Injuries, discipline and COVID disrupt US in qualifying

Sports

United States forwards Christian Pulisic (10) and Josh Sargent (9) leave the pitch following a 1-1 draw with Canada in a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — Two starters are injured, another tested positive for COVID-19 and a fourth was sent home as punishment. The star is regaining fitness after a bout with coronavirus.

Less than a week into World Cup qualifying, much has gone wrong for the United States, which is back at another challenging Central American stadium. The Americans play Honduras on Wednesday night with intense pressure, key absences and a messy discipline issue following disappointing draws against El Salvador and Canada.

“If I’m a fan, I’m not happy with two points after two games, I’m not,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Tuesday evening at the team’s hotel. “And I can understand frustration. That’s completely normal. But you have to look at the big picture. This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You don’t qualify in one window. There’s a five separate windows that you get a chance to qualify for.”

Mexico (2-0) leads the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with six points going into its game at second-place Panama (1-0-1), which has four. Canada (0-0-1) is third on total goals over Honduras and the U.S., with El Salvador farther back, Costa Rica (0-1-1) and Jamaica (0-2) lag.

“I think the group is ready to respond,” star attacker Christian Pulisic said. “We know that we’re a good enough team to go into tomorrow and to get three points.”

If the U.S. fails to win and has just two or three points from its first three games, it would mark the Americans’ worst start to the final round of qualifying since ending a 40-year absence by reaching the 1990 World Cup.

Even when the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, they followed an opening 2-1 loss at home to Mexico and a 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica with a 6-0 home rout of Honduras. The first two defeats led to Jurgen Klinsmann being fired and replaced by Bruce Arena.

“I can see it being just memories of the past, memories of last qualifying round coming back and people saying, oh, we’re in the same situation, I can understand that completely,” Berhalter explained. “What I’d say is this is a different group and we’re focused on winning games. We’re focused on getting points. And the thing is, we haven’t lost a game in qualifying. Sometimes you have to remind people.”

This isn’t a must-win game, not following the round’s expansion from 10 matches to 14 due to the pandemic. But a fail to come away from Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano with three points would make the Oct. 7 match against Jamaica at Austin, Texas, close to ssential.

“We know that we could have done better in both our games,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “Our mentality has been shaped over the years about response and how we respond to adversity.”

The United States entered qualifying ranked 10th, its highest since 2006 following titles in the CONCACAF Nations League and CONCACAF Gold Cup. With Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest, they headed into qualifying with what appeared to be their most-talented roster.

But Pulisic missed last Thursday’s opening 0-0 draw at El Salvador while getting back to fitness following COVID, Reyna strained a hamstring in that game and Dest sprained an ankle in Sunday’s 1-1 tie against Canada in Nashville, Tennessee. Pulisic returned for that game but McKennie was dropped for violating team COVID-19 protocols, then was sent back to his Italian club Juventus by Berhalter on Monday.

And No. 1 goalkeeper Zack Steffen is missing all three qualifiers with back spasms followed by a positive COVID test.

Players were unhappy with their performance Sunday.

“I feel like a tie wasn’t good enough for us,” said midfielder Brenden Aaronson, who scored the goal against Canada. “We know we can move the ball faster to open up more gaps to get players involved.”

No. 63 Honduras, seeking its fourth World Cup appearance after 1982, 2010 and 2014, will be playing its home opener following a 1-1 draw at Canada and 0-0 tie at El Salvador. FIFA and CONCACAF, soccer’s regional governing body, allow the use of substandard fields, leaving American players to say conditions are difficult for professionals used to European leagues and Major League Soccer.

The Catrachos changed nine starters for their second game, including their defensive line, so they may have fresher legs.

Since winning 3-2 at Honduras in the 2009 qualifier, the U.S. lost 2-1 in 2013 and tied 1-1 in 2017.

Berhalter and his players had hoped to arrive with six points.

“People are like, whoa, why didn’t we win for the first two games? Why didn’t we win them 4-0 the first two games?” Berhalter said. “We said it’s going to be difficult. There’s going to be a lot of challenges. There’s going to be unexpected things happening. You’re going to get injuries. You’re going to not perform well in one game. You’re not going to finish some chances. That’s what qualifying is going to be. And our job was to hang in there because the ultimate goal is after 14 games, is to be in the top three.”

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