By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. — After all the pregame hand-wringing about the danger the frigid temperatures and the already eliminated Hondurans might pose to their chances of returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2014, the US Men’s National Team brushed off both concerns with an emphatic 3-0 win Wednesday.
Weston McKennie sent the hosts on their way with a perfectly placed header just eight minutes in …
Weston McKennie gives the USMNT a 1-0 lead over Honduras
After a Honduras foul, the USMNT execute the set piece from the front third to perfection, leading to a goal from Weston McKennie. The header gives the USMNT an early 1-0 lead over Honduras.
… and Walker Zimmerman doubled the Americans’ advantage shortly before halftime, giving the US some badly needed breathing room …
Walker Zimmerman doubles USMNT’s lead off another beautiful set piece
The USMNT grabbed a 2-0 lead over Honduras late in the first half off another set-piece goal, this time from Walker Zimmerman.
… before Christian Pulisic put the contest out of reach just minutes after coming on the field as a second-half substitute.
Christian Pulisic pushes USMNT’s lead to 3-0 with corner kick
Coming off the bench, Christian Pulisic subs in and quickly makes an impact, scoring off a corner kick. The goal gives the USMNT a 3-0 lead over Honduras in the 67th minute.
Here are three takeaways from a crucial victory for the USMNT.
A statement win for the US
All sorts of legitimate questions were being asked of the Americans after the first two games of this window. The US were not convincing in last week’s 1-0 win over El Salvador in Ohio and even less so in a 2-0 loss to Octagonal-leading Canada on Sunday. That defeat north of the border, in which the visitors managed just three shots on goal, had alarm bells ringing heading into the third and final match of this January/February slate.
With Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica all within striking distance from the second-place US in CONCACAF’s eight-team standings and just three automatic spots for Qatar 2022 available, anything less than three points in the Twin Cities would’ve been disastrous — especially with head-to-head matchups against all three of those nations looming in the final window in March.
Nerves were frayed, and the conditions were downright awful Wednesday. With a temperature of 5 degrees at kickoff, it was the coldest match in the 109-year history of the national team.
The Americans overcame all of it. Coach Gregg Berhalter made seven changes to the lineup that was lost in Canada. Out came usual starters Pulisic, Brendan Aaronson, Sergiño Dest and Yunus Musah. Back in went Zimmerman and Tim Weah, who didn’t play in Ontario, plus Kellyn Acosta, Reggie Cannon, Jordan Morris, Luca de la Torre and Ricardo Pepi.
The fresh legs paid off. De la Torre was clean with the ball and incisive with his passing. Acosta helped set up all three goals off dead-balls — the first three set-piece strikes the US have scored in their 11 qualifiers.
And the weather, while brutal for both teams, impacted the visitors more.
“Especially in the second half, I didn’t notice it very much,” De la Torre said afterward.
The resounding scoreline should restore a measure of confidence to a team that needed it. The first two games of this window weren’t great. This one couldn’t have gone much better.
“The hope is that it gives us a lot of momentum, not just because we got three points but the way that we got three points,” Zimmerman said. “I thought it was a statement in the way that we competed, and it definitely looked like the most dynamic performance that we’ve had, especially this window.”
McKennie a fitting hero
McKennie arrived at this camp playing the best soccer of his career for Italian powerhouse Juventus, and the rangy Texan was easily the top US player against both the Salvadorans and the Canadians.
With the struggling Pulisic’s legs saved for later in the match, McKennie took his game to an even higher level Wednesday. His endless running, despite the conditions, for 84 minutes is all the more impressive when considering he went the full 90 in each of the first two games.
“He’s dominant — I think he’s one of the best midfielders in this region, if not the best,” Berhalter said postgame. “It’s great to have a strong performance from Weston. We’ve almost come to expect that from him.”
Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic headline USMNT’s crucial win vs. Honduras
The USMNT picked up a much-needed, bounce-back win against Honduras, with goals from Weston McKennie, Walker Zimmerman and Christian Pulisic. Honduras managed just two shots in the loss.
The concern before kickoff was that the longer the match remained scoreless, the more pressure the home side would feel. But McKennie’s inch-perfect early header removed much of that anxiety.
“Amazing header from him — you can tell that he just brings a lot of swagger to the team,” Zimmerman said. “It was huge getting the first goal. [Scoring] is something that we haven’t been able to do early on in games enough, and you can just tell that it provided a big boost for us, and it really hurt Honduras.”
All eyes on March
Qualifying almost always comes down to the end, and this cycle probably won’t be any different. Costa Rica continue to climb the standings after taking seven points in the past week.
Mathematically, the US can clinch a World Cup berth in their very next match — at Mexico — after The Tri topped Panama later Wednesday. But the Americans would need considerable help; The Canaleros would need to lose again, and Costa Rica would have to do no more than tie, in addition to the US winning in Mexico City, something they’ve never done in 16 tries.
Still, the USMNT, who have beaten Tata Martino’s team in three consecutive competitive meetings, are looking to make history.
“Hopefully we can take a lot of positives from this game, keep up the things that we did well and carry that into the next window and be ready to go in Azteca,” Zimmerman said.
“We’re definitely going into Mexico going for three points, going for a win.”
‘This one was special’ — Walker Zimmerman on USMNT’s win over Honduras
Walker Zimmerman speaks about the USMNT’s 3-0 win over Honduras on Wednesday. “This one was special,” he says. “The fans were incredible.”
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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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism