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At 9:30 on Wednesday night in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the U.S. men’s national team seemed to be burning. Again.
It had, over a span of six days, failed to score in El Salvador; suspended one of its stars in the heat of World Cup qualifying for violating COVID protocols; looked stale against Canada; scrapped just about everything that had brought it success this past summer, thrown an inexperienced and disjointed lineup onto a hostile field in Honduras, and gone down 1-0 to a goal scored by a midfielder who plays his club soccer in Angola.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter, sweating through a tight "STATES" t-shirt, sat on a rapidly warming seat.
But an hour later, at 10:30 local time, the USMNT was, and is, in very good shape to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
The turnaround really was that stark. Berhalter’s five second-half substitutes, and his bold decision to call up and start 18-year-old Mexican-American striker Ricardo Pepi, worked magically. Left back Antonee Robinson leveled the match at 1-1 less than three minutes after entering at halftime. Pepi then powered a 75th-minute header into the side-netting.
Twelve minutes later, he set up Brenden Aaronson for a third goal, and turned a troubling week into a successful one. In stoppage time, Sebastien Lletget tapped in a fourth for good measure.
And just like that, over 45 minutes in muggy Central American air, as vuvuzelas screeched, panic evaporated. Frustration eased. The Americans had dug themselves an early qualifying hole. With one second-half barrage, led by an unlikely hero, they exploded out of it.
The USMNT's first-half woes
Last Tuesday, some 30 hours before the temporary disaster began to unfold, USMNT captain Tyler Adams had spoken of a “nine-point week.” When he trudged into an Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano locker room on Wednesday night, he was staring at not nine, but two.
The first, via a 0-0 draw in San Salvador, had been underwhelming but fine. Tolerable. Perhaps acceptable.
The second, in a 1-1 draw with Canada, had been worrying. “We need new ideas at times,” Christian Pulisic had said afterward, and tension around the team was such that some interpreted his words as a subtle dig at Berhalter.
The low point then arrived Wednesday night, when Berhalter tore up most of what he’d implemented throughout the past three years and audibled to a gameplan that appeared to make zero sense.
Without one of his two star midfielders, Weston McKennie — who’d reportedly brought an “unauthorized individual” to his Nashville hotel room before the Canada match — Berhalter moved the other, Adams, to right wingback.
He flipped a well-drilled 4-3-3 to a 5-2-3, a formation that requires mobile midfielders, and replaced Adams with the relatively immobile James Sands.
He started Josh Sargent, the team’s least creative attacker, as a winger, in a position that required creativity.
The result was a mess. The U.S. defense, midfield and forwards became detached. Their pressure was uncoordinated. When they went into duels, they often lost.
The Honduras back line all but pleaded with American attackers to carve it up. The U.S. refused, and instead returned the favor. Sands drifted invisibly in midfield. Honduras waltzed through the heart of the USMNT, and into the attacking half unperturbed. John Brooks, the team’s most talented defender, half-heartedly stepped to Honduran midfielder Jonathan Toro, then pulled out of the challenge when he realized he was late. In doing so, he took himself out of the play — and took fellow center back Miles Robinson with him. Robinson had to step to Toro. The third center back, Mark McKenzie, was left 1-on-2 with Honduras strikers. Brooks recovered lethargically, and in the gaping hole he’d left, Brayan Moya headed the hosts into a 27th-minute lead.
The formation switch, Berhalter said, had been sketched out before the qualifying window even began, to “quell” Honduras’ counterattack. But the personnel changes, he admitted, hadn’t been. “We didn't plan to play Tyler Adams at right wingback,” Berhalter said. He didn’t know that Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest would suffer injuries, or that he’d have to send McKennie home, or that he and his staff would determine after Sunday that neither DeAndre Yedlin nor Antonee Robinson were fit to play 90 minutes three days later.
So he stuck with the alternate shape, but jammed some proverbial square pegs into round holes. Forty-five minutes in, he realized it wasn’t working.
He went to the locker room and spoke to the youngest group of players a USMNT had ever taken to a World Cup qualifier. He reassured them, but also challenged them to fight, and explained to them the changes he was about to make.
Brooks, Sargent, and left wingback George Bello were done for the night. So was the 5-2-3.
Robinson, Aaronson, Sebastien Lletget and the trusted 4-3-3 were on in their place.
The response was fairly immediate. Pepi started the game-tying move with excellent hold-up play, and set Pulisic off and running. Pulisic drew a crowd, and fed Lletget, who crossed for Pepi, who had the ball taken off his foot, but Robinson guided the rebound with his right foot into the far corner, then celebrated with a backflip and some frenetic, aimless running that all but screamed “holy sh*t, I never score,” because, well, he doesn’t.
The game stabilized thereafter. The U.S. was better, though not dominant. Honduras seemed to slow. Pulisic went off injured with what Berhalter would later call a “slight ankle injury.” A 1-1 draw seemed likely. And although U.S. fans would have fumed, it would have been another fine result, in another game that Berhalter called a “war.”
But subs and youngsters had no time for that discussion. McKenzie, all of 22 years old, starting his first World Cup qualifier, kickstarted the game-winning move by legally manhandling Moya, the Honduran goalscorer, near midfield.
The ball soon found its way to Robinson, who found an angle into Aaronson, who turned and found Lletget, who also turned and teed up Yedlin. The ball had gone left to right, from sub to sub to sub to sub, in six touches.
Yedlin took a seventh as three of his fellow subs and Pepi bombed into the box. With an eighth, he whipped in a teasing cross, and the man of the hour rose to meet it.
Pepi the improbable hero
Ricardo Pepi had never even been to a national team training camp two weeks ago. In fact, publicly, he hadn’t even decided that he wanted to play in stars and stripes. Pepi was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up "immersed in my Mexican heritage." Almost every week, he'd cross the U.S.-Mexico border to Ciudad Juarez, to visit family and friends. He's proud of that heritage, and as he grew into a teen All-Star with FC Dallas in Major League Soccer, he faced an agonizing choice between his two countries. Like many dual nationals, in soccer and elsewhere, he felt strong connections to both.
"At the same time, I was born and raised in the USA," he wrote late last month, in explaining his decision to play for the U.S. internationally. "This country has given me and my family a home, and endless possibilities to achieve my dreams. It has supported me, it has lifted me up, and it has shown me when you work hard you will be rewarded.
"I am very proud to be called in to help the USMNT qualify for the 2022 World Cup."
But not even he could have imagined how desperately his country would need him. Not even he knew he’d get a chance to play in this September qualifying window until, on the flight to Honduras Tuesday, Berhalter approached and told him he’d be starting. He took his chance, working tirelessly all evening, then soaring above and racing past a Honduran defender, Maynor Figueroa, who’s been playing professional soccer longer than Pepi has been alive.
And after scoring that debut goal, Pepi pounced on a Honduran mistake and squared for Aaronson to seal the win.
By night’s end, the entire mood in the Honduran industrial capital had turned on its head. Home fans hurled drinks and other projectiles at their own players in anger. They “Olé”d American passes, taunting their own team.
Pepi, at the other end of the spectrum, beamed.
“Es un resultado que necesitábamos,” he said in an on-field interview. It’s a result we needed.
McKenzie approached from behind as he spoke, also beaming, and rubbed him on the head.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner, too.
“!Calidad, Pepi, muy bien!” Turner said with a smile. “Calidad.” Quality.
Later, after speaking with parents, and taking news conference questions in both of his languages, Pepi reflected on the past few weeks.
"Cuando yo decidí por Estados Unidos, dije que le iba a dar todo mi corazón al equipo," he said. When I decided to play for the United States, I said I was going to give all my heart to the team.
"Y creo que esta noche, lo demostré."
And I think tonight, I showed it.