SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Even for the most confident players and talented teams, a first trip to the heightened drama of the World Cup qualifiers 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 player salaries are quickly forgotten. It is a rough awakening, a rite of passage. And the United States men’s soccer team is reliving it.
Early last week, the Americans embarked on a series of three-game qualifiers over seven days, which they hoped would establish a baseline level of confidence for the long path to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In contrast, for much of the past week, they had looked tired and uncertain.
After a draw in their first two games – on the road against El Salvador and at home against Canada – the Americans’ game late Wednesday night against Honduras at the Spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano was one last chance to save the week. A loss would have sent the team home in the beginning of a downward spiral. A draw would have extended the slow boil of fear.
Instead, they moved away from 4-1 winners, a result – delivered by four goals in the second half after a horribly disjointed first half that felt like the low of a horrendous week – that will provide a core of positivity to cultivate in the weeks to come.
The most valuable thing the players and their coaches will take home may be the lessons learned: about the dangers of relying too much on past results; on the precariousness of the challenge ahead; and about the vulnerability of a team’s best-developed plans and ambitions.
“It’s a different animal than we’re used to,” said coach Gregg Berhalter after the game, referring to the qualifying tournament. “So I think this whole window was great for this group. We really needed that to open our eyes to what this experience actually is.”
The fear was that they were tiptoeing along the same path as an earlier version of the team three years ago, when the United States fell one point short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, ending a run of seven consecutive appearances at the World Cup. most watched sporting event. On some level it seemed irrational: Even with the disappointing results of the first two games, the United States has a strong preference for qualifying, perhaps even more so after a win that will boost their mood and their hopes. But the bad memories of the last cycle remain raw in the minds of many people.
“I see it’s just memories from the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back,” Berhalter, who was hired after the 2018 World Cup, said Tuesday evening about those concerns. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can fully understand that. What I would say is this is a different group, and we’re focused on winning games and we’re focused on getting points.”
Such talk had not been convincing before Wednesday’s resounding victory.
Few would go so far as to call the Americans hubris: The idea of this regional qualifying tournament as a spirited obstacle course, with challenging factors unique to world football, has long been ingrained in the psyche of the team and its fans, and the players. have spoken respectfully about the process over the past week. They also know that it will continue with three more qualifiers in October and two more a month after that.
But the high demands placed on the squad, the high expectations and the call for perfection are in many ways specific to the teams.
Berhalter said earlier this week that the tournament’s 14 games should be considered “14 finals” by his players, effectively labeling the entire series of games as games to be won.
Before last week’s first game, midfielder Tyler Adams laid out the team’s ambitious to-do list: “We’re looking for a nine-point week, it comes down to it,” said Adams, 22.
And Weston McKennie said last week that the United States had to confirm its position as the best team in the Confederacy. “The only way to do that is to dominate it,” he said two days before taking the field for the first World Cup qualifier of his career. “And to dominate, you have to win your matches.”
These things didn’t work out against El Salvador and Canada for several reasons. And for a half against Honduras, it didn’t look like they would ever do that. But then the substitute before the break Antonee Robinson even drew his team three minutes into the second half, and the US began to turn the tide. Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old Texas striker, gave the Americans the lead in the 75th minute, then provided midfielder Brenden Aaronson, another substitute, for an insurance goal in the 86th.
Sebastian Lletget’s rebound after three minutes into stoppage time closed the score and finally restored the team’s smile.
Victories have a way of silencing, if not completely erasing, questions and distractions that swirl around a group.
For example, on Sunday afternoon, McKennie was suspended for violating the team rules and had to miss the last two games of the week. Before the game against Canada, McKennie said on Instagram that he had broken Covid protocols.
Berhalter said the disciplinary action was for the team’s long-term health. In the short term it hurt. The suspension robbed the team of one of its best players, and McKennie’s teammates spent the next few days uncomfortably answering questions about his behavior. World Cup qualifiers run until March and Berhalter suggested that McKennie, who plays for Italian powerhouse Juventus, would 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 back into the national team camp. That’s not how we work.”
Still, McKennie’s outburst was just the most notable of the staff headaches that have befallen the team since even before it met late last month.
Timothy Weah, one of the team’s top strikers, never joined the group after hurting his leg while training with his club team in France.
Christian Pulisic, the team’s captain and top player, missed the first game as he tried to regain his fitness after testing positive for the coronavirus, then stumbled out of Wednesday’s win with an ankle injury.
Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was ruled out for the first game and then the rest, first due to back cramps, then 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 re-entering the field.
Defender Sergiño Dest sprained his right ankle in the game on Sunday and also left.
These issues made for a particularly complicated situation during a tight run of games in which Berhalter had made no secret of his plans to rotate his lineup. But they were also just a taste of the ways things can escalate in the unforgiving landscape of World Cup qualifiers.
“It’s happening,” said Aaronson, 20, of his team’s simmering turmoil. “You have to get over things. I feel like we just have to work things out as a team.”
The next matches are coming up soon: Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica next month, then Mexico and a trip to Jamaica about four weeks later.
Before that, the team has to grow up a bit. Only six of the 26 players initially included in the squad had any experience in World Cup qualifiers. Thirteen of them were 23 years or younger at the start of the training camp. Nine of the starters against El Salvador played in their first World Cup qualifier. (The fact that 10 members of the team play for clubs in the European Champions League this year confirms the level of talent that has remained unfulfilled so far.)
One problem that had to be solved when they took the field on Wednesday night was to find some goals: en route to the game in Honduras, the United States had not scored more than one goal in any of the previous six games.
They left the field after throwing four past Honduras and let out a collective sigh of relief.
“It’s a huge experience that we needed just to show that with all the setbacks we’ve been through, we’re ready to come back,” Robinson said. “Of course there have been disappointing times on this journey. But in the end we closed it on a real high and now we can attack October with everything we have.”