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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US overcomes Honduras, the cold and some doubts

By scoring in the eighth minute, Weston McKennie bucked the United States’s trend of failing to score in the first half and not converting set pieces.

By James Wagner

Perhaps no moment better exemplified the mounting pressure — and its slight alleviation — on the United States men’s national soccer team than the one that occurred in the 67th minute Wednesday.

Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ talented winger, who plays for the English club Chelsea, has sputtered and looked frustrated in his recent performances for his country. And against Honduras, on a frigid night in St. Paul, Minnesota, Pulisic wasn’t even in U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s starting lineup. But after he entered the game as a substitute in the 64th minute and knocked in a goal three minutes later, Pulisic calmly celebrated by running off with his arms outstretched, then pumping his fist and hugging his teammates.

With a commanding 3-0 victory over Honduras to close this window of World Cup qualifying matches, the United States stayed firmly in control of its fate and eased some — but not all — of the load on its collective shoulders heading into the final set of games in March. It is those matches, now, that will decide if the United States will go to the World Cup this fall.

With the United States winning and Mexico defeating Panama, 1-0, the teams remained tied in second place in the eight-team qualifying group from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Canada defeated El Salvador, 2-0, to remain in first. The top three teams in the standings at the end of regional qualifying in March will receive automatic entry to the tournament in Qatar in November.

“Three points was pretty much a necessity, just with where we are and where we want to go,” U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman said. “We really took that upon us.”

Three days earlier, the United States had made matters more difficult for itself by falling 2-0 to a revived Canada squad on the road. After the match, questions resurfaced about the United States’ coaching, its tactics and its mettle.

But even in Minnesota’s brutal cold Wednesday, the United States dominated the way it expected against Honduras, which is last in the qualifying group and had already been eliminated from World Cup contention. The United States scored in ways it hadn’t before and it looked far more at ease.

“Our goal in this window was to stay in second or to move to first place and it looks like we’ll do that,” Berhalter said after the win.

The United States played its previous two games of this qualifying window in outdoor stadiums in cold-weather sites — at home against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, last week and on the road against Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, on Sunday. But Wednesday’s game at Allianz Field had the worst conditions.

The wind chill was minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff and dropped as the game progressed, making it the coldest U.S. home game in the team’s history. U.S. Soccer said it had picked Minnesota because it wanted to not only limit its travel during this stretch of three games in seven days but also gain an advantage over its Central American rivals.

Warmers for the bench and hot beverages were provided. Players wore gloves, balaclavas and gaiters around their necks and, at times, over their faces to keep warm. U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner wore a muff around his waist to keep his hands warm but removed it only minutes into the game after a referee ran over to talk to him. Still, at least one Honduran player, goalkeeper Luis López, couldn’t finish the game because of adverse effects from the cold and received intravenous fluids at halftime.

Asked about the conditions, Berhalter said that U.S. Soccer provided referees and the Honduras team with warm weather gear and other equipment in the hopes of making the conditions safer for them.

“When we go down to those countries and it’s 90 degrees and 90% dew point and it’s unbearable humidity and guys are getting dehydrated and cramping up and getting heat exhaustion, that’s the nature of our competition,” he added. “When we scheduled this game in this location, you have to go by daily average temperatures and it was the best guess. We wanted to minimize travel. We knew we were going to be playing in cold weather in two of the games and we figured to do it in the third game as well instead of switching climates. A cold spell came through and it’s something we can’t control, but all we can do once that happens is try to mitigate the risk.”

Before the game, Berhalter made several changes to Wednesday’s lineup because of recent performances and injuries (Tyler Adams and Chris Richards). He inserted Kellyn Acosta at midfield, for example, and started Jordan Morris at forward instead of Pulisic — a decision Berhalter called “very difficult.”

“The hardest thing to do as a coach is talk to a player and tell him that you support him and you’re behind him 100%, and then you don’t start him,” he said.

But it worked and the United States was in control from the start. In the eighth minute, midfielder Weston McKennie headed in an Acosta free kick — the United States’ first set piece goal of this qualifying campaign. (“A pretty wild stat,” Zimmerman said.) It was also only the third time in 11 qualifying matches that the United States had scored in the first half.

Then came more goals of that kind: Another free kick by Acosta was knocked in by Walker Zimmerman in the 37th minute, and Pulisic added the third goal off a corner kick by Acosta.

After the game, the United States’ attention turned to warming up and its next games in March. Next month, the United States is scheduled for tough road matchups against archrival Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30), and will host Panama on March 27. Entering Wednesday, the United States was tied with Mexico, with 18 points, for second place in the qualifying group.

“The hope is that it gives us a lot of momentum, not just because we got 3 points, but the way that we got 3 points,” Zimmerman said after Wednesday’s win. He added later, “Hopefully we can take a lot of positives from this game, keep up the things that we did well and carry that into the next window.”

Qatar is still very much within the United States’ reach, but not just yet.

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