ST. PAUL, Minn. – The U.S. strategically picked frigid Minnesota for this match to minimize travel time, maintain consistency of conditions and, of course, gain an edge over an opponent from a tropical country.
The Americans sure didn't need the advantage against winless Honduras.
They have a commanding, complete and confidence-boosting performance to build on, once they thaw out.
Weston McKennie and Walker Zimmerman had first-half goals to give the U.S. an early spark on a frigid night and a fresh Christian Pulisic scored after entering in the second half, leading the Americans past Honduras 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday night.
“Right from the opening whistle,” coach Gregg Berhalter said, “I knew that we were in good control.”
Goalkeeper Matt Turner didn't have to make a single save for the Americans, who emerged from the pandemic-altered schedule — forcing games in January and February — in second place with three matches to go. The U.S. outshot Honduras 16-2 and had 71.8% possession.
“Once you get in that game mode, you just are out there competing, and that’s all that really matters,” Zimmerman said.
The kickoff temperature was 3 degrees (minus-16 Celsius) with a minus-14 wind chill at Allianz Field, selected by the U.S. Soccer Federation along with Columbus, Ohio, to bracket a road game against Canada.
The Americans beat El Salvador 1-0 on Thursday, when it was 29 in Ohio. They lost 2-0 to Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, when it was 22. The weather in Minnesota was a whole different level of chill, the coldest in U.S. team history and in violation of USSF guidelines for safe outdoor play. The game ended with a 1-degree temperature.
“It was freezing out here. I’m looking forward to getting into the locker room,” Pulisic said.
Still, the match was a sellout — an announced crowd of 19,202 — with red-white-and-blue-clad fans clutching their complimentary hand warmers and however many layers they could find in their closets. Players wore skin-tight thermal tops and black gloves, but most of them had bare skin exposed on their knees as they jogged and jumped around on the grass at 3-year-old stadium that's supported by subsurface heating coils.
“It’s easy on a night like tonight to just stay home and sit in front of the TV and stay warm in your living room, but these fans came out and came out with energy,” said Berhalter, who seized an opportunity during a second half break to oblige some fans behind the bench by posing for a photo.
Honduras didn't have as much fun.
“I don't think they wanted any part of that,” Zimmerman said.
Eliminated from contention at home on Sunday, the Catrachos had to travel all day on Monday and practiced indoors on Tuesday. Goalkeeper Luis López and forward Rommel Quioto did not return for the second half due to what was described as hypothermia.
“Soccer shouldn’t be endured this way. I've got all my players getting treatment, some players getting an IV,” said Hernán Darío Gómez, who has taken three nations to the World Cup.
Berhalter defended the USSF decision to play here, pointing to the thermal head coverings the Americans provided to Honduras before the match.
“When we go down to those countries and it’s 90 degrees and 90% dew point and it’s unbearable humidity and guys are getting dehydrated and cramping up and getting heat exhaustion, that’s the nature of our competition,” Berhalter said.
McKennie had on two sets of gloves, peeling off one pair as he came to the bench after being replaced in the 84th. The star midfielder scored on a header in the eighth minute, fittingly after joking on a video interview the day before that his big head ought to minimize any discomfort from a frozen ball in the February chill.
That was McKennie’s ninth international goal, his second in World Cup qualifying, and it proved to be enough for the Americans on this night.
“He brings a lot of swagger to the team,” Zimmerman said.
Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 25 points, followed by the U.S. (21), which is ahead of Mexico on goal difference. Panama (17) is fourth and Costa Rica (16) fifth.
The top three nations qualify for this year’s tournament in Qatar, and fourth place advances to a playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
After no goals off set pieces in the first 10 qualifiers, the U.S. scored three in this one.
The second goal was set up by Kellyn Acosta, who started in the defensive midfield for the first time since the October loss at Panama. Acosta's free kick whizzed past the head of a leaping Jordan Morris, and Zimmerman pivoted around defender Denil Maldonado in the 37th minute.
The ball glanced off Zimmerman’s left leg, and he kicked it in with his right from 5 yards for his third international goal. Zimmerman had on the captain’s armband for the night, and the Americans have four wins and one loss when he wears it.
“That comes naturally for me. I take a lot of pride in representing this country,” Zimmerman said.
Pulisic scored about three minutes after entering. Acosta's corner kick was headed by Ricardo Pepi to Zimmerman, and the ball bounced off a leg to the right foot of Pulisic. He scored from near the penalty spot with his second touch of the game — his 18th international goal.
“It’s my job to come in and make a difference, and I’m glad I did,” Pulisic said.
NOTES: Raúl Jiménez converted a penalty kick in the 80th after Diego Lainez was fouled by Abdiel Ayarza, lifting Mexico over visiting Panama 1-0. ... Costa Rica won 1-0 at Jamaica and eliminated the Reggae Boyz as Joel Campbell scored in the 62nd ... Unbeaten Canada won 2-0 at El Salvador for its sixth straight victory. Atiba Hutchinson scored in the 66th when Cyle Larin’s cross ricocheted three times — off the near post, defender Eriq Zavaleta and Hutchison’s back — and went in. Jonathan David added a goal in the third minute of stoppage time, his ninth of qualifying.
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