Injuries, discipline and COVID disrupt US in qualifying

Sep 7, 2021, 5:27 AM | Updated: Sep 8, 2021, 7:17 pm

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.”

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE -Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) celebrates during the second half in Game 6 of basketba...
Associated Press

James cleared to play at Indiana as scoring chase continues

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James was set to resume his NBA scoring-record chase Thursday night at Indiana after being cleared to start. James entered the day 89 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s mark of 38,387. James, a 19-time All-Star, had been listed as questionable because of a sore left […]
16 hours ago
Australia's Nick Kyrgios, left, and Serbia's Novak Djokovic shake hands following an exhibition mat...
Associated Press

Tennis star Kyrgios to contest Australian assault charge

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Tennis star Nick Kyrgios was due to appear in an Australian court Friday to apply to have an assault charge stemming from events two years ago dismissed on mental health grounds. His lawyer Michael Kukulies-Smith appeared in a court in Kyrgios’ hometown of Canberra in October and asked for an adjournment […]
16 hours ago
Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts pauses during a news conference at the NFL football team's trainin...
Associated Press

Hurts ready for historic Super Bowl matchup with Mahomes

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Brandon Graham laughed as he recalled all the doubters who rushed him during the offseason and blurted out the same question — the main concern, really — about the state of the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. “What’s Jalen going to do?” said Graham, the strip-sacking defensive end. Yes, it’s hard to remember now, […]
2 days ago
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Le...
Associated Press

IOC details Russia stance for Olympics, cites human rights

GENEVA (AP) — The IOC stepped up efforts Thursday to explain its position on trying to help Russian athletes qualify for next year’s Paris Olympics amid a backlash from Ukraine and its allies. The International Olympic Committee’s move last week to map a pathway to Paris for athletes from Russia and Belarus who have not […]
2 days ago
FILE - Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot dribbles the ball against the New York Liberty during...
Associated Press

Vandersloot latest star to join New York Liberty

NEW YORK (AP) — Courtney Vandersloot became the latest star to join the New York Liberty. Vandersloot, who had played her entire 12-year career with the Chicago Sky, announced Thursday on social media that she would play with the Liberty this season, a day after Breanna Stewart said she’d play in New York. The moves […]
2 days ago
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes talks to the media before an NFL football workout Th...
Associated Press

Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes gets back to work for Super Bowl

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Patrick Mahomes strolled through Arrowhead Stadium without any issues with his injured right ankle on Thursday, and the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback expects to practice fully in the next 10 days leading up to the Super Bowl. Mahomes sprained the ankle during the divisional round against Jacksonville, and he was […]
2 days ago
Injuries, discipline and COVID disrupt US in qualifying