MINNEAPOLIS — The young U.S. men’s national team hasn’t been here before, either atmospherically or metaphorically.
Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras here in the Twin Cities is going to be cold, perhaps historically so. A little more than 24 hours before kickoff, the forecast predicted a game-time temperature under 5 degrees, with the wind chill surpassing -10.
The stakes are novel as well. This U.S. team has been in some big games, but none with these specific, big-picture stakes attached. Rankings and regional trophies are nice, but it’s the World Cup that defines this program. The road to Qatar is nearing the stretch run, and the race for one of Concacaf’s three automatic tickets is tightening. Failure to beat Los Catrachos at Minnesota United’s Allianz Field would leave the second-place U.S. (5-2-3) in a difficult spot, facing treacherous trips to Mexico and Costa Rica next month.
Unprecedented challenges might demand an unprecedented approach. They could nudge a team off course or leave it questioning its methods and mindset. But the Americans don’t seem to be too bothered, at least not outwardly, by Wednesday’s potential pitfalls. Coach Gregg Berhalter didn’t come away from Sunday’s 2–0 loss to Canada ready to indict or overhaul his team. It was a match decided by moments and some technical errors on the day, he claimed—one in which the effort and ideas were sound.
And the players seem philosophical about the weather. They’ve almost certainly never played in conditions this cold, but they have played in the cold. And while the vast majority has never been this deep into World Cup qualifying, they have experienced moments that tested the national team’s trajectory. Each time, they passed.
“I think it’s something that we just adapt to, and we play just like any other game and we try have the same result and win,” midfielder Weston McKennie said here Tuesday. “We’ve all played in the same or similar conditions as it is now. … I think we’re prepared and that’s why we’ve played in two cold places previously before this game [in Columbus, Ohio, and Hamilton, Ontario]. So I think we’re kind of used to it now. I think we’ve adapted well and I think we’ll be prepared.”
Trying to rise to an extraordinary occasion, treating Wednesday’s game like something different or climactic, could unsettle a young team that’s still trying to find some rhythm and consistency. It would require a sudden change in approach and would add an additional element of pressure. Instead, Berhalter and Co. are hoping that staying the course will make both Honduras and the cold more manageable.
“I think we go out and we play hard and we play to win the game. That’s the message to the team. It’s not time to panic. Other teams have been through this. We’ve been through it before, and we just stick to the process and play hard, compete,” Berhalter said.
The U.S. has found itself teetering a few times already under Berhalter, and each time it has responded and stabilized. First, there was the lifeless 2–0 loss at Canada in the group stage of the Concacaf Nations League. It was October 2019, less than a year into the new manager’s tenure, and it forced a bit of a rethink. Berhalter committed to balancing pressing and an emphasis on intensity and intangibles with his desire to “disorganize opponents with the ball,” and the Americans thumped Canada in the return game and ultimately claimed both the Nations League and 2021 Gold Cup titles.
Then the qualifying campaign nearly went off the rails during the opening window in September. Held to a pair of disappointing draws by El Salvador and Canada, the U.S. then started poorly in the third game in Honduras. But a halftime formation change helped set the stage for a dramatic, come-from-behind 4–1 win that got the Americans back on track. The low point of the Octagonal then came a month later, as the impotent U.S. wilted in the Panamanian humidity and lost, 1–0, to Los Canaleros. After falling behind Costa Rica three days later in Columbus, the U.S. recovered, scored twice and went on to win three of its next four qualifiers.
McKennie said the formula has been based on finding pleasure in playing and trying to separate each game from the stakes surrounding it.
“The pressure is there automatically, but I think we don’t really let it try and get to us because I think we’re at our best when we have fun with the game and we enjoy it, and we play the way that we know that we can,” the Juventus midfielder said. “And whenever there’s pressure involved … it doesn’t have a big mental effect on on us. I feel like I think we just have one mindset, and we just want to enjoy the game and play as if we’re kids on a field back when we were younger. Just enjoy the game. I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
Berhalter said that the team’s goal was to exit the penultimate Octagonal window maintaining its hold on second place. And sticking to the path that took it to second was the best way to do it.
“You put the players at ease by working in a similar way. You take the emotion out of it. You analyze the game, analyze what we could have done better against Canada, and come up with a game plan for Honduras and you go from there,” the manager said.
“Preparation breeds confidence and preparing them the best way we can for what this game is going to look like is important,” he added. “But as far as we’re concerned, we go do our thing. We’ve been very strong at home, very dominant at home with our performances and we want to continue that.”
Naturally, there’s more enjoyment when the attack is humming and that dominance results in goals. Keeping the ball hasn’t been a problem for the U.S. Making that possession count on the scoreboard has been. The Americans couldn’t finish against El Salvador in last week’s 1–0 win, and they couldn’t get by Canada’s low, disciplined defense in Hamilton. For a U.S. team with such a promising amount of talent, 13 goals in 10 qualifiers seems like a poor return.
The U.S. still hasn’t solved its issues up top. Ricardo Pepi, who broke out with three goals against Honduras and Jamaica in the fall, has been quiet since, and after transferring from FC Dallas to Augsburg, he’s played only a bit part in the past two games. Jesús Ferreira was effective as a connector but not a finisher against El Salvador last week, and Gyasi Zardes failed to make an impact in Canada.
Berhalter also has been unable to get the most out of Christian Pulisic, who’s looked frustrated recently in his role as a left winger in the Americans’ 4-3-3. He’s appeared reluctant to stretch a defense with runs in behind, surrounded and stymied when drifting toward the center and unable to connect with teammates on forays into the penalty area. While Tim Weah’s return to the field will help—the right winger missed the Canada game because of his vaccination status—Honduras (0-7-3) is almost certainly going to play to its defensive, counterattacking strengths. That’s going to present the U.S. with a challenge it hasn’t consistently mastered—prying apart a compact, well-organized opponent.
“That’s the hardest thing to do in soccer. We know that,” Berhalter said. “It’s an exercise that we need to keep working [on]. Most teams struggle with that. But we’ll keep going.”
McKennie said, “In the past games we’ve created some chances—not as many as we would like. And also, I think we just want to be more effective and follow our game plan because the game plan that we have, when it’s executed correctly, we create a lot of chances and we’ve seen that in the past as well.”
Connecting the offensive dots isn’t Berhalter’s only challenge. Honduras has been eliminated from World Cup contention and could perform as if it would rather be anywhere else than Minnesota. It could also come in “relaxed” and “dangerous,” Berhalter said. Defensive midfielder Tyler Adams, one of only two U.S. players to appear in every qualifier so far, will be out with a hamstring injury suffered in Canada. And center back Walker Zimmerman’s fitness is also critical following Chris Richards’s foot injury. Zimmerman suffered a hamstring strain against El Salvador.
But this team has been good defensively, and there will be less uncertainty in back on Wednesday then up front or in the air. Ultimately, the result will tell the story and lay the groundwork for next month’s qualifying climax. U.S. Soccer’s polarizing decision to play a match of this magnitude in the frigid north will either become a footnote or an infamous own goal. And the U.S. will either demonstrate its potential for future growth, or raise concerns that it has hit a ceiling with Berhalter at the helm.
“The national team is a different level, right? And it’s understanding what it’s about. If you think about the amount of pressure that the team’s under, that individuals are under, it’s a different level and all we can do is control what we can control,” he said. “And that’s how we’re working and how we’re learning and how we’re improving.”
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