What can we learn from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifier in Honduras?

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There was an uneasy tension in Tuesday’s United States men’s national team media availability, where head coach Gregg Berhalter and star Christian Pulisic answered questions about Weston McKennie’s suspension from the team and Wednesday’s pivotal World Cup qualifier in Honduras.

[ MORE: USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule ]

There are two key words in that long paragraph:

  • Uneasy in that the tension wasn’t simply about the team’s status in qualifying or there mere pressure of a young team and new-ish national team coach playing qualifiers together.
  • Pivotal in that the repercussions of failing to win in San Pedro Sula could leave the USMNT just barely wobbled from its pre-window plans or skidding off the tracks toward a new names being put on the same questions asked of Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena before, during, and after the embarrassment in Couva.

There were several moments with Berhalter that stood out from the Zoom press conference, but just one from Pulisic. It could either be telling or it could be overanalyzing and, again, that’s why that word pivotal keeps poking its head into the picture.

Pulisic was asked when the team found out that Berhalter had decided to bench McKennie for breaking team rules, if they spoke to the player beforehand, and whether the players were on board with the discipline.

What do you think is missing from this answer?

“We didn’t speak to him,” Pulisic said. “We were just obviously told what happened by the coach. Yeah, we were pretty much forced to look past it, which we have, and we’ll look to what’s important and that’s getting results.”

Sooooo, is the program’s first generational talent since Clint Dempsey on board with keeping a beloved team leader off the pitch for the most important games in a potential golden generation’s reaching toward its potential because, well, he did something unnecessarily risky to a team still restoring its reputation?

[ USMNT: McKennie sent back to Italy ]

Feels like a win in Honduras would go a long way toward answering that.

Berhalter bristled at the amount of questions about McKennie and felt uncomfortable giving many details about the players’ indiscretions, neither validating or dismissing reporting from ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that McKennie left the team’s hotel bubble in Nashville and returned with an unwelcome overnight guest.

At one point, he thanked a reporter for asking a question about soccer and not McKennie, a passive-aggressive quip that’s been proffered 100,000 times by hundreds of interviewees and rarely (possibly never) been well-received. On the surface level and in a general sense, Berhalter’s comment makes sense. But this is what controversial incidents — let alone failing to win as heavy favorites in two important matches — bring to the table: Questions.

Remember, this is a team that beat Mexico to the first CONCACAF Nations League and beat the same rivals to the Gold Cup with what could at best be described as its B-plus team. It was stunning, incredible, and a real achievement. It’s why the USMNT wouldn’t just have to lose but be hammered in Honduras to cause any real discussion of a revolution.

And so the McKennie thing is very much some sort of variant of the chicken or the egg debate. McKennie being sent home with five or more points from three matches is a, “Ooh, Berhalter should watch that moving forward.” McKennie being sent home with anything less than five when nine was a realistic goal, on the heels of a cycle that saw the nation fail to make the World Cup?

[ pulls on collar, steam leaves moisture on the ceiling ]

A winning coach can play stars out of position, wait a long time to substitute, call up anyone, stiff anyone else, and send just about anyone home. And if he’s not winning? Well, people start turning Benny Feilhaber into a combination of Roberto Carlos, Cafu, and kale salad.

For those with a younger USMNT fandom, Benny Feilhaber was a very good midfielder who became the Internet’s cure for everything that ailed Jurgen Klinsmann’s men after a 10-goal, 11-assist season with Sporting KC at age 30 coincided with a fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup and a CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico. And this was the main context:

transfermarkt.com

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So, yes, questions. Uneasy, pivotal ones.

“Pressure is part of this job and I realized that very quickly after getting it,” Berhalter said. “I still have to be able to look at the big picture and the long term of qualifying. I want to still remind people that we’re still tied for third with two points along with four other teams. Qualifying is going to be a grind. When we were on these press conferences before qualifying with you, we talked about that. And when we go through it, people are all like, ‘Why is it difficult?’ That’s what qualifying is going to be. The ultimate goal after 14 games is to be in the top three.”

He’s mostly right with a heaping helping of spin filling up his answer.

Qualifying is going to be tough, of course, but do you expect at least one win as the No. 10 ranked team by FIFA away to No. 64 and home to No. 55?

You do. You certainly do.

Honduras is No. 64. And everything is pretty much fine again if the coach and players go out there and do their jobs (which, still, they probably will).

And, as Pulisic insists, there’s no more pressure than there was going to be should the same results come with a full bank of healthy stars.

“It’s not any more emotionally draining because of anything that’s happened,” Pulisic said. “We’ve gotten two points from two games and now it’s important for us to go and get a result.”

There is no one with any level of hope for the USMNT that would disagree with that.