Wild window ends with Pepi leading the USMNT to a big 4-1 win in San Pedro Sula
September 08, 2021
IN THE END, the United States National Team’s first window is going to be remembered for a lot of things. A poor start, a lot of anxiety, controversy, the dismissal of a star player, the emergence of other players, and a gut-check win to cap it off. The team flirted with disaster the entire time but ultimately ended off with a nice win to sit in decent position.
By now, everyone has seen the news. The U.S. team started in a very strange formation with different personnel. James Sands was in central midfield, Tyler Adams was at right wingback, there were three central defenders (Mark McKenzie, John Brooks, Miles Robinson), Josh Sargent out on the wing, young George Bello at left wingback, and Ricardo Pepi was playing his first cap up top in the No. 9 position.
Looking back, it was hardly surprising that the U.S. team struggled. The team fell behind in the 27th minute when Brayan Moya headed home a Diego Rodriguez cross. The play was started by a poor decision from John Brooks to pull out of a challenge in the midfield, Brooks was unable to get back on the counter and George Bello lost Moya trying to cover.
At half time, Behalter revered back to a 4-3-3 and made several changes – taking off John Brooks, George Bello, and Josh Sargent for Antonee Robinson, Sebastian Lletget, and Brenden Aaronson. The U.S. team immediately equalized to start the half when Lletget swung a ball into the box, Pepi made a touch, and Antonee Robinson was there with a cool finish with his right foot.
Then in the 75th minute, the U.S. team moved in front thanks to another big contribution from a substitute. DeAndre Yedlin replaced James Sands in the 73rd minute to allow Adams to move centrally. On the play, Yedlin swung a perfect cross into the box which allowed Pepi to execute a classy header past Luis Lopez for a 2-1 lead.
From there, the U.S. team showed the needed killer instinct. Brenden Aaronson scored in the 86th minute when Pepi forced a turnover, moved into the final third, found an open Aaronson for well-placed, driving shot into the top of the net and a 3-1 lead.
Sebastian Lletget rounded out the scoring in stoppage time when he tapped home a Pepi shot what was partially saved by Lopez and rolled to the Galaxy midfielder for an easy finish.
The game will surely be remembered for the U.S. team emerging in adversity to reverse momentum and walk away with a victory.
Now heading into October, the U.S. team has five points, a decent goal differential, and most importantly, a more experienced group of players.
This Wild Window
It is hard to imagine one window being filled with this much drama, emotion, swings in performance, and “crap” (as Berhalter used in the postgame press conference) as this one. But it ended well.
Ultimately this window was a success, but it wasn’t pretty getting there. Five points was short of the initial goal, but the team ended with a win to move into October with momentum. It’s fair to like where the team sits now. There were a lot of draws throughout the region and with goal differential, the U.S. team sits in second place with two games the next window.
Next time they face adversity, it won't be the first time. They're all more experienced and are better for it.
"Regarding the negativity, we had a meeting and we talked about just tuning it out and focusing in on what we're doing," Berhalter said. "It's completely understandable that fans aren't excited about two points from two games but it wouldn't have doomed qualifying."
"The mindset of the guys the past two games completely changed," he continued. "They're more relaxed, more focused. The mood around the camp was really good. So, despite all this crap that happened these last couple of days, the guy's spirits were really high."
In previous qualifying campaigns that were successful, there was always a blend of experienced veterans who had qualified before along with players new to the process. Now it is almost an entirely new group of players trying to qualify for the first time.
In total, 16 players earned their first appearance in a qualifier during this three-match window. Starting in October, World Cup qualifying will not be as new to them – plus they also have the experience of adversity in World Cup qualifying.
The McKennie incident was a difficult period that is 100% on the Juventus midfielder. It is now on him to earn his place back. He will probably be allowed back with the U.S. team sooner than later but the big question is how Juventus handles him and how many minutes they give him.
Big questions remain over this team moving forward. The U.S. had a brilliant second half against Honduras. That was just 45 minutes over a 270-minute window. It will be about consistently performing in the upcoming windows.
But what made this window a success is that there were positive answers to lingering questions.
- 1) Matt Turner is a dependable option in big games.
- 2) Miles Robinson is a starting caliber central defender. Who partners with Brooks? That question is answered, for now.
- 3) Can someone score from the No. 9 position? Enter Pepi
- 4) Antonee Robinson is now settling in nicely as a starting left back.
- 5) The USMNT can win without Reyna, Dest, or good games from Pulisic (who was fatigued and injured) and Brooks (who didn’t have a great window). That was enormous from a perspective of depth.
Berhalter’s decisions & subs
Rating Berhalter for this game and this window is a mixed bag. The El Salvador game was mostly on the players. The approach against Canada was off as the team didn’t look prepared to break down a bunker and the substitutions were all way too late. The start of the Honduras game was also on Berhalter as the team was not prepared for his approach. Then, he fixed the problem with all the right substitutions.
Berhalter explained what went wrong in depth.
"There were a couple of things wrong with it. The first thing is that our backline wasn't pushing up quick enough, that was an issue," Berhalter said. "It made the field much bigger than we needed it to be. It gave them some time in midfield. The second thing I would say is that at times, our wingbacks weren't releasing quick enough and our side centerbacks weren't sliding over quick enough. The player wide had more time on the ball and became dangerous."
"The third thing I would say is that because the first ball was being played long by them, we'd win the first ball and it went to their two defensive midfielders sitting in front of their backline," Berhalter continued. "We didn't have anyone to win those second balls. Towards the end of the first half, we ended up moving Josh and Christian in and that helped a little bit. The fourth thing was pressure. We wanted to be mid-block, low pressure. At times, Ricardo was going off on his own to press and that wasn't the plan to press them."
On a positive note, he rotated the squad correctly. He made the difficult but correct decision with dismissing McKennie. He also was willing to play youth. He could have subbed off Ricardo Pepi at halftime against Honduras, but instead took off Sargent. That wasn’t an easy decision, but it was correct.
Did Berhalter get a bit lucky that things worked out this well against Honduras? Sure. But some decisions (like keeping Pepi on) were risks that you want to see. Starting promising teenagers isn’t always going to work out. Against Honduras, Bello started well but faded, while Pepi started slowly but had a second half for the ages. If you want coaches to continue to take risks for youth, it’s smart to be more forgiving when things do not always go according to plan.
In hindsight, taking Adams out of central midfield was a mistake that should have been seen coming. It’s not that Adams can’t play right back, it’s that he’s too needed in the middle. James Sands can play as a midfielder, but he’s rarely played that role with the U.S. team. Other things, however, weren’t on Berhalter – such as Brooks being a letdown, or Bello struggling, etc.
Now the question becomes about what was learned from this window heading into October.
Pepi’s stock soars
The big story from the game was Ricardo Pepi – who had a hand in all four U.S. goals (scoring once, assisting twice, and having a shot result in a tap-in for the final goal). This is what you want to see – players seizing the moment. Pepi, at just 18 years old, did that in his very first appearance for the U.S. team after he made the decision to represent the U.S. over Mexico.
The U.S. team needed a No. 9 as many of the options have been struggling over the summer. Now, Pepi has emerged as very legitimate option and will surely see a big increase in minutes for the October games.
This is something many have seen coming. Pepi has been putting one of the best seasons in MLS as a domestic teenager since Tyler Adams or Alphonso Davies. He has 11 goals for Dallas, so far and is one of the most exciting young players in the league.
"I thought he did a great job," Berhalter said. "He worked tirelessly, he competed against physical centerbacks, he scored a really good goal, overall he had a strong performance. For an 18 year old, it was really impressive what he did."
Now moving forward, imagine when he will be able to connect with a 100% Pulisic, Reyna, Dest, or a combination of these players. He’s only going to get better.
The morning after the game, legendary U.S. national team fullback and current Las Vegas Lights head coach Steve Cherundolo offered up strong thoughts on Pepi.
"There is always fear as an 18 year old who has had an incredible run for his club and now his country that they're young and not thinking - just reacting,” Cherundolo said. “You don't know exactly how good they are just yet. But I have seen a lot of him this season, I watch a lot of MLS and his attributes, the way he moves and the way he finishes are just beyond his years. He's very, very cool, very calm, very collected, and extremely effective. These are traits that a lot of European clubs are looking for. He also has the physical characteristics as a classic No. 9 would have. He has pace, he's good in the air, he finishes with his feet. He really is the full package. He obviously has a lot to learn, but I am very excited about this player. I think he has a huge ceiling. I haven't had the opportunity to meet him yet, but I really hope he's grounded and hungry. But everything I've seen and everything I've read and heard points in that direction. This is one player I am extremely excited to meet. I think we're going to see a lot him and a lot of goals from him for the U.S. national team."
Both Robinsons emerge
The U.S. team’s backline answered two big questions in that if there is a big game now, Antonee Robinson and Miles Robinson are starters in a full U.S. lineup. Those are important questions.
Antonee Robinson’s recovery speed is remarkable and it is such an asset to the U.S. team. While Fulham were relegated last season, Robinson is coming into his own this year on a team that is now expected to win. He’s a big part of the reason why Fulham look like a promotion contender out of the gate. Now, his strong club play is translating over to the full team.
Similarly, Miles Robinson has the athleticism to be a massive asset to mark opposing attackers out of the game. After a big Gold Cup followed by solid play from Atlanta, Miles Robinson is surging.
Not everything is set along the backline. John Brooks had a rough camp and we do not know the status of the injury to Sergino Dest. But answering two big backline questions is one of the best things to happen this camp outside of the five points and Ricardo Pepi.
The starting lineup
Matt Turner: The New Jersey native made a huge save on Marcelo Pereira in the second half, controlled his box well, and wasn’t at fault for the goal. Good game, good window for the New England goalkeeper. Rating: 6.5
George Bello: The youngster had some nice touches early but drifted out of the game in the first half. He was caught ball-watching on Moya’s goal. Rating: 4.0
John Brooks: Was the biggest culprit of Moya’s goal and was way too passive in the first half. He deserved to be pulled at HT. Rating: 4.0
Mark McKenzie: The Genk defender was a steady presence in the back who had a strong game with duel winning, and who had a hand in the build-up to the second goal. Rating: 6.0
Miles Robinson: The Atlanta United central defender used his athleticism to put out fires and allow the U.S. team to grow into the game. Rating: 7.0
Tyler Adams: Starting at right wingback and then moving to the center of the field, Adams was the most calming and steady presence for the U.S. team and didn’t put in a wrong foot this game. Rating: 7.0
James Sands: Getting the start in midfield, Sands struggled to make anything happen or even provide much defense. He didn’t look prepared for the role he was asked to play. Rating: 4.0
Kellyn Acosta: Acosta fouled a lot in this game – five times – but was smart in how he defended in the first half as the U.S. team was trying to figure things out. His passing was strong all night but it wasn’t until the second half when he began to help the U.S. team offensively. Rating: 6.5
Christian Pulisic: While he looked fatigued and then picked up an injury in the second half, Pulisic worked incredibly hard to give the team a pulse in the first half. Over just 63 minutes, he had six dribbles, won 10/17 duels. While he didn’t dominate, he gave everything for the team. Rating: 7.0
Josh Sargent: Playing out of position at right wing instead of his No. 9, Sargent offered little and was pulled at HT instead of Pepi. Rating: 4.5
Ricardo Pepi: A debut for the ages as the FC Dallas teenager had a hand in all four goals. He was good in the air, with the ball at his feet, and in making runs. He was the story of the game. Rating: 9.0 and Man of the Match
Brenden Aaronson: In addition to the third goal, Aaronson brought a lot of needed aggression to the attack. Rating: 7.5
Sebastian Lletget: The Galaxy attacking midfielder had a massive second half. His late goal was an easy tap-in but his cross set up the first goal and he also set up the third goal. He had 17/21 passing and was 4/6 in duel winning. He delivered what Berhalter asked. Rating: 8.0
Antonee Robinson: His goal in the 48th minute changed the tone of the game for the U.S. team and he was also a part of the build-up to the second goal. Rating: 8.0
DeAndre Yedlin: The Galatasaray right back came in and made a big impact with an assist. Rating: 6.5
Cristian Roldan: The Seattle Sounder was also a useful player as the U.S. team dominated the game late. He didn’t score or assist but was a handful for Honduras. Rating: 6.0