Staring into the abyss of a deeply troubling 0-1-2 start to the final round of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. men’s national team pulled off the most unlikely of great escapes in Honduras on Wednesday night.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter, who was slow to make second-half substitutions in a 0-0 draw at El Salvador last Thursday, did not wait to make changes with his team trailing 1-0 at halftime. He replaced George Bello, Josh Sargent and John Brooks with Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget, abandoning a puzzling 3-4-2-1 formation that clearly wasn’t working with Tyler Adams wasting away at right wingback. Berhalter’s moves worked perfectly, as the Americans scored four second-half goals — one by Robinson and one by Aaronson — to leave San Pedro Sula with a 4-1 victory.
Instead of sitting near the bottom of the CONCACAF standings with just two points from three games, the U.S. exits the first window of qualifying matches with five points, tied for second with Canada and two points behind first-place Mexico. Utter panic has been replaced with relief and optimism.
This eight-team tournament was always going to be a learning experience for a talented but inexperienced USMNT. Here's who's on the rise and who's on the decline.
Ricardo Pepi: He's officially the new USMNT wunderkind. The aforementioned changes against Honduras allowed the 18-year-old to shine in a dream senior team debut, as he scored the game-winner with a 75th-minute header and set up the last two goals. The FC Dallas product got the call-up because of his hot streak in MLS. With his finishing and movement in the box, he very well could stay up top for the U.S. when World Cup qualifying resumes against Jamaica on Oct. 7 in Austin, Texas. Another question: How long before Europe calls?
Matt Turner: As the old sports adage goes, no one deserves to lose their job due to injury, but Zack Steffen's status as first-choice goalkeeper could be in jeopardy after Turner shined as his replacement and made clutch saves look easy. Steffen, who experienced back spasms the day before the USMNT's opener in El Salvador and then tested positive for COVID-19, has not been playing for Manchester City. Turner has been in form as the New England Revolution keeper in MLS. Berhalter's choice for next month's qualifiers will be easy if the situations don't change.
Miles Robinson: The Atlanta United standout has surged to the forefront as the U.S.'s best and most reliable center back. All the 24-year-old did was showcase the same skills he displayed at the Gold Cup, using his speed to cut off forwards' runs and being stout in the penalty area. Robinson was one of three Americans to play the full 90 minutes in all three games (Tyler Adams and Turner were the others) in a memorable World Cup qualifying debut.
Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget: They routinely get dismissed on USMNT Twitter for playing in MLS, but it’s clear that these veteran midfielders will keep playing key roles until qualifying concludes in March. Acosta, the 26-year-old Colorado Rapids star, again brought stability to the U.S. midfield after an impressive Gold Cup, while Lletget, the 29-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy standout, remains productive in the American attack when called upon. Berhalter trusts them, and it's time the fanbase follows suit.
Josh Sargent: His uneven performance in El Salvador led to Jordan Pefok’s start against Canada in Sunday's 1-1 draw. Sargent returned to the starting lineup in Honduras, but his poor decision-making on the ball and overall ineffectiveness warranted his sobering halftime substitution. It’s just not happening right now for the 21-year-old, who must find his form but will be hardpressed to do so while playing for an overmatched Norwich City side in the unforgiving Premier League.
Sergino Dest: No player in the U.S. squad needed to learn the harsh lessons of CONCACAF more than Dest, whose attempts at flashy moves in El Salvador fell flat (news flash: he gave the ball away). He also continued to allow his side of the field to be the least path of resistance for the opponent's attack. Dest left the Canada game with an ankle injury and was allowed to return to Barcelona. Hopefully, for him and the USMNT, he realizes that World Cup qualifying is about doing your job, not trying to win style points.
John Brooks: His bad positioning played a factor in the two goals the U.S. conceded. Against Canada, he fell asleep and got beat at the far post by Cyle Larin for a simple tap-in, and his decision to step up and tackle (and completely whiff) allowed Honduras to score first and apply more pressure on the Americans. The 28-year-old veteran needs to be the anchor of the U.S. backline, not a liability.
Weston McKennie: There’s no other way to put it — he let down his team and country when he selfishly broke COVID-19 protocol not once but twice before the Canada game. Give Berhalter credit for enforcing team rules by suspending McKennie and sending him back early to Italy to rejoin Juventus. The U.S. will certainly need the highly skilled midfielder in its push for Qatar 2022, but it didn’t need him Wednesday to beat Honduras. That alone should be a wake-up call for the 23-year-old.