United States
Ricardo Pepi, USMNT bench spark crucial win over Honduras in World Cup qualifier
United States

Ricardo Pepi, USMNT bench spark crucial win over Honduras in World Cup qualifier

Updated Sep. 9, 2021 12:56 p.m. ET

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

Down 1-0 with 45 minutes to go in Wednesday’s pivotal match against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. men’s national team’s listless start to 2022 World Cup qualifying appeared destined to continue.

The live standings painted a grim picture. Barring an unlikely second-half comeback — only twice in their history had the Americans overturned a deficit to win a qualifier on the road — Gregg Berhalter’s team would sit sixth in the eight-nation "Octagonal" standings with a 0W-1L-2T record, the same sort of hole the USMNT couldn’t dig out of en route to missing the cut for the previous World Cup.


With his team flailing, Berhalter — already missing injured starters Gio Reyna (hamstring) and Sergiño Dest (ankle), plus the exiled Weston McKennie — changed three players and his formation at the break.

It worked. The Americans exploded for four second-half goals, three by substitutes Sebastian Lletget, Antonee Robinson and Brenden Aaronson and another by 18-year-old debutant Ricardo Pepi to give the U.S. a 4-1 victory and the three points it desperately needed to get its qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022 back on track.   

After disappointing ties against Canada and El Salvador earlier this month, Wednesday’s win eases some of the pressure on the USMNT with three more matches scheduled for October.

"This whole window was great for this group," said Berhalter, who started the youngest U.S. lineup ever in a qualifier. "We really needed that in terms of the eye-opening of what this [qualifying] experience actually is. To cap it off with a win, it was important for the standings. The U.S. doesn't come back after giving up a goal too often. The guys showed their resiliency."

The result gives the USMNT five total points and puts them in third place in the eight-team "Octagonal" standings. The top three teams in the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean) automatically make next year’s World Cup in Qatar. The U.S. is desperate to return to the global stage after missing the 2018 event, its lone failure in the past 35 years.

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World Cup qualifying is a zero-sum deal, so the concern was real when the U.S. left four points on the table through the first two games of the 14-match slate. Wednesday’s triumph — which came on the heels of Berhalter's suspending Juventus midfielder McKennie a second straight game for what ESPN reported was multiple violations of team rules — largely makes up for it.

Now, the Americans head back to their clubs on a high note following a tough seven days. They also have some momentum ahead of the October games against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica.

"This is an extremely young group. It has no experience going through this before, and they’re grinding," said Berhalter, who gave 16 players their qualifying debuts this month. "There’s going to be more ups and downs throughout the course of qualifying."

Things were certainly looking down at halftime Wednesday. 

"We needed to compete more," Berhalter said. "When they scored, instead of seeing that reaction that we’re used to, our heads went down a little bit."

So the coach scrapped his five-man backline and went to his bench. The moves paid off immediately, with Aaronson, Lletget and Robinson providing an urgency that had been sorely lacking.

Still, the star of the show was Pepi. After U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic limped off the field with what Berhalter said was an ankle injury, Pepi — the FC Dallas striker who recently committed to the U.S. program over Mexico — helped set up Robinson’s equalizer, then netted the eventual game winner himself.

"[He] worked tirelessly, competed against physical center backs, scored a really good goal," Berhalter said. "For an 18-year-old, it’s really impressive what he did."

In his first match at the senior international level, what Pepi did was establish himself as the USMNT’s first-choice striker going forward, after Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok failed to stake their claim for the position in the first two September contests.

Pepi was also involved in the final two U.S. goals, including setting up Aaronson’s with a seeing-eye pass.

Lletget then added the nightcap by converting the rebound of a Pepi shot three minutes into stoppage time.

"When Gregg told me that I was going to start on the plane on the way here, it was very special," said Pepi, who didn’t play in the first two matches this window, despite the United States' struggle to score. "I was prepared for the moment, and I took advantage of it."

The same could be said for his team. After the drama of the past week — the dropped points at home and the lamentable situation with McKennie, one of the squad’s most irreplaceable members — a shorthanded American side showed real character with their backs against the wall.

While the original goal was to get nine points from the three games, getting five without losing a game is more than respectable. The Americans held serve. Now, with two of three games in the U.S. next month, they’ll look to move up the standings before a date with rival Mexico in Cincinnati in November.

"We took points off a team away from home, and that’s important," Berhalter said.

And not a moment too soon.

One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.


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