In the depths of winter, the U.S. men’s national soccer team learned that within it lay an invincible summer.
Well, invincible might be a strong word. (That’s probably why Albert Camus chose it.) A win, even a 3–0 one, against winless and already eliminated Honduras is not really the stuff of legend, no matter how much Walker Zimmerman wished it might be. It was a foolish and potentially dangerous idea to play a soccer game in single-digit weather in Saint Paul, Minnesota in January—two Honduran players were reportedly removed at halftime to get treated for hypothermia—and so the result didn’t exactly feel heroic.
But the U.S. had to win this game, and it did, in mostly convincing style. The team has usually responded well when backed against the wall, and this game was no exception. Every time the U.S. has dropped points this World Cup qualifying cycle it has won the next game bar one, when it started qualification with consecutive draws in El Salvador and against Canada. By bouncing back from Sunday’s 2–0 loss in Canada, the USMNT remains on the path to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, though it will likely need to beat Panama at home in the next window to ensure its place in the top three.
It could do worse than to take this game as a model, in all ways but the climate. Honduras was poor and slow and clearly affected by the cold, but the U.S. controlled the match utterly, limiting its opponents to a pair of presumptuous shots and forcing goalkeeper Matt Turner to retreat to the sidelines for a blanket to warm up, so little used was he. (Turner would be one of multiple U.S. players who referenced Jack Torrance’s frozen demise from the end of The Shining on social media after the game.) Weston McKennie left no doubt that he’s the best American player at the moment. Luca de la Torre, starting instead of Yunus Musah, buzzed like a snowspeeder through the trundling legs of the Honduran midfield, showing an impressive ability to throw off defenders through leans and feints and almost certainly earning himself a call-up in March. (U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said de la Torre was his man of the match.)
The U.S. has done this before. Berhalter rightly took a lot of flak for saying his team was “dominant” in the loss against Canada, but controlled would have been a better word there, too. In that game, his Americans kept possession and mostly limited the Canadian threat, just not quite enough. That’s been the U.S. formula. The game Sunday against Canada was the first time in qualifying that the team had allowed more than one goal in a game, and the second of those was scored in the final minute in an all-but-empty-net situation. Honduras couldn’t even manage the three or so scoring chances that Canada found for itself, reducing the game to one-way traffic.
But for all its defensive comfort, the U.S. has struggled on offense. When you are forever holding your opponent at arm’s length, it’s tough to get in some good licks of your own. The U.S. has been too conservative, too slow, and too imprecise in the final third, and that was largely true on Wednesday as well. Forward Ricardo Pepi struggled, victim of a broken nose suffered early in the game. Tim Weah produced some nice moments—he and McKennie played a particularly inspired bit of two-man keep-away through the entire Honduran defense early in the second half—but he shot into the goalkeeper there and couldn’t find the end product other times. The U.S. established control, but it let the game freeze into an open play stasis too early.
The difference on Wednesday was that the team finally, after a 10-game drought, found its range on set pieces. With Christian Pulisic out of the starting lineup due to some combination of needing rest and poor play, Los Angeles FC midfielder Kellyn Acosta stepped up for most of the Americans’ restarts, and made the opportunity count. The first dangerous U.S. free kick found a besnooded McKennie in front of the near post, where he headed it home and then celebrated by managing to look both triumphant and miserable at the same time.
The U.S. would score two more times on Acosta’s set pieces: once when a free kick skipped to Zimmerman in the box, who then dumped his defender to the ground and casually turned and finished, and another when a corner kick deflected off Zimmerman to the substitute Pulisic, who fired home almost sheepishly.
Of the goals, perhaps only the first delivery was outstanding, and the U.S. might have received some bounces from Honduras on the others that an opponent not so immediately concerned with its own survival in the harsh conditions would not have allowed. But Acosta’s service was good even when the U.S. failed to score; he even nearly snuck a surprise shot in early in the second half when the keeper was expecting a cross.
Set piece success may be the missing piece in the team’s puzzle. If it can score goals on free kicks and corners, then its bluntness in attack from the run of play isn’t as much of a concern. It can continue to control games without dominating them, continue planting its hand on the forehead of the opponent and letting it swing away, unable to reach, because it knows that eventually it will get the soccer equivalent of one kid convincing another that he’s owed a free hit.
The trouble is how to replicate their success. Acosta is not typically a starter when Tyler Adams and Musah are around. Gianluca Busio’s audition to start in Panama went poorly. Gio Reyna will get a shot when he returns from his injury, but we still aren’t really sure when that will be. That probably defaults back to Pulisic as the taker, unless someone signs Sergiño Dest up for the David Beckham School for Kids Who Can’t Bend Good. The USMNT’s next game, away to a still-struggling Mexico team in March, would be a great time to establish a set piece streak.
Otherwise, the U.S. could find its back against the wall again without freezing temperatures to save it, for a must-win game against Panama. “Usually responds” to pressure is not the same as “always responds.” The first time the team failed to bounce back during the previous World Cup qualifying cycle—when it suffered consecutive losses to Mexico and Costa Rica—it cost then-coach Jürgen Klinsmann his job. The last time it couldn’t get a needed result, in Trinidad, it cost the U.S. a spot in the World Cup. The more times this version of the USMNT finds itself in must-win situations, the more chances it has to finally fail one of them. One day that summer within might not prove invincible. If it happens at the wrong time during the next round of games, the U.S. could still find itself watching next winter’s World Cup from home.
The way to avoid such a scenario is to find something that’s eluded the team throughout qualifying: consistency. If the team’s set pieces come off well enough to get a second-straight result, this one in Mexico, then not only will the U.S. have capped the most dominant 12 months in the history of the rivalry, but it will create some needed cushion between itself and the other teams jockeying for fourth: Mexico, Panama, and hard-charging Costa Rica, which could otherwise potentially be in a position to leapfrog the U.S. in the standings by winning the final-day matchup between the two teams. Draw Mexico and beat Panama, and the U.S. almost certainly puts that scenario out of reach.
This team’s story is still mostly about potential, the way it is able to convert its talent into success in some games, the way it fails to in others. When it gets the World Cup, if it gets the World Cup, it’s going to have to play well in more than one game in a row to reach its goals. The final window of World Cup qualifying would be a great time to show it knows how.