A Clint Dempsey hat-trick and a scintillating playmaking performance from Christian Pulisic got the second Bruce Arena era off to a spectacular start, as the USA swept Honduras aside with an emphatic 6-0 win in San Jose.
On a cold and damp night at the Avaya Stadium, the US not only gained their first points of the Hex round of World Cup qualifying, but jumped over both Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras in the standings, thanks to the goal difference swing from their victory. They now travel to Panama on Tuesday night hoping to complete their climb back into the automatic qualification slots, and out of crisis mode.
After losing their first two World Cup qualifiers (and losing a head coach in the process), the US started Friday’s game just looking for a win rather than any sort of stylish performance – the appointment of Arena as head coach was expected to bring some cool pragmatism into the pressurized qualifying situation he’d inherited, rather than reinvent the team.
In the event, the pragmatic approach of putting players in positions where they might be likely to succeed inspired the US to rediscover some of the confidence and creativity sorely lacking from the defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica that had finally ended the Jürgen Klinsmann years.
It didn’t hurt that the US scored after just five minutes to ease any nerves. Pulisic was key to that opening sequence – his insightful run into the box to meet a deft Jozy Altidore pass ended up with his shot deflecting into the path of Sebastian Lletget for a tap-in.
Lletget’s own cameo in front of his hometown crowd would end after just 18 minutes, as he limped off moments after being badly fouled by Ever Alvarado. It was one of two worrying injuries for the USA on the night – John Brooks was stretchered off in the second half, though initial reports suggested that dehydration rather than an leg injury was the cause, and he should be able to figure against Panama.
The USA had come into the game carrying other injuries – though in the event even that scenario broke in their favor, after the losses of Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris pushed Dempsey into a starting role. The Seattle Sounders player is still making his way back from the season ending heart issue he suffered in late 2016, but there were no lingering signs of fatigue as he, Pulisic, and Jozy Altidore tormented the Honduras defense all night.
Dempsey’s first goal came in the 32nd minute, five minutes after Michael Bradley had slashed a wicked shot across Donis Escober from the edge of the D, to double the lead. Then an impudent chip into the box from Pulisic, worthy of the improvisational best of Dempsey himself, was poked high into the net by Dempsey, under pressure from two defenders.
Honduras had, indeed, tried to start the game pressuring the USA – confounding the expectation that they would look to bunker by trying to lay traps high up the field. And they had their moments at the end of the first half, with a couple of good chances inspired by Erick Andino to cut the lead and perhaps plant a seed of doubt in US minds at half-time.
If there was any such doubt, it only lasted 15 seconds into the second half. That was all the time it took for Pulisic to slide the coolest of finishes under Donis Escober, following another exquisite flick forward from Altidore. Altidore himself would not get on the scoresheet, but would have a key part to play in racking up the goal tally with his movement and touch throughout the evening.
Meanwhile, if Pulisic’s finish on his goal had been precise, an even more sublime touch was to come in the 49th minute, as he spun in midfield and slid an inch perfect ball into the path of Demspey on the edge of the box. Dempsey still had work to do but cooly rounded Escober before finishing low into the net.
The US were rampant at this point and the 18-year-old Pulisic was running at defenders with abandon. In the 54th minute one such run was ended with a foul to the right of the D, which cued Dempsey to hit an audacious outswinging free kick across Escober and inside the far post for his hat-trick.
From there the US understandably sat back, and Honduras did their best to harry them for the remainder of the game – presumably mindful of their own sudden goal difference crisis. But despite Brayan Beckeles sending a stinging shot off the bar just after the hour, they could not beat Tim Howard, himself returning from a long injury absence, and the US maintained their six-goal margin. More importantly for Arena, they’d rediscovered their self-belief.
USA: Howard; Villafaña, Brooks (Ream 70), Gonzalez, Cameron (Zusi 59); Bradley, Nagbe, Lletget (Bedoya 18), Pulisic; Altidore, Dempsey.
Honduras: Escober; Beckeles, Figueroa M, Alvarado, Figueroa H, Izaguirre (Garcia 45); Elis, Espinoza, Claros, Quioto (Andino 43); Najar (Morazán 61).
This article was written by Graham Parker, for theguardian.com on Saturday 25th March 2017 05.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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