Forty five minutes into the USMNT’s third 2022 World Cup qualifier of this window, the American soccer fanbase was in shambles. While they are notoriously fickle, they had good reason to worry this time: the US was down 1-0 in Honduras after a terrible half in which they were thoroughly outplayed. This game had already taken on an uncomfortable level of importance after a chaotic week.
A draw would have been very disappointing and a loss would have felt catastrophic. The US had sputtered to draws in El Salvador and at home against Canada. Three starters had to go home, two due to injury and one for disciplinary reasons. Playing in San Pedro Sula has always been difficult for the US — they lost 2-1 there in 2013 and drew 1-1 in 2017. Dropping more points would have set the US back further in the competitive qualifying process and eroded faith in coach Gregg Berhalter.
Everything turned around in the second half.
Finally, the US played with some measure of confidence and comfort, finding a combination of players that seemed to really work well together. Led by 18-year-old striker Ricardo Pepi, making his debut, the US hung four on Honduras and emerged with a crucial 4-1 victory. The game ended with Honduras fans calling for their manager’s head and throwing debris at their players. The US somehow ended the week third in the Concacaf standings, tied with Canada and Panama.
How did things change so quickly? Let’s discuss what happened and why.
Berhalter’s experimental 3-4-3 fails in the first half
In an attempt to fix the malaise that has plagued this team, Berhalter switched from his usual 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 against Honduras.
It was a bold decision.
With James Sands playing center defensive midfield, there were essentially four natural center backs on the field. Berhalter decided to shift Tyler Adams to right wingback and Josh Sargent to the wing, placing Pepi up top and Christian Pulisic on the left as a roaming attacker.
There were Jurgen Klinsmann vibes with this formation. It was understandable, and actually a relief, to see Berhalter willing to switch things up and change personnel, but players were playing uncomfortably out of position. Tactically, the formation did not work at all.
Adams is too important as a center midfielder to be playing on the right. He played well, but Honduras had an easy time against an overwhelmed Sands-Kellyn Acosta midfield pairing. With two midfielders instead of three, there was too much space between the attackers and the midfielders. That weakness hurt the US in two ways: 1) the US failed to maintain competent possession with such a disconnect, allowing Honduras to pin the US back; and 2) the US struggled to establish a defensive shape as Sands and Acosta tried to compensate for the gap, leaving the back three stranded in space against a fast, aggressive Honduras team.
The decision to play Sands in defensive midfield did not work out. Sands had played well at the Gold Cup in that spot, but he looked out of sorts on Wednesday. In addition, while Acosta covered well defensively, he’s not going to provide much in the way of progressive passing. The front three never got the ball in good spots as a result, and when they did, they couldn’t do much with it.
The issues with the US’s backline exasperated the midfield difficulties. John Brooks, playing in the center of the back three, struggled to step to the ball. He got beat on Honduras’s 27th-minute goal. George Bello, playing left wingback, got caught ball-watching on the goal and was often beaten to the ball. Neither Bello nor Adams was able to get into attack, despite Adams being open frequently on the right touchline.
Nothing about the 3-4-3 was working. Honduras started the game on the front foot and pressed, going direct to goal and making it difficult for the US to possess. In the rare times that the US was able to outlet and bypass Honduras’s press, the attackers would either get stonewalled or make a conservative backpass. Sargent, playing out of position on the wing, was completely ineffective.
It was confusing that given the personnel on the field, the US didn’t play a 3-5-2 with Sargent next to Pepi up top and Acosta at right wingback, allowing Adams to play next to Sands in midfield with Pulisic ahead of them centrally. That would have given the US more numbers in midfield and an intriguing striker combination that could play off of each other. Width would have been an issue, but it’s not like the US were getting wide at all even in the 3-4-3.
Berhalter makes three subs and adjusts for the second half
For all the Klinsmann memories that the failed tactical changes brought up, Berhalter, to his credit, recognized it and made big changes for the second half. He pinpointed the weaknesses and made three bold, effective substitutions that turned the game on its head.
He subbed off Brooks, who was bad in the first half, and switched to a four-at-the-back. Sebastian Lletget entered for Brooks to provide Sands and Acosta with a third midfielder. Bello sat for Antonee Robinson, upgrading at left back and adding a more direct attacking threat. Brenden Aaronson, who is comfortable and creative on the ball, came on for the struggling Sargent.
The changes solved most everything that had been going wrong. The midfield was no longer outnumbered, and was able to win second balls. The front three wasn’t disconnected anymore, and the backline wasn’t on an island. Aaronson provided a level of ball control and scoring threat that Sargent never could.
“We needed to push up much quicker and condense the field, we needed to give our midfielders smaller spaces to be able to win balls, we wanted to be more aggressive high-pressing them, we thought that would lead to turnovers and the subs did a great job all night,” Berhalter said after the game, per The Athletic.
Robinson got forward and scored an equalizer in the 48th-minute on a Lletget cross. The US kept up the pressure and made another effective substitution in the 73rd-minute, replacing Sands with DeAndre Yedlin to allow Adams to move back centrally. It was Yedlin who provided the cross to Pepi for the go-ahead goal two minutes later.
The US would add two more goals late in the game, courtesy of Aaronson and Lletget. Substitutes scored three of the four goals and contributed to all four. All of Berhalter’s tactical changes worked.
The Ricardo Pepi game
As we’ll talk about more in a wider review of this US window, Pepi was outstanding in his debut. He was the best player on the field, playing a role in every US goal. He played with his back to goal and made effective passes. He crashed the box and found chances. He made good, hard runs that opened space for teammates. He pressed with urgency, winning the ball and generating transition opportunities.
It’s clear that Pepi should be starting the biggest games up front, ahead of Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Gyasi Zardes, and whoever else is challenging for the No. 9 spot. That position has been the US’s most notable weakness. Pepi made it look like a strength against Honduras. The result was a crucial three points.