A tale of two halves ended in victory for the United States men's national soccer team on Wednesday as the Americans defeated Honduras 4-1 to earn their first win in 2022 World Cup qualifying.
Ricardo Pepi, an 18-year-old FC Dallas striker making his senior team debut, scored the game-winning goal. He also had a hand in the United States' other three goals to cap his sensational national team start.
The United States trailed 1-0 at halftime thanks to a 27th-minute goal from Honduras striker Brayan Moya, but Antonee Robinson, Pepi, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget each scored in the second half to give the Americans the win at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The first half featured lethargic and lifeless play from the American side. Honduras took advantage of that effort when an unmarked Moya found himself alone in the six-yard box as he headed in a Diego Rodriguez cross:
The Honduras goal started with a giveaway at midfield.
ESPN analyst and former USMNT player Taylor Twellman offered pointed commentary on the play and soon summed up some problems for the team:
Taylor Twellman @TaylorTwellman
Anyone that has played the game at any level understands that certain games mean just “doing your job” and being “simple”. <br><br>Being compact, playing direct and on front foot, while making the other team uncomfortable. It’s about qualifying for the World Cup ffs!!!! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/USMNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#USMNT</a>
Ives Galarcep of CBS Sports Network summarized the first half well for the United States:
Ives Galarcep @SoccerByIves
HALFTIME- Honduras 1, <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/USMNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#USMNT</a> 0<br><br>That was an abysmal, flat, tired, uninspired and brutal 45 minutes for the USMNT.<br><br>Honduras was organized and playing with purpose and energy.<br><br>USA did not.<br><br>Sands looks lost, Adams hasn't looked comfortable at RWB, Brooks wasn't great. <a href="https://t.co/TuwO8HgG0I">pic.twitter.com/TuwO8HgG0I</a>
Stephen Meyer of Audacy questioned the formation and strategy:
Stephen Meyer @StephenMeyerRDC
I'm completely embarrassed for the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/USMNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#USMNT</a> right now. I'm watching 1990s 4-4-2 Hail Mary boot ball all over again. No plan, no creativity, no ability to connect high school level passes. No effort or intensity. How a manager could ever survive this is unimaginable. Utter disgrace.
Thomas Floyd of the Washington Post pointed out that players suiting up in new positions on the national team led to a natural lack of cohesion too:
Thomas Floyd @ThomasFloyd
The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/USMNT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#USMNT</a> had nine games this summer but is still playing a World Cup qualifier with four players (Sands, Adams, Sargent, Pepi) starting in positions they haven't played for the national team before. A lack of cohesion seemed inevitable here.
Massive changes occurred at halftime. The formation changed to a 4-3-3, and three subs came on (Lletget for John Brooks, Aaronson for Josh Sargent, Robinson for George Bello).
The changes paid off, as all three of those subs scored.
Robinson's equalizer occurred in the 48th minute. The goal followed beautiful teamwork that featured Christian Pulisic's run, Lletget's cross and Pepi leaving the ball behind for Robinson, who finished the job.
Harold Kuntz of Fox 4 Kansas City noted how the changes led to the goal:
Prospects appeared bleak for the United States when Pulisic was forced off the pitch in the 62nd minute because of an apparent leg injury. The captain tried to gut it out, but Cristian Roldan replaced him:
The United States kept up the pressure and nearly got the game-winner when Tyler Adams fired a low shot outside the box toward the bottom-right corner of the goal. However, Honduras goaltender Luis Lopez made an exceptional diving save to keep the game tied.
That 1-1 score would not last, however, as Pepi headed home a DeAndre Yedlin cross in the 75th minute:
"The second youngest U.S. player to appear in a World Cup qualifier (behind Pulisic) and the second youngest U.S. player to score in a World Cup qualifier (behind Pulisic), 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi's time is now," Brooks Peck, the Athletic's deputy managing editor for U.S. Soccer, wrote following the goal.
It'll certainly be hard (or perhaps impossible) to keep Pepi off the World Cup qualifying pitch after that one. FC Dallas play-by-play commentator Mark Followill stated something that appears to be inevitable:
The United States poured it on from there thanks in part to Pepi, who took advantage of a midfield giveaway and found a wide-open Aaronson for the third goal at the 86th minute:
Pepi was involved in the action again on the fourth goal. Another Honduras giveaway led to Adams possessing the ball. He soon found Pepi, who fired the ball on goal. Lopez got the save, but Lletget cleaned it up for the evening's final goal in injury time.
The United States entered this match with a pair of draws in the Octagonal, which is comprised of eight CONCACAF teams playing home-and-home series in a round-robin format to determine World Cup qualifiers. The U.S. registered a 0-0 result at El Salvador (in San Salvador) and a 1-1 result versus Canada in Nashville to start.
Wednesday's win is certainly encouraging for a team that looked like it would begin World Cup qualifying without a win in three straight matches after the first 45 minutes, but the United States' new look is certainly encouraging going forward.
The top three teams in the table will automatically advance to the World Cup. The fourth-place side will go to a home-and-home playoff with a team from another federation to determine an additional World Cup participant.
It's still very early with the United States still having 11 matches left, but the Americans are now level with Canada and Panama for second in the table at five points apiece. Canada currently has the tiebreaker edge there.
Mexico is first with seven points. Honduras is now tied with Costa Rica and El Salvador for fifth with two points. Jamaica is last with one point.
The United States' next World Cup qualifying match is scheduled for Oct. 7 against Jamaica in Austin, Texas.