The U.S. men’s national team players were probably only just starting to thaw out in their hotel rooms a few hours after their 3-0 win over Honduras in Minnesota when Mexico’s victory against Panama made the night a bit better.
That El Tri result paired with the U.S.’s resounding defeat of the last-place Catrachos in a game played in near sub-zero temperatures put the U.S. firmly in control of its destiny. The U.S. will still need to pick up points in March, but the path to Qatar is clear. Four years after the disaster in Couva, getting back to the World Cup is ultimately the only thing that matters. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter wants to change the way this team is perceived globally, but you can’t do that until the World Cup. When the Octagonal started, it was just about qualification.
It’s easy to lose sight of that.
The hype around this U.S. pool has created a separate set of expectations for this team, though. It’s not just about the results, the U.S. has to perform in a way that fits the inflated beliefs of the fan base. And through the first 11 games of qualification, those convincing performances have not happened enough to satisfy many.
As a result, there was a distinct tension that hovered over this team entering Wednesday night’s crucial qualifier against Honduras. The falling temperatures in St. Paul, Minnesota felt like an ominous sign. In search of every advantage it could find over even the last-place team in the Octagonal, the U.S. put a February qualifier in Minnesota. The design was not to play in single-digit temperatures, but the risk of this kind of weather always existed. The arctic blast this week that dropped the temperature at kickoff to 2 degrees made a must-win game against an inferior opponent suddenly feel a bit more vulnerable for everyone.