Just like he planned it!
Yes, of course I’m being sarcastic. But we’re all riding the Concacaf World Cup Qualifying tiger now, not just Gregg Berhalter.
And somehow the head coach tracked down a rabbit in San Pedro Sula to pull out of his hat and rescue the US men’s national team from looming disaster on Wednesday night at the infamous Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. I’m going to save a little time and not embed the Russell Crowe gif here, but yeah: Are you not entertained?
From 1-0 and dead in the water to 4-1, undefeated and cruising: This is the Octagonal. Let’s pick through the bones of this one.
Clichéd, but still applies: If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
It’s hard to believe that this is how Berhalter plotted out the start of Ricardo Pepi’s senior international career. If so, let’s call it unconventional. He turned his nose up at the chance to blood the kid with a substitute cameo in the first two matches to find his feet, instead throwing him into the starting XI in a kinda-sorta-must-win situation in Honduras, of all places, and in an alternate (and frankly pretty galaxy-brained) formation with a bunch of relatively unfamiliar faces.
It didn’t work! (More on that below.)
But from El Paso to FC Dallas to MLS All-Star week to the qualifying pressure cooker, the kid just knows where the goal is. Even in hostile circumstances, he’s so fluid and purposeful around the penalty box, and his influence on the game multiplied as his confidence swelled in the wake of his role in Antonee Robinson’s timely equalizer.
His game-winning header was clinical, a firm and deceptively straightforward finish, thumped as a large defender’s body was flying towards him, in a feverishly jeering stadium collectively willing him to fail. As much cold-blooded, rock-star striker swag as that required, he was equally selfless on the USMNT’s third, a smart advance-and-square for Brenden Aaronson to hammer home.
Riding an 18-year-old debutant to a vital road win – and your first of the qualifying cycle – is not exactly textbook stuff. But this is the alchemy of goal-scoring, the magic that can grace teenage starbursts.
“I was ready for the opportunity if it was given to me,” said Pepi postgame. “When Gregg told me that I was going to start on the plane on the way here, it was very special. I was prepared for the moment and I took advantage of it.”
Yes, the USMNT had to jet south to SPS shorthanded, with several likely starters injured (starting with Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest) or suspended (Weston McKennie, as you may have heard). And with three high-intensity games across thousands of miles of air travel in seven days, we always knew the rotation piper (not a real thing) would have to be paid at some point.
Even with all that in mind, Berhalter’s starting lineup was a head-turner and a gamble. He made five changes, including four qualifying debutants, and trotted them out in a 3-4-3 with Tyler Adams at right wingback, Josh Sargent ahead of him on the wing and wide-eyed James Sands asked to win the engine room next to Kellyn Acosta. It was a new team in an alternate shape, even younger and less familiar than what this young group is used to.
Was Berhalter driven to this loopy, risky XI by circumstance? Was this the plan from the beginning?
“We wanted to play a back five,” said Berhalter. “Obviously, it was hard to plan for all the injuries that we got in this first week, so we didn't plan to play Tyler Adams at right wingback in a game, but we wanted to make sure that anyone that played was going to give us the output that we needed. And we didn't feel like DeAndre [Yedlin] could do it for 90 minutes, and we felt like he could have a bigger impact off the bench.
“Same thing was with Antonee Robinson, I talked to him and it wasn't an easy conversation but I explained to him that he's going to come in and make an impact off the bench – we wanted George \[Bello\] to start the game. I thought he had an outstanding game against Canada, but I talked to him about his role in this game and how we were going to bring him in to make an impact, and he did. So overall, there was a plan to kind of quell some of their counterattacking with three in the back, and with three and two, push our wingbacks high, attacking mids inside. But the personnel had to change, based on availability.”
It simply didn’t work, as Los Catrachos dominated first-half proceedings, taking a deserved lead and striking up the ‘oles’ as they stroked the ball around. With Adams frustrated on the periphery, Christian Pulisic isolated and harangued and no one handling even the basics particularly well, the path to Qatar suddenly looked like a tropical-themed horror movie.
I recognize that different people award varying degrees of credit to those who clean up their own mistakes. Still, Berhalter had to diagnose the problem, apply some remedies and motivate his players – who lost most of their tackles and duels in the first 45 – to execute everything at higher intensity levels.
On came Brenden Aaronson for Sargent, Antonee Robinson for Bello and the trusted Sebastian Lletget for the ragged John Brooks at halftime, accompanied by a shift back to the 4-3-3. Barely 120 seconds after the resumption of play, Robinson would level the score with a calm conversion of a rebound after Pepi’s smart movement wreaked havoc on Honduras’ central defense.
Then Yedlin served up the cross that Pepi buried, Aaronson doubled the lead and Lletget rifled home a late helping of scraps. Suddenly, what could’ve been a Waterloo had a goal differential-padding bonus helping.
Conversely, Honduras helped out by flubbing some changes of their own:
“We wanted to change it up and we wanted to go back to the 4-3-3, be more aggressive, coming out pressing high, and that had a good effect on the game. It also gave us some good numbers in midfield,” said Berhalter.
“And it also helped that they changed their formation, and made it very easy to press when they were playing with three in the back. They had wingbacks that were trying to step to our fullbacks, so we went really low with our fullbacks, and that helped give some space. And then we came into the game also with duels, and competing.”
To give you a sense of how rare, how difficult escape acts like that are to pull off, consider that this is the third time across many decades that the USMNT have come back to win a road qualifier after conceding first:
It’s probably not a reliable blueprint for surviving the rest of the Ocho, but this largely unproven group stepped up big-time and showed themselves and the rest of us what they’re capable of.
Onto the next sweaty, jittery window, with another trio of big games barely a month from now.