A black cloud had descended over the U.S. national team heading into Friday’s World Cup qualifier with Honduras.
That’s both literally and figuratively true.
Literally because a persistent rain fell before, during and after the game, leaving Avaya Stadium as cold and bleak as a Dickens’ novel.
But it’s also figuratively true because two losses in their first two qualifiers had dropped the injury-riddled Americans to the bottom of the six-team CONCACAF table, cost them their coach when Jurgen Klinsmann was fired in November and left their hopes of qualifying for an eighth consecutive World Cup very much in doubt.
But if the U.S. was in crisis that message never made it to the locker room, which is why the Americans’ 6-0 dismantling of Honduras came as no shock to the people on the team.
“I’m not sure anything I saw tonight surprised me,” Bruce Arena, the new coach, said, after watching Clint Dempsey score three goals and Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic combine for a goal and three assists.
“We’ve seen Clint do this before, right?” Arena continued. “That’s not a surprise. We know Jozy’s quality. And Christian, I’ve kind of seen a little bit of this in the last couple of months.
“I’m not surprised that they played well together.”
Really? Not even a little stunned to see a newly aggressive U.S. team score six times on eight shots on goal? Not at all startled to see the 34-year-old Dempsey, forced into the lineup by injuries to two other players, pick up a hat trick three weeks after returning from a six-month absence caused by an irregular heartbeat?
Then there’s Pulisic. Just 18, he’s already proving to be a once-in-a-generation talent, filled with enough moxie and skill to have already mastered both the one-on-one dribble and the eye-rolling response to media questions. As a result, Arena had no qualms using him in a high-pressure playmaking role in central midfield Friday, and he responded by contributing to five of the six U.S. goals.
“Christian is just a natural,” Arena said. “The game’s easy for [him]. He’s got exceptional skills, vision. He’s pretty smooth.”
So is Arena, who last coached the U.S. in a qualifier 12 years ago. He was brought back from the Galaxy last fall to revive a national team that had grown tentative, disorganized and confused. Its last game under Klinsmann, a 4-0 loss in Costa Rica, was the most one-sided shutout loss for a U.S. team in World Cup qualifying in 59 years.
Friday’s margin of victory in Arena’s return, on the other hand, was the team’s largest in the final round of qualifying.
“He had a lot of positives,” Jovan Kirovski, a former national team player under Arena, said of Klinsmann. “It’s just that the group was stale and you could see they needed a boost. And Bruce is the perfect guy to change that.”
Now the challenge becomes maintaining that momentum Tuesday in Panama, where the Americans face their first road test of Arena’s reunion tour.
With the three points earned in Friday’s win, the U.S. vaulted from last to fourth in the qualifying standings, one place shy of a guaranteed World Cup berth.
“We’re making progress. We’re a lot closer to being in the top three, which is obviously critically important,” Arena said. “This is going to be knock-down, drag-out affair right until October.
“It’s nice to be part of it now.”
Away games are particularly difficult in CONCACAF, where oppressive heat, poor field conditions and raucous crowds combine to provide a huge home-field advantage. So while the U.S. has never lost in Panama, the team is taking nothing for granted either.
The black cloud may have lifted under Arena, but the road to Russia 2018 isn’t all rainbows and butterflies just yet.
“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” said captain Michael Bradley, whose play has been noticeably reinvigorated by Arena’s return, with his first-half goal Friday marking his first score for the national team since July 2015.
“We’ve got to get ready for another huge game on Tuesday because the reality is we’re not playing with house money yet. We have to go there with the mentality that we’re taking more points, whether it’s one or three.”