This was a soccer match like few others played by the United States men’s national team.
Instead of falling down Wednesday night after falling behind in a World Cup qualifying round game abroad, the Americans roared back.
The Yankees did not go home with a loss or a tie, like so many other times. They scored four goals in the second half, and floated out of Honduras with a 4-1 victory.
What enabled the Americans to suddenly dominate was obvious, even to folks who’d never heard of the game’s breakout star, the aptly named Ricardo Pepi. This was clear to even soccer dunces: For most of the second half, the Americans were livelier, faster and stronger than Honduras. They were, on this night in the tropics, the deeper team. It wasn’t closed.
You would expect the United States to show more depth than Central American opponents, based on having a much larger population to draw from and investing much more money into World Cup pursuit.
However, when playing on the road in World Cup qualifying rounds, US players have bogged down all too often.
Not this time.
“Over the course of the match, the US team ended up wearing down the Honduras team,” said Landon Donovan, the San Diegan who appeared in three World Cups.
Donovan suggested that, oddly enough, a uniquely grueling schedule — three games in seven nights — played to American strengths.
“One of the key factors that probably gets overlooked is this is the first time ever in World Cup qualifying, in our region, that there have been three games over a course of a week,” said Donovan, who coaches the San Diego Loyal men’s professional team and watched from his office Wednesday. “Generally it’s two games. And I think that played a huge factor in Honduras being tired and the US being fresh at the end of that game, and that’s when all the goals came.”
Donovan awarded the fitness edge to the Americans.
“Honduras is pretty athletic in a lot of places around the field,” he said. “But, it’s really challenging mentally, physically and also emotionally to get up three times in a week for these huge games. The US depth just shone through in the end. The first half wasn’t great. But in the second half, they really turned up the pressure and Honduras cracked.”
A tougher schedule magnifies smaller stuff. For instance: The Honduras team traveled commercially to and from North America.
“The US team charters to games,” Donovan said. I added: “They have lots of (support) staff. They have every resource to get these guys to recover physically quickly, and that played a big role in the second half last night.”
The US depth may have been greater, if coach Gregg Berhalter had decided to soft-pedal recent off-field transgressions of Weston McKennie, one of his better players. McKennie had broken team rules on COVID-19 prevention. Instead, Berhalter suspended McKennie for Sunday’s match against Canada and sent him home before the Honduras game.
So, the coach has a backbone.
“it’s very, very difficult to go into two huge qualifiers without one of your best players,” Donovan said, “and he made the decision that the group culture and dynamics were more important than an individual player. If a player breaks the rules, then a player breaks the rule. (Punishment) is easy in theory. When you’re faced with it, can you do it and stand by it?”
Critics blasted other personnel decisions, saying they led to a dismal first half Wednesday. Donovan didn’t join the chorus.
“All I can judge is what I saw,” said Donovan, who was surprised not by the Americans introducing three new players to the second-half lineup but by Honduras doing the same. “Whatever was said or done at halftime was critical and worked. Was it a perfect week? No, of course not. But I also don’t have, nor does anybody, have the context of why certain decisions were made.”
The Americans saw their best offensive player, Christian Pulisic, depart in the 60th minute with an ankle injury. Lesser US squads may have faltered after losing such a player. This youthful team responded with three goals.
“The tide was starting to turn when Christian came out,” Donovan said. “To his immense credit, he was the one guy who looked like he was — throughout the 60 minutes — really intentional, aggressive and wanting to make a difference.”
Donovan’s theory for that? “Part of it is because he sat on the field four years ago in Trinidad when they didn’t qualify. I promise you, he doesn’t want to ever feel that again.”
Pepi’s go-ahead goal (via a deft header) and his slick assist on the third goal were a revelation, though perhaps not to Major League Soccer fans who’ve seen his playmaking with FC Dallas.
The 18-year-old, who grew up near El Paso, was playing in his first match with the US national team. With another assist on the final goal, he went beyond the one-goal, one-assist output of Donovan in his October 2000 debut, when coach Bruce Arena astutely stunned Donovan by sending him into the game for an injured teammate.
Pepi was up to the moment. Many before him were not, over many years.
“What makes soccer unique is that goals are so hard to score,” said Donovan, whose debut fueled a 2-1 victory against Mexico at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. “In a baseball game, one at-bat is not the end of the world. In soccer, when there’s a big chance to score a goal, if you don’t score, what you see is what we saw against El Salvador a week ago, which was a 0-0 tie.
“Conversely, when Ricardo got his chance, he buried it,” said Donovan, who is the national team’s leading goal scorer alongside Clint Dempsey, leads in assists with 58 and sits behind only Cobi Jones in appearances with 157. “That’s why attacking players and forwards in general get paid a lot of money … because it’s the hardest thing to do in our sport. When you do it in a game of that magnitude, you deserve all the credit that comes with it.”
October will bring more matches. A preview: If the kids are all right, the future is bright.