U.S. can breathe easy after impressive World Cup qualifying win vs. Honduras
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The U.S. men's national team got its World Cup qualifying campaign back on track with a 6-0 shellacking of Honduras on Friday night. Clint Dempsey led the way with a hat trick, while the U.S. also received goals from Sebastian Lletget, Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic.
Here are three thoughts on a massive performance from the U.S.:
1. U.S. gets some relief after big win
This was a night when just about everything went right for Bruce Arena's side. The U.S. scored early through Lletget in the fifth minute, and padded its lead with two more first-half goals from Bradley and Dempsey that were scored just five minutes apart. In the back, there were some shaky moments, but the shots that made their way to goalkeeper Tim Howard were usually right at him.
The U.S. poured it on in the second half as Pulisic scored after just 13 seconds, Dempsey slotted home another in the 49th minute and then completed his hat trick with a gorgeous free kick five minutes later.
As a result, all of the negativity surrounding the team was washed away, and the team's World Cup prospects, which invited doubt after the first two games of the Hexagonal, now look much more encouraging. The win, even with Trinidad & Tobago's victory over Panama, means the U.S. has caught up with the pack, level with Honduras and T&T, and ahead of both teams on goal difference. More importantly, the U.S. now finds itself just a point behind third-place Panama, which it plays Tuesday in Panama City.
So what was the difference? A change in manager, at least in the short term, oftentimes provides an emotional boost, and that appeared to be the case here. Without question, the U.S. looked to be a more confident and cohesive side. Having Dempsey's predatory instincts back in the lineup for the first time since last summer's Copa America was certainly a help as well. The maturation of Pulisic, who in addition to his goal added two assists, was evident for all to see as well.
Perhaps most importantly, this is still a proud group, one that had to stew over a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Costa Rica for four months. All of that pent-up frustration was taken out on the Catrachos.
2. Dempsey still has it
Think of it this way: Three months ago it wasn't even clear if Dempsey would be able to continue his career after an irregular heartbeat forced him to be shut down for the last four months of the 2016 MLS campaign. A week ago, after starting the first two games of the 2017 MLS season, Dempsey was expected to be nothing more than a substitute in these matches. Even when Bobby Wood was removed from the roster due to a back injury, there were plenty observers who thought Jordan Morris was the more natural fit to take Wood's place. An ankle injury eventually forced Morris out of Friday's match, but Dempsey's inclusion in the lineup made complete sense. He had the experience, a longstanding partnership with Jozy Altidore and plenty of confidence from Arena.
Even then, no one could have expected a performance like he delivered at Avaya Stadium. His only one previous hat trick in a U.S. uniform was on July 18, 2015, against lowly Cuba. The goals showed off his entire repertoire as well. The first was an authoritative finish with Honduran defender Henry Figueroa draped all over him, the second a clear breakaway in which he rounded the keeper to slot home and the last was a free kick hit with perfection.
Now, Dempsey is clearly indispensable again, and his 55 career U.S. goals now leave him just two behind Landon Donovan's record of 57. Of course, when Wood heals up, Arena will have something of a selection headache on his hands, but considering all of the injuries he's had to deal with, that's a problem he'll be happy to have.
3. Arena's attack-heavy lineup pays off
Say this for Arena: He has guts. Given that the U.S. entered the match rock bottom of the Hexagonal, the U.S. manager would have been forgiven for showing a more conservative lineup. But instead, Arena, mindful that Honduran counterpart Jorge Luis Pinto would play five at the back, opted to put as many attacking pieces on the field as possible. There was room in the side for both Lletget and Darlington Nagbe, as well as 18-year-old wunderkind Pulisic. It was perhaps telling as well that there was no place for the more defensive-minded Alejandro Bedoya. Arena even opted to put Jorge Villafana, making just his second international appearance for the U.S., in at left-back over the more experienced DaMarcus Beasley.
All told, the moves worked a treat. Lletget cleaned up a rebound from Pulisic's shot in the fifth minute. Bradley's worm-burner put the U.S. up 2-0 in the 27th minute. But Dempsey, making his first start since last summer's Copa America Centenario, scored the pick of the first-half bunch. Pulisic's lofted ball found Dempsey in stride, and the Seattle Sounders forward held off a defender to lash his shot into the top corner.
Even another injury wasn't enough to throw the U.S. off its stride. Lletget was hauled down by Ever Alvarado in the 15th minute, a foul that saw the Honduran defender earn a yellow card. Lletget tried to carry on with a left ankle injury but was forced to make way in the 18th minute for Bedoya. Yet the U.S. continued with its attacking ways, and Bedoya put in a hardworking shift while assisting on Bradley's goal as well.
Honduras did respond, continually attacking Geoff Cameron's side, and should have pulled a goal back just before halftime when substitute Erick Andino had a glorious chance, only for John Brooks to get the slightest of deflections.
To the Americans' credit, they kept up their attacking instincts in the second half. Pulisic scored from a terrific through ball from Altidore, who was involved and impressive all night. Dempsey then scored twice more to complete his hat trick.
If there was one downside to the night, it was the injuries to Lletget and Brooks. But this was a night when the depth in the U.S. team came to the fore, and Arena and his charges will be confident they can do the same on Tuesday.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.