At 9:30 on Wednesday night in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the U.S. men’s national team seemed to be burning to the ground. Again.
It had, over less than a week, failed to score in El Salvador; suspended one of its stars for violating COVID protocols; looked stale and blew a lead to Canada at home; scrapped just about everything that had brought it success this past summer, threw an inexperienced and disjointed lineup onto a hostile field in Honduras, and gone down 1-0 to a goal scored by a midfielder who plays his club soccer in Angola.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter, sweating through a tight “USA” t-shirt, was on a rapidly warming seat.
Memories of Couva, of the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle, were suddenly fresh.
An hour later, at 10:30 local time? The USMNT was, and is, in very good shape to qualify for 2022.
Berhalter’s five second-half substitutes, and his bold decision to call up and start 18-year-old Mexican-American striker Ricardo Pepi, worked magically. Left back Antonee Robinson, building off great grunt work by Pepi, leveled the match at 1-1 less than three minutes after entering at halftime. Pepi then powered a 75th-minute header into the side-netting, and turned a troubling week into a successful one.
Twelve minutes later, Pepi set up Brenden Aaronson, another halftime sub, for a third goal that sealed the win. In stoppage time, Sebastien Lletget tapped home a fourth for good measure.
At halftime, the live CONCACAF qualifying table showed the U.S. in sixth place, already three points behind third and fourth, the places required to reach the World Cup.
An hour later, the U.S. is tied for second. Panic is gone. Frustration has eased.
The job is far from done. The so-called “Octagonal” qualifying round is a 14-game grind. Eleven still remain, beginning with three in October, and if the USMNT sputters like it did last week, trouble could return.
But over 45 minutes in muggy San Pedro Sula, existential dread evaporated. The Americans will be just fine — thanks to Pepi, who’d never even been to a national team training camp two weeks ago, and who now, suddenly, is a national team hero.