday’s game at Allianz Field had the worst conditions.
The wind chill was negative 8 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff and dropped as the game progressed, making it the coldest US home game in the history of the team. US Soccer said it chose Minnesota because it not only wanted to limit its travel during that three-game-in-seven-day streak, but also gain an advantage over its Central American rivals.
Bench warmers and hot drinks were provided. Players wore gloves, balaclavas and gaiters around their necks and, sometimes, over their faces for warmth. USA goalkeeper Matt Turner wore a sleeve around his waist to keep his hands warm but only took it off minutes into the game after a referee rushed to speak to him. Still, at least one Honduran player, goalkeeper Luis López, was unable to finish the match due to the adverse effects of the cold and was given intravenous fluids at halftime.
Asked about the conditions, Berhalter said US Soccer provided the referees and the Honduras team with hot weather gear and other equipment in hopes of making conditions safer for them.
“When we go down to these countries and it’s 90 degrees and 90% dew point and the humidity is unbearable and the guys get dehydrated and cramped and exhausted from the heat, that’s nature of our competition,” he added. “When we scheduled this game at this location you have to rely on average daily temperatures and that was the best estimate. We wanted to minimize travel. We knew we were going to be playing in cold weather in two of the games and we thought to do it in game 3 as well instead of changing weather A cold spell has come and it’s something we can’t control but all we can do once it happens is is trying to mitigate the risk.
Prior to the game, Berhalter made several changes to Wednesday’s roster due to recent performances and injuries (Tyler Adams and Chris Richards). He inserted Kellyn Acosta in midfield, for example, and launched Jordan Morris as a striker instead of Pulisic – a decision Berhalter described as “very difficult”.
“The hardest thing to do as a coach is to talk to a player and tell him you support him and you’re behind him 100 per cent and then you don’t kick him off,” he said. declared.
But it worked, and the United States had control from the start. In the eighth minute, midfielder Weston McKennie headed in an Acosta free-kick – the United States’ first free-kick of this qualifying campaign. (“A pretty crazy stat,” Zimmerman said.) It was also only the third time in 11 qualifying matches that the United States had scored in the first half.
Then came more such goals: another Acosta free-kick was struck by Zimmerman in the 37th minute and Pulisic added the third goal, from an Acosta corner.
After the game, USA’s attention turned to the warm-up and its upcoming games in March. Next month, the United States are scheduled for tough road clashes against arch-rivals Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30), and host Panama on March 27. On Wednesday, the United States was tied with Mexico, with 18 points, for second place in the qualifying group.
“The hope is that it gives us a lot of momentum, not just because we got three points, but the way we got three points,” Zimmerman said after Wednesday’s win. He later added: “Hopefully we can take a lot of positives from this game, continue the things we did well and carry them over to the next window.”
Qatar is still within reach of the United States, but not yet.