Head coach Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men’s soccer team solidified their position in the World Cup qualifying table in their last three matches. They faced off against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras in the past two weeks, with their first match against El Salvador kicking off on Jan. 27. The U.S. hoped to hold on to their second position in the standings at this point, featuring a lineup of hungry youth to further the consistency the team has had this season.
Straight from the opening kickoff in the first match against El Salvador, the U.S. was in firm control of the contest. Surprise entrant into the starting lineup, Jesus Ferreira, nearly struck first for the U.S. after dancing around a Salvadorian defender in the area and unleashing a strike over the bar fifteen minutes into the match. Only a few minutes later, Ferreira again came within inches of scoring when his point-blank redirection angled over the bar leaving the game tied 0-0 at half.
The second half was a different story, with the American counter attack pressing deep into El Salvador’s territory. Timothy Weah’s perseverance caused chaos in the area only seven minutes into the half, before Ferreira directed the ball into the path of Antonee Robinson. Robinson smashed the ball home for the opening and only goal of the match, winning the competition for the U.S.
On Jan. 30 the USA made the short trip crossing the border to take on the Canadian national team, who had yet to lose in qualifying. In an interesting move for the U.S., rather than starting the team’s young star, Ricardo Pepi, at forward, Berhalther opted for veteran leadership in Gyasi Zardes up top.
Only six minutes into the match, disaster struck for the U.S. when Matt Turner’s goal kick was caught in the wind and died just before midfield, paving the way for a Canadian counter attack. The pace of Canada’s all time leading goal scorer, Cyle Larin, was too much for Robinson to keep up with. Larin shot past an outstretched Turner to claim the lead for Canada early on.
Later on in the match, Christian Pulisic’s corner found its way to the head of Weston McKennie in front of the goal. McKennie put a bullet of a header on net, but it was kept out of the goal thanks to some incredible acrobatics from Canadian keeper Milan Borjan. Turner was then called to the rescue in the seventieth-minute when a shot from Jonathan David escaped his clutch, calling for the Turner to make a double save on the already encroaching Larin.
While Paul Arriola nearly leveled the score in the eighty-sixth minute off of a ludicrous bicycle kick, the U.S. suffered one last gut punch in the final minute of stoppage time. A Canadian clearance sprung Sam Adekugbe through a massive opening in the middle of the pitch, before he was able to curl a long range effort around Turner, solidifying a 2-0 Canadian victory and making Canada’s dream of securing a World Cup berth seem almost certain.
The men’s team played their final match on Feb. 2 in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they hosted Honduras at Allianz Field. With temperatures dipping into the negatives, players were forced to look for ways to combat the cold, such as McKennie donning a black cloth face guard. Still, McKennie scored in the opening eight minutes. Tim Weah came close to doubling the lead 12 minutes later with a bending shot from distance, but the Honduran keeper was able to parry away the effort.
Confusion in the area from a set piece was enough for Walker Zimmerman to bag a goal in the late stages of the first half, turning and finishing on a loose ball just in front of the Honduran goal, putting the U.S. up 2-0. At halftime, with temperatures in the negatives, two Honduran players were subbed off due to cold-related injuries, with their keeper requiring treatment for hypothermia. The second half of the game followed the momentum of the first, with the U.S. dominating the game even before Pulisic scored the team’s third and final goal midway through the second half.
The results helped the U.S. remain in firm control of the second spot in the qualifying table, and with one final slate of games scheduled for March, it’s up to Gregg Berhalter and his men to control their own destiny. Their final three matches will be against Panama, Mexico and Costa Rica. A win against Panama at home should secure the USA a spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but if things go horribly wrong the U.S. could find themselves missing out on a second straight World Cup.