After an uninspiring loss away to Canada in World Cup qualifying, the United States Men’s National Team went to St. Paul, Minnesota for a big match against Honduras. After a bad result, the team really needed to clean up and put in a good performance. It helped that this particular Honduras side is in something of a meltdown. The team was already eliminated from World Cup qualification. Their key players were aging and declining. They were seriously demoralized after failing to win a single game thus far, and now, they had to play in the blistering cold. Not exactly the most intimidating of opponents.
“Mom, I can see why Honduras didn’t win any of these games.” -my 8 year old son. #USAvHON— Aly Wagner (@alywagner) February 3, 2022
Still, you’ve got to play who’s in front of you. With the World Cup qualifying standings so tight at the top, the USMNT couldn’t afford to slip up. The team needed to be focused, even if it was against their weakest opponent. And the result was a comprehensive 3-0 victory, with goals from Weston McKennie, Walker Zimmerman, and Christian Pulisic. Let’s get into it.
Take a Bow, Kellyn Acosta
I’m just going to come out and say it: Kellyn Acosta was absolutely incredible in this match.
The MVP in my eyes. No doubt about it.
The thing was, it wasn't a “oh he grew into the game” kind of situation, or one of those where some big moments stood out. No, Acosta was good from start to finish. For instance, just in the 3rd minute, Acosta put in a switch from the right flank to Jordan Morris on the left. The move didn’t pan out, but it was a sign of what was to come. I mean, look at this absolute gem of a pass:
On top of the passing performance, Acosta put in an absolutely solid defensive one. Honduras were completely contained, their only shot in the whole match coming from a hopeful shot well outside the box that launched the ball into orbit. And that’s because Acosta broke up everything before it could get anywhere. And then there was his set piece service ... well, we’ll talk about his dead ball delivery in a second. It was a well-rounded, sterling performance.
It helps to contextualize Kellyn Acosta’s rise to the national team. After slowly being integrated into the national team in 2017 (Acosta started against Mexico in the Azteca!), Acosta found himself, first on the bench during the collapse in qualifying, and finally, on the outside looking in as Berhalter took over. With Tyler Adams out for almost the whole of 2019 due to a long-term injury, the USMNT midfield lacked bite and frequently struggled to win the ball back in midfield. Berhalter went through a revolving cast of players, trying to find both the personnel and the shape to make things more solid. Finally, early in 2021, Berhalter took a gamble and slotted Acosta in at d-mid, an unfamiliar position for the Colorado Rapids man. Those March matches seemed to work out so, when June came around and Adams wasn’t quite fully fit, Acosta was fielded for the Nations League final. His performance there led to a starting spot on the Gold Cup roster, where he beat Mexico again, this time with his own assist.
After the Nations League and Gold Cup, it was pretty clear that Acosta had really taken over as Tyler Adams’ backup. I think was the general sentiment, as well as mine, that Acosta could do a decent job to cover for the RB Leipzig man. He could be sturdy and composed and put in an adequate shift when Adams was not available. However, the conversation was always about how much was lost between Adams and all his potential replacements, never about what unique skills Acosta could bring to the position. Well, now we are having that conversation. While Adams has an absolute has an incredible ability to sniff out attacks and snuff them out, his passing range is much more conservative compared to Acosta’s. I mean, go back and look at that pass! Acosta’s play would have make the likes of David Beckham and Andrea Pirlo proud.
It was clear that Acosta had earned his name on the squad list. Well, now his name is in ink.
Service with a Smile
Over the course of ten qualifiers, the USMNT couldn’t get a single goal off a corner or free kick. Before that drought, it was almost all the team could do, building Nations League and Gold Cup triumphs off such goals. However, during qualifying itself, the team has struggled to turn dead balls into shots on target. And that’s had consequences, leaving opponents unpunished for chopping down American players outside the box.
Well, I am happy to announce that the drought is over; the rains have come.
The US scored, not one, but three goals off of set pieces! It was a total deluge, just washing Honduras away.
A lot of that comes from Acosta’s ball delivery. His service on the night turned, no exaggeration, every single dead ball into a potentially dangerous moment. Let’s stop and take a moment to admire the excellence of that first goal:
Just absolutely pinpoint precision from Acosta there. He puts the ball at exactly the right place in front of the near post for McKennie to attack it. It’s angling down in exactly the right way to give his teammates every chance, while making it difficult for the defenders to get in the way. And it wasn’t just this one style of set piece! Can he put one in a dangerous place in front of the center backs and force them to scramble? That’s a goal! Can he whip in a cross from a corner so that his own teammate can put in a glancing header to another teammate? That’s a goal! The only bummer on the night in terms of Acosta’s set piece delivery was that he didn’t get to score a goal for himself (he merely forced an excellent save).
It helps that the US has great options for targets. Walker Zimmerman is wonderfully aggressive in the box. It helps that he’s a 6 foot 3 (coincidentally the same height as Chris Hemsworth). Ricardo Pepi’s got great movement in the box and will hopefully add set piece goals to his resume. But, man Weston McKennie. Ahead of the match, I figured he was a rather tall bloke. Ah, nope. He’s 5’10”, thoroughly average! I’m basically that tall! Yet he’s such a consistent threat on set pieces. It’s because he knows exactly where to make the threatening run and exactly how to leverage his physicality to his advantage.
I’m personally not really worried that the team didn’t score from the run-of-play. Indeed, while the team couldn’t score from the run of play, the still generated a lot of chances. They’ve gotten better at getting goals from possession or turn overs and we should see that continue. Actually, getting that reputation as set-piece threats probably helps get those possession-based goals going forward. It puts teams on notice that they can’t just hack our players down.
These Conditions were Unacceptable
Games should not be played in dangerous conditions. It is shocking and absurd that we have to talk about this. Do not put players or fans in harms way. And what did USSF do? They put players and fans in a stupidly cold environment and players got hurt during the game because of it. That’s not OK.
Two Honduran players treated for hypothermia and had to come out of the game.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) February 3, 2022
Gregg Berhalter came out after the match and basically said “well they do it, too!” as if that's an acceptable answer instead of a child’s retort.
"we're trying to minimize travel in this window and to keep the weather somewhat consistent. That was our focus. 3rd thing is we want to win our home games... we see our home field as an advantage and playing conditions that the opponent's not used to is also an advantage for us"— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) February 3, 2022
Let’s be clear here, USSF and Berhalter crossed a line on this one. It’s one thing to play a game where it’s chilly out. It’s another entirely different thing to play a game where players get pulled because they are starting down the path towards frostbite.
Yeah, the games in Columbus and Hamilton were cold. But they weren’t this cold. They weren’t in the single digits. People were questioning the Columbus game v, El Salvador, not because it was dangerous, but because it was a third straight home match in Ohio, and the second match in this very stadium. People questioned the cold, not because of the risk of hypothermia, but because people were not sure it was a good idea for a team that benefits from playing in pristine environments to intentionally introduce adverse conditions. The Columbus was not the same as Minnesota. Just no question about it.
And you know what, it’s an absolute shame that this is the game that the people of St. Paul, of the Minneapolis area, and of Minnesota at large, get instead of a match in more appropriate weather.
I am annoyed at US soccer for giving MN the bitter pill of finally getting our first men's WC qualifier, but doing it in a way that focuses only on MN as a negative. Not as a place w/ one of the best soccer stadiums in the country and an avid fanbase.— Wes Burdine (@MnNiceFC) February 1, 2022
The thing is, USSF didn’t have to do this. Yeah, it’s a January/February window and the games have to be played SOMEWHERE. And, yeah, the travel distances make it hard to put a game farther away (like on the West Coast, as I understand USSF initially wanted). But Charlotte, North Carolina is also “somewhere”. Coincidentally, Charlotte is slightly closer to Hamilton, Ontario than St. Paul, Minnesota. This was a choice. And it was a bad choice that put people in harm’s way.
Oh, and since it’s relevant, this game in particular illustrated exactly why MLS is never going to start playing through the middle of winter.
The USMNT is on the verge of qualifying and comfortably holds their fate in their own hands. The USMNT currently sits on 21 points (tied with Mexico, 4 points clear of Panama, and 5 points clear of Costa Rica) with 3 games remaining in the schedule. Of the three games, the one to watch for is the home match v. Panama. Win that game and it will become mathematically impossible for Panama to catch the US, guaranteeing the USMNT at least 4th place (the playoff spot v. New Zealand). It's a near guarantee for 3rd regardless of the other results. The only way Costa Rica can catch up is if they have a perfect 3-game window, a feat that only Canada has managed to pull off. There are, of course, the other two games, the away matches v. Mexico and Costa Rica. Those are hard match ups, but both those teams look vulnerable. The Mexico match in the Azteca in Mexico City in particular looks opportune for the US, with Hector Herrara suspended due to yellow card accumulation and Chucky Lozano likely out after he suffered a dislocated shoulder. While getting any of those points would likely seal the deal, as I explained earlier, it likely will not be necessary so long as the US gets the job done at home.
Luca de la Torre looked entirely comfortable out there. Yeah, it was the weakest opposition in the Ocho, but de la Torre looked like he belonged out on the field with the rest of the team. He was assured in possession and drove forward on the ball. I don’t think he’s eclipsed Yunus Musah for the starting spot, but I’m looking forward to seeing him get more game time.
Weston McKennie was the best player for me in this window. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the USMNT is built around Weston McKennie. McKennie does just so many things well across the field. He contests duels and tackles. He presses. He gets into the attack. He advances the ball. He scores on set pieces. Through this window, we saw the Texan add ball retention under pressure to his repertoire. While I thought the team was built around McKennie to start the year, I wouldn’t have said he was either our best or most important player. I’m starting to think that that might have changed.
I just want to say, hijab bans in soccer are stupid. I know it’s only tangentially related to the United States men's team, but I mean, look at Matt Turner! Let women wear what they want!
That’s it from me, but before I go, take a look at this absolute gem of a goal that Canada scored to beat El Salvador.