SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — Some American players rushed from Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano and its pulsating Latin music for a charter flight through the night to London and onto Berlin, where weekend games awaited with European clubs.
Others headed in the morning to Miami and connecting flights for Major League Soccer.
They could travel with some degree of ease. Given a wake-up call by coach Gregg Berhalter, they responded in a way few U.S. teams have.
Panicking fans were soothed — at least until qualifying resumes next month. The Americans won a World Cup qualifier for just the second time in 41 matches they trailed at halftime. Instead of lagging behind the field with just two points, the Americans have five following a 4-1 win over Honduras. They are tied with Canada for second place, two points behind Mexico.
Not quite the nine they had hoped for, but well above the awful start of the previous cycle, when the U.S. opened with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica and never recovered.
Those memories clung like a bender to jittery supporters, unwilling to forgive and unable to forget, not after opening draws against El Salvador and Canada.
Berhalter’s reaction had been “to sort of laugh.”
“Listen, I think even if we would have lost the game, we wouldn’t have been out of qualifying. There would still be 11 games to play,” he said. “It’s the mentality that we’re just jumping all over reactions. And I think part of it, it was our fault for setting it up, what we wanted to do, being that open about it. But that is the expectations of the group.”
A record 12 Americans are on Champions League clubs.
But 16 players made their World Cup qualifying debuts in the past week, their first taste of qualifiers on bumpy fields in humidity with horns blaring and supporters screaming.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender Sergiño Dest and midfielder Gio Reyna got hurt, Steffen tested positive for COVID-19 and midfielder Weston McKennie was sent home for violating team protocols.
“Maybe we thought it was going to be easier than it was going down to El Salvador, Honduras,” Tyler Adams said. “These are tough games, man. You see how hostile the crowds are, but the energy is amazing, the atmosphere is amazing. It’s only going to make us better for the future.”
Berhalter played in 14 qualifiers from 2001-05. He tried to prepare a group accustomed to success.
“We did a lot of talking before the camp, before the first game, about it being a nine-point week and that it was really important. And I think that’s great to have high expectations. Everyone want to win games, right?” he said. “But the other side of it is it’s just talk, right, and then you have to go out and do it, and it’s very difficult to do.
“And I think that we needed to give these guys that experience. They needed to see what these games are like because they’re completely different games. Both the El Salvador and the Honduras game is — they are wars. You have teams and countries that are desperate to get wins, to get in the World Cup, and it’s a different animal than we were used to.”
Brayan Moya’s 27th-minute goal on a header past Matt Turner ratcheted the already high pressure. Berhalter’s 3-5-2 formation, with Adams on wide right and James Sands in central midfield, was getting dominated.
Antonee Robinson, Breden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget entered to start the second half as the U.S. switched to a 4-3-3. All three subs scored along with Ricardo Pepi, who had a goal and two assists in his debut.
“At halftime, the message was, ‘Guys, we’re going to get back in this game,’” Berhalter said. “’We need to compete because there’s urgency on every single dual that they go in and we need to match or exceed that.’”
As star Christian Pulisic hobbled off in the 62nd, worry returned.
“When Christian goes down, it’s always like, mmm, you take like a deep breath because he’s our best player,“ Aaronson said.
Pepi put the U.S. ahead in the 75th with a header from a cross by DeAndre Yedlin, who had just entered. Fans threw bottles at the Honduran players and chanted for coach Fabián Coito to be fired.
Americans soon looked ahead to next month, when they host Jamaica and Costa Rica around a trip to Panama.
“I think it’s really important that we did that, just to show everyone that at times it’s going to be a hard qualifying process, but we’re ready for the challenges that’ll come ahead,” Robinson said. “We can respond to anything.”
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