Bruce Arena said he didn’t have to agonize long over his decision to start Clint Dempsey in the United States’ World Cup qualifier against Honduras on Friday.
“We didn’t have anyone else,” said Arena, coach of the U.S. national team. “Made it easy for me.”
Then Dempsey made it look easy on the field as well, scoring three times to lead the U.S. to a 6-0 win over Honduras in a game the Americans couldn’t afford to lose.
Michael Bradley, Sebastian Lletget and Christian Pulisic, who had two assists, also scored for the Americans.
But the night belonged to Dempsey, who missed the last four qualifiers because of an irregular heartbeat and came in uncertain how long he’d be able to go Friday. However, with forwards Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris out because of injuries, Arena had no choice but to roll the dice and start Dempsey, who made the gamble pay off.
“He is a guy who has been there for us on so many big nights,” Bradley said. “As important as it for us to have young players in the group, it’s just as important to have guys like Clint …who have been through a lot of tough moments.”
Friday began as one of the toughest. After losing the first two games in CONCACAF qualifying last fall, the U.S. found itself one misstep away from a historic deficit. No country has ever lost the first three matches in the final 10-game qualifying round and made it to the World Cup. Only once has a team earned just a point in its first three games and advanced.
And in their last game, the Americans suffered their most one-sided shutout loss in 59 years.
Against Honduras, they recorded their most one-side victory since the advent of six-team hexagonal round of qualifying in 1997.
“That’s one way to make a statement, I guess,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. “Things can change fast.”
The U.S. came out attacking from the start and it didn’t have to wait long for that aggressiveness to pay off with Sebastian Lletget, playing his first competitive game for the national team less than a mile from where he once played youth soccer, collecting the rebound of a Pulisic shot and tapping it in during the fifth minute.
Less than 10 minutes later Lletget was clipped from behind by Honduran Ever Alvarado, a foul that earned Alvarado a yellow card and led to an early exit for Lletget because of a foot injury.
He will be examined Saturday but is likely out of Tuesday’s qualifier with Panama.
Bedoya, who replaced Lletget, needed just nine minutes to make his presence felt by setting up Bradley, who doubled the U.S. advantage after dribbling through the Honduran defense and surprising goalie Donis Escober with a left-footed shot from about 30 yards.
Dempsey made it 3-0 for the Americans five minutes later, running under a chip from Pulisic at the edge of the box, knocking it down with his right shoulder, then fending off defender Henry Figueroa to drive the ball past Escober while falling to the turf.
It was a goal both stylish and gritty, which also summed up the U.S. effort all night. And playing with the kind of organization and confidence they appeared to lack under Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired as coach after the November losses, the Americans never let up, adding three more scores in the first nine minutes of the second half.
The first came from Pulisic, who lined a right-footed shot from the center of the penalty area into the bottom right corner of the goal just seconds after the intermission. The precocious teenager then assisted on Dempsey’s second goal before Dempsey finished his hat trick on his own, bending in a free kick from just outside the box in the 54th minute.
That gave him 55 international goals, two shy of Landon Donovan’s U.S. record.
“He’s a beast. What can you say about him?” Bedoya asked. “I’m sure in the back of his head he’s going for that scoring record. But he won’t admit it.”
With the win, the U.S. vaulted from last to fourth in the six-team qualifying table with seven games to play. The top three teams automatically advance to the World Cup, something the U.S. is hoping to do for an eighth consecutive time.
But Bradley, the team’s captain, said that’s not likely to happen without a little more drama.
“Qualifying is never easy,” he said. “Every World Cup qualifying cycle I’ve been a part of, there’s certain moments along the way where you step on the field having to win. It’s just reality. It never goes perfectly.”
And then, in a nod to Dempsey, he added: “You have guys who understand that, who know that when big moments come you have no choice but to go for it.”