SAN JOSE — From the young sensation to the new-old coach, from the veteran forward returning from a heart ailment to the captain whose place had been questioned, the U.S. men’s soccer team expected a forceful response to a recent rotten turn.
Not even the most optimistic member of the delegation, however, could’ve forecast Friday night’s thunderous reply.
Clint Dempsey recorded his second career hat trick, pulling within two goals of the program record, and 18-year-old Christian Pulisic stamped his place on the playmaking role as the Americans roared to a 6-0 victory over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier before 17,729 at Avaya Stadium.
After losing their first two matches in the six-nation final round, the United States vaulted from last to fourth place. More importantly, the team seemed to rediscover the organization and commitment that went missing under Jurgen Klinsmann, who was dismissed in November.
It also helped to have Dempsey back on the field — and back in form — and Pulisic making a profound impact.
“This team is really strong mentally, and to come back from two losses, was really impressive,” Pulisic said. “It showed good heart.”
In Bruce Arena’s first consequential match since launching his second U.S. coaching tenure, the Americans scored three times in the first half and three in the first eight minutes after intermission.
“We had to win this game,” Arena said, “and we had to have an aggressive attacking concept.”
Dempsey, making his first international appearance since returning from an irregular heartbeat, struck in the 32nd, 49th and 54th minutes. Pulisic had a goal and two assists.
“It was great to get goals,” Dempsey said, “and now it’s about keep moving forward.”
The United States will play the fourth of 10 matches Tuesday at third-place Panama (1-1-1). Three teams will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Americans haven’t missed the tournament since 1986.
“We’re making progress,” Arena said. “We’re a lot closer to being in the top three. It’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out affair right until October. It’s going to be a real battle with all six teams right down the stretch. It’s nice to be part of it now.”
With Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood sidelined by injuries, Arena needed to adjust.
Geoff Cameron, primarily a central player for club and country, started at right back. Darlington Nagbe, who had fallen out of favor with Klinsmann, started on the left wing. Sebastian Lletget, a newcomer who played for Arena at the Los Angeles Galaxy, manned the right.
Honduras Coach Jorge Luis Pinto, the Colombian who guided Costa Rica to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, started four players from MLS teams, plus Andy Najar, the former D.C. United homegrown from Alexandria’s Edison High, who now plays for Anderlecht in Belgium.
A day of cool rain left a slick surface at a two-year-old stadium backing up to the international airport. Footing was difficult at the start, but before long, the Americans were on solid ground.
Arena’s decision to start Lletget was rewarded in the fifth minute, though the hard work was done by Pulisic and Jozy Altidore. Generally, Pulisic is to supply Altidore. In this instance, roles were reversed.
Pulisic settled the ball in traffic and, when a Honduran challenge left it with Altidore in traffic beyond the box, Pulisic made his run. Altidore’s through ball was on the mark. Goalkeeper Donis Escober intervened on Pulisic’s effort, but the ball squirted to the back side for Lletget’s one-touch deposit in just his third U.S. appearance.
Lletget, 24, is a Bay Area native whose youth soccer club, Santa Clara Sporting, is headquartered less than a mile from Avaya Stadium.
His night soon ended, though, with a foot injury inflicted by Ever Alvarado’s tackle. As he left the field, Lletget covered his face, both in pain and disappointment.
Alejandro Bedoya entered. The Americans didn’t miss a beat. In the 27th minute, captain Michael Bradley dodged Jorge Claros’s challenge and chewed up space moving to his left before ripping a 25-yard shot to the lower right corner for his first international goal since the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals.
Five minutes later, Pulisic and Dempsey combined for the third goal. Pulisic was the provider, scooping the ball ahead. Dempsey used his right shoulder to settle it and, with Henry Figueroa on his back, he smashed a rising shot while falling.
A sloppy end to the first half threatened to narrow the gap, but Honduras (1-2-0) squandered chances.
At intermission, the visitors surrendered. A dozen seconds after the restart, Altidore set up Pulisic for a clear finish and his fourth goal in 12 appearances.
“I am amazed how we came out in the second half,” Arena said. “We told them at halftime Honduras was going to come out and be all over us. We wanted to play the opening kickoff in their end of the field, and little did I know it was going to result in a goal.”
Three minutes later, Altidore collected a terrible Honduran touch and centered to Pulisic, whose gorgeous diagonal ball sent Dempsey in alone for his second goal.
Dempsey was back at it in the 54th minute on a set piece: an angled, 24-yard free kick that beat the misstepping Escober to the far side-netting. It was his 55th career goal, two behind Landon Donovan.
The Pulisic-Dempsey-Altidore combination dazzled.
“It looked pretty,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Hopefully we can keep that up.”
On scoring six goals, the most in a U.S. final-round qualifier, the Americans beamed with satisfaction and renewed confidence.
“That’s one way to make a statement, right?” Bedoya said. “If we can get a result in Panama, things change – fast [in the region]. This is a welcome result, we’re all happy, now we’ve got to get ready for Panama.”
Notes: Lletget left the stadium on crutches. He’ll undergo an MRI exam and seems unlikely to travel to Panama. Center back John Brooks was taken off on a stretcher in the 70th minute, suffering from what Arena said was an illness stemming from a sinus infection. He is expected to travel. …
Jordan Morris (injury), Michael Orozco (injury) and Jermaine Jones (yellow-card suspension) were not in uniform. … The U.S. Soccer Federation is close to announcing DSG Park in suburban Denver as the venue for the World Cup men’s qualifier June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago. The Americans are also expected to play a friendly in Sandy, Utah, a few days earlier. …
Brandi Chastain and Shannon MacMillan, who won World Cup and Olympic championships for the U.S. women’s national team, were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame during a pregame ceremony. Soccer America editor-in-chief Paul Kennedy received the Colin Jose Media Award.
- Mexico 2-0-1, 7 points, +3 goal diffential
- Costa Rica 2-1-0, 6 points, +4
- Panama 1-1-1, 4 points, 0
- United States 1-2-0, 3 points, +1
- Trinidad and Tobago 1-2-0, 3 points, -3
- Honduras 1-2-0, 3 points, -5
United States at Panama
Costa Rica at Honduras
Mexico at Trinidad and Tobago