From Disaster to Salvation

18-Year-Old Ricardo Pepi's Game-Winner Helps Rescue the USMNT and Silences a Stadium

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SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — You hear and read a lot about what it’s like for the USMNT to face hostile fans in Central America during World Cup qualifying. But only on rare occasions does the script get flipped, and that hostility turns inward, and you have a scene like the one in the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano after the U.S.’s 4-1 come-from-behind victory on Thursday night. 

The Honduran fans rained debris on their own team.

After the U.S. scored three goals in the final 15 minutes, the Honduran supporters revolted. They threw bottles at their players, who tried to evade the barrage by running into the stadium tunnel through a protective line of helmeted police officers holding their shields in the air. They chanted in anger at the Honduran coach, Fabián Coito, yelling ¡FUERA COITO! (COITO OUT!) They whistled and shook their fists. Honduras is a proud soccer country, and honor is a powerful thing. La H’s second-half performance, they were saying loud and clear, had not been honorable.

Hondurans in the stadium have been friendly to American visitors the four times I have been here. So it was a strange feeling to walk through that stadium concerned about your safety, but only because you might get caught in the crossfire of Hondurans vs. Hondurans.

These are the extremes of this sport: Only 45 minutes earlier, when the U.S. was losing 1-0 at halftime and playing miserable soccer, the USMNT Twittertariat was asking who would replace coach Gregg Berhalter when he was fired. Maybe Bruce Arena? (Killing it in MLS, but the fans would revolt after his U.S. team failed to qualify for the World Cup last time.) Former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger? (Too busy trying to force biannual World Cups on us for FIFA.) Jesse Marsch? (No way he’d leave Leipzig right now.) Or perhaps Bob Bradley? (You know, not a bad idea.)

But then came three smart Berhalter subs for the start of the second half and four U.S. goals in the next 45 minutes that made the entire discussion seem ridiculous. None of those goals was more important than the 75th-minute game-winner by an 18-year-old forward from El Paso, Texas, who was making his international debut—a teenager who had become the second-youngest American, after Christian Pulisic, to appear in a World Cup qualifier. 

“When I decided to play for the United States, I said that I was going to give all my heart to the team, and tonight I showed that.” — Ricardo Pepi

Only two weeks ago, Ricardo Pepi of FC Dallas had ended the fevered speculation over his international future by deciding to represent the U.S. over Mexico. He had spent the past two U.S. games, both disappointing draws, watching from the bench as other center forwards (Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok) had failed to make a significant impact. But now Pepi was rising in the air to head DeAndre Yedlin’s pinpoint cross into the goal and give the U.S. a victory—its first final-round away qualifier win since October 2013—that might define this entire World Cup qualifying campaign.

“When I decided to play for the United States, I said that I was going to give all my heart to the team, and tonight I showed that,” Pepi said after the game in a press conference during which he switched easily from English to Spanish.

“I think [Pepi] did a great job,” said Berhalter. “He worked tirelessly, competed against physical center backs, scored a really good goal. Overall, I think he had a strong performance. For an 18-year-old, it’s really impressive what he did.”

It was only one game, of course, but Pepi’s performance shows that he deserves more chances to start for the national team, especially since no other No. 9 has established himself in that spot. Pepi is enjoying a terrific season for Dallas with 11 goals, making him the league’s top U.S. goal-scorer, and he has yet to show at any point that he’s in over his head. For years, the USMNT and its fan base have been looking for a genuine Mexican American star—someone who might attract more Mexican American fans to the Stars & Stripes—and in Pepi they may finally find one. 

What changed at halftime? Berhalter switched to his more customary 4-3-3 formation from a 3-4-3. In the first half, Berhalter said, his back line hadn’t pushed up quickly enough; the wingbacks weren’t releasing fast enough; the attacking midfielders needed to be more central and deeper to win second balls; and the system wasn’t conducive to high-pressing. For the second half, he changed personnel, bringing on Antonee Robinson at left back (for George Bello), Brendan Aaronson on the wing (for Sargent) and Sebastian Lletget (adding a midfielder in place of the ineffective defender John Brooks). 

All three of those subs scored in the second half and brought an increase in energy, allowing for more pressing up top. What’s more, the U.S. coaching staff was dumbfounded that Honduras made its own halftime tactical change that played directly into the U.S.’s hands by going from four men to three on its back line.

“We wanted to go back to 4-3-3, be more aggressive coming out, pressing high, and that had a good effect on the game,” Berhalter said afterward. “It also gave us some good numbers in the midfield, and it also helped that [Honduras] changed their formation and made it very easy to press when they were playing with three in the back.”

And while it was still mystifying that Berhalter played Adams at right back instead of Kellyn Acosta—Adams had merely been the U.S.’s best central midfielder this month—Adams still managed to have an impact on the game, especially after he moved centrally in the 73rd minute to replace the overmatched James Sands as Yedlin took over at right back.

“You saw how much more comfortable we were in the 4-3-3,” said Adams after the game. “We had more numbers in the midfield. I think in the first half it was very difficult for James and Kellyn and the transition moments, because if you miss that first tackle it's three against one, so that was difficult. But in the second half, when we had more numbers in the midfield, I think that helped us.”

Robinson scored the equalizer just three minutes into the second half with a classy finish—Pepi did some solid hold-up work on the play—and celebrated with a backflip. But the chances for a U.S. win looked grim when Pulisic left the game in the 62nd minute with an ankle injury. Despite missing several big-name players—Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest—the U.S. opened the floodgates with three more goals. The silence in the stadium after each U.S. goal was overwhelming, eerie even. And then the fans just got angry.

With an exhausting three games in this FIFA window, the U.S. also had more depth than Honduras. “We had fresh legs out there, so that always helps,” said Aaronson, who had his second goal in as many games. “When Christian goes down, you take a deep breath because he’s our best player. So it’s tough, but people stepped up. Cristián Roldán came in and made a huge difference. It’s just the next-man-up mentality.”

Or as Adams put it: “I think you saw the character of the team now.”

Ahead of the Honduras game, one USMNT story dominated the week. Berhalter sent the 23-year-old McKennie home to Italy on Monday for what the coach described as a “violation of team policy.” It was the first time in the modern era of the USMNT going back to 1990 that anyone could remember a player being sent home in the middle of a camp for disciplinary reasons. That these were important World Cup qualifiers, and that McKennie is one of the team’s most important players, only heightened the significance of the news. McKennie ended up missing both the Canada and Honduras games.

“There are high expectations for those who are a part of the U.S. men’s national team,” Berhalter said, “and in order to be successful it’s important that everyone in the group is accountable.”

Berhalter says McKennie, shown here at June’s Nations League final, can return to the national team (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What did McKennie actually do? ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported that McKennie was sent home for multiple violations, including spending a night outside the team’s Covid-19 bubble in Nashville, as well as bringing an unauthorized person back inside the bubble to his hotel room on a different evening. (TUDN’s Daniel Nohra was the first to report the second part.) In my own reporting, I was able to confirm only that McKennie had an unauthorized person in his hotel room.

Earlier this year, McKennie had a similar incident at his club, Juventus. During a tight Serie A race last spring, McKennie and two Juve teammates (Paulo Dybala and Arthur) were fined and suspended a game by the club after the American hosted a dinner party that broke Italy’s Covid protocols.

Still, it was a bold decision by Berhalter to leave out a difference-maker, not least because the U.S. was missing Dortmund winger Reyna for the Canada and Honduras games and Barcelona fullback Dest for Honduras due to injuries. If it were simply down to which choice Berhalter could make that would more likely earn his team points, he would have kept McKennie on the field entirely or suspended him for only one game instead of two. On the day before the Honduras game, reporters peppered Berhalter with questions about McKennie. 

“We made this decision not only for the short-term but for the long-term health of the program. And it’s not an easy decision—trust me,” Berhalter said, noting that McKennie could return to the national team in the future. “Countless coaches are faced with decisions where they have to take talented players out of the lineup for some reason or another. But we did it for what we think is the good of the group. … People make mistakes, Weston apologized to the group. He apologized to me, and things happen. I guess the most important message we’re trying to get through is that we’re here in camp for seven days, and the intensity is incredible. It’s three finals in seven days, and we need everyone’s single-minded focus on what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Pulisic played a role in the first U.S. goal but had to leave with an ankle injury soon thereafter (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Here’s another thing to think about: As I did my reporting on the situation, a source with knowledge of the details told me that McKennie’s actions were viewed by U.S. Soccer as severe enough that he would have been sent home even if Covid hadn’t existed. That’s why the federation used the wording that McKennie had committed “a violation of team policy” and not “a violation of team Covid protocols,” as McKennie had put it on Instagram. 

That said, the team’s Covid protocols, devised by U.S. Soccer chief medical officer George Chiampas, were a big part of camp. Players slept one to a hotel room, as opposed to having roommates as they usually do, and they ate meals in socially-distanced four-player pods. Vaccinated players were allowed at times to see vaccinated family and friends either outdoors or combined with mask-wearing at a few indoor occasions. 

But the protocols tightened up even more when goalkeeper Zack Steffen, already dealing with back spasms, tested positive for the coronavirus when the team returned from El Salvador to join him in Nashville. That meant increased testing for all the players, especially Steffen’s pod mates, who continued to give negative results.

How did McKennie even get caught? That remains unknown. It’s hard to imagine that a teammate would narc on him. But over the years, USMNT head coaches have at times assigned staff to monitor players, and every coach has set his own tone with the team on how strict he will be in establishing team rules and enforcing them. On Tuesday, I spoke by phone to a former USMNT regular who played for multiple head coaches. (It wasn’t my podcast partner Landon Donovan.)

“When Bob [Bradley] first got the head-coaching job in 2006, he thought Bruce [Arena]’s reign was a bit too loose, and he wanted to make sure things were a little bit more buttoned-up,” the player said. “So they had bed checks at Bob’s first January camp, and there would be some times when there were people waiting in lobbies when we had a curfew, to see if all the players got in by that time. Other U.S. coaches had curfews, but it didn’t go so far as having someone sit in the lobby to make sure players got in on time.”

The former player said that beyond the coaches, the U.S. players themselves held each other accountable. “When I messed up, it wasn’t just the coaching staff telling me, ‘You came in late yesterday, make sure you’re on time.’ When I stepped on a line, I got stick from the boys. Bob tried to make sure his team had leaders off the field as well. So it wasn’t just the coaching staff.” (Whether the current young U.S. player group has many vocal leaders remains in question. Tyler Adams is the only obvious one.)

Jurgen Klinsmann, who succeeded Bradley in 2011, had rules against player agents being in hotel lobbies and regularly set team meetings for 10 p.m., which annoyed European-based players—who were often adjusting to the time change—and also prevented players from going out. The former player told me Klinsmann and Arena said players were on the honor system about making curfew. Federation people who have been around all those coaches say Berhalter is somewhere between Arena (loose) and Bradley (tighter) on the strictness spectrum. With McKennie, Berhalter’s staff was monitoring closely enough to detect what he’d done.

The difference between a win and a loss on Wednesday was massive. Five points from the week means the U.S. is in second place in the tournament behind Mexico and on track to qualify for the World Cup. But two points from the first three games, which is how things were looking at halftime? That would have meant ratcheted-up pressure, relentless public negativity, continued focus on the McKennie story, reminders for the next month of the last cycle’s qualifying failure and a dialed-up hot seat for Berhalter. 

Not everything is fixed, obviously, and much will need to improve in the three World Cup qualifiers next month. At a time when the sport’s organizers are burdening the players with an unhealthy number of games, it seems unlikely that all the top U.S. players will be fit next month. But they know now that they can score goals and win qualifiers without all their best players. 

They know now how to silence a stadium and turn a nation’s fans against their own team.

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