SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - The United States men’s soccer team wrapped this month’s international play Wednesday night in a match against Honduras, winning 4-1 with late goals.
The U.S. was headed to another World Cup qualifying failure when Antonee Robinson entered, quickly tied the score and celebrated with a backward somersault.
Ricardo Pepi then put the U.S. ahead in the 75th minute, and Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget added late goals.
"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."
Pepi had a goal and two assists in his debut, and the Americans exhaled after a tumultuous week of injuries, positive COVID-19 tests and a huge disciplinary issue. They won for just the second time in 41 qualifiers in which they trailed at halftime (six draws).
Coach Gregg Berhalter held a team meeting before the match and told players that opening draws at El Salvador and at home against Canada "wouldn’t have doomed the qualifying." U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen, defender Sergiño Dest and midfielder Gio Reyna had gotten hurt, Steffen tested positive for COVID and midfielder Weston McKennie was sent home by Berhalter for violating team COVID protocols.
Berhalter thought the talk helped players begin to relax.
"Despite all this crap that happened in these last couple days, the guys' spirits were extremely high," he said.
SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS - SEPTEMBER 8: Ricardo Pepi #14 of the United States celebrates after scoring a goal against Honduras during a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying game at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano on September 8, 2021 in San Pedro Sula, Hond
Despite a 12-1-2 record in 2021, two CONCACAF championships this summer and a No. 10 global ranking by FIFA, the Yanks’ quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup has been anything but smooth sailing.
The USA finished with a 0-0 draw against El Salvador last Thursday and tied Canada 1-1 on Sunday, giving them just two points in the overall standings.
"If I’m a fan, I’m not happy with two points after two games, I’m not," Berhalter said prior to the match. "And I can understand frustration. That’s completely normal. But you have to look at the big picture. This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You don’t qualify in one window. There’s five separate windows that you get a chance to qualify for."
Mexico leads the North and Central American and Caribbean region with seven points, followed by Canada and the U.S. with five points each and identical goals for and against. Panama has five points and trails on goals, while Costa Rica and Honduras have two points apiece and Jamaica none. The top three nations qualify.
Qualifiers will occur periodically before concluding in March. The next round takes place Oct. 7 - 13, when the Yanks take on the Costa Ricans, Jamaicans and Panamanians.
By that time, they hope the drama from this round of qualifiers will be long gone.
After Sunday’s draw, Berhalter dismissed McKinnie for violating COVID-19 protocols. He returned to Italy Monday to rejoin his professional club Juventus.
U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan scolded McKinnie on the Futbol with Grant Wahl podcast, saying McKinnie has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of his squad.
"I am I am privy to what happened I’m not going to announce that publicly," Donovan said on the podcast. "I will just say, I am incredibly disappointed in Weston, incredibly disappointed. Look, I can understand Juventus during a long club season, you’re sitting at home for months and months and months and you want to have people over. Is it the smartest thing to do? No, but I get it."
Christian Pulisic, who is fully vaccinated, missed the first qualifier last week after testing positive for COVID-19. Officials cleared him to participate in Sunday's game against Canada.
Steffen will miss all of September’s qualifiers after suffering back spasms and testing positive for the virus.
Reyna strained his hamstring in the El Salvador match and Sergiño Dest sprained his ankle against Canada.
All of these setbacks have disrupted what was believed to be one of the Yanks’ most talented squads as of late. And the lackluster performance thus far has invoked memories of the 2018 team, who failed to qualify for the World Cup.
"People are like, whoa, why didn’t we win for the first two games? Why didn’t we win them 4-0 the first two games?" Berhalter said. "We said it’s going to be difficult. There’s going to be a lot of challenges. There’s going to be unexpected things happening. You’re going to get injuries. You’re going to not perform well in one game. You’re not going to finish some chances. That’s what qualifying is going to be. And our job was to hang in there because the ultimate goal is after 14 games, is to be in the top three."
This story was reported from Atlanta. The Associated Press and Kelly Hayes contributed to this report.