The USMNT came back from a goal down to beat Honduras 4-1 at San Pedro Sula in as close to a must win match as one could have just three games of a qualifying round.
Manager Gregg Berhalter made several changes from the match against Canada with one of the most prominent being the debut of 18-year-old striker Ricardo Pepi.
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Once the final whistle blew, the inclusion of the FC Dallas star made Berhalter look like a genius.
But it didn’t start out that way.
USMNT show resolve after going down a goal in the first half
The U.S. started the game on the front foot with an early chance in the opening minutes. However, Honduras quickly wrestled control back.
The home side were up for the match, first to every ball and outmuscling the visitors throughout the first half.
Honduras took advantage of their dominance and opened the score in the 27th minute on a header by Brayan Moya.
Down a goal, the criticism over the past week for the USMNT was only intensifying. The formation was being criticized and try as he might, Christian Pulisic was being well defended by the Honduran defense.
The turning point came immediately after the break. Berhalter made three substitutions and, surprisingly, so did Honduras manager Fabián Coito.
“We came in that game wanting to win duels and compete,” Berhalter said. “One of the comments at halftime was if we’re going to get back in this game we need to start competing. We talked about what we needed from our top-line group and our backline. We wanted to be more aggressive and we thought we’d be better pressing. The second thing is I said we need to compete more.”
The changes paid off quickly for the U.S. as one of the subs, Antonee Robinson, scored the equalizer. Not only did it tie the game, but it proved to be a big momentum shift.
It was the Americans who were now on the front foot as Honduras looked tired. They were slow tracking back on defense and bereft of ideas going forward. Coito’s substitutions served only to destabilize a Honduras side who played well in the first half and did not look in need of changes.
Pepi’s moment came in the 75th minute as the Mexican-American guided a header past the keeper to give the U.S the lead.
Those were not his only contributions as he also gave the assist eleven minutes later for Brendon Aaronson to score the third. Sebastian Lletget added the fourth and final goal in the third minute of stoppage time.
It was a dream debut for Pepi who chose to represent the U.S. over Mexico. He did not let the situation get to him. In fact, it was the opposite. He thrived on it and helped deliver three crucial points to the USMNT.
“Gregg told me I was going to start on the plane on the way here,” Pepi said. “It was very special, I was prepared for the moment and I took advantage of it.”
In addition to the goal and assist, Pepi became the second-youngest player to feature in a World Cup qualifier for the U.S., only behind Pulisic.
After only picking up two points from their first two games, the win gave the USMTN five points as they end this round of qualifying tied for second place with Canada.
All the angst and dread heading into the Honduras match was quickly evaporated in the second half. All the criticism for Belhalter, some warranted, erased as he stuck to his system and was not afraid to throw some of the young players into the fire.
The win was important to calm down outside pressure. But pressure can be a good thing. After all, pressure it what turns coals into diamonds. On this night, the U.S. uncovered a diamond of their own in Ricardo Pepi.